Saint Paul writes in Philippians chapter four: Let your gentleness be known to everyone. In particular our gentleness is shown to our fellow man, especially those who are weak in the faith, Christians who have stumbled into persistent sin, and those who have fallen prey to sin. Our natural tendency is to throw the book at them, so to speak, and perhaps even to shun them. It easily happens that, if a fellow Christian sins, we ourselves sin against them. This is why Jesus takes pains to say: Be merciful. Do not judge. Forgive. Give.
We sin against our sinful brethren in Christ when we are merciless toward them. We immediately sit in judgment over them. We refuse to hear their side of the story. We do not let them defend themselves. Instead we are quick to reveal their sin to everyone who will listen. We even go as far as to condemn them outright. Unless you are given a vocation to judge someone, you do not judge anyone. The flippant phrase, “Go to hell!” is not yours to speak unless it is your place to speak it. The end game of two Christians dealing with one another’s sins is to win your brother back, not outright condemn him to hell with no hope of salvation.
We also play the game of hesitating with our forgiveness or even expressing forgiveness in an intricate way. The game often goes like this: “I’ll forgive you when I see enough sorrow and pity” or “Let me think about whether or not I want to forgive you.” Then you run to the Magic 8-Ball and see what it says. When two Christians deal with one another’s sins, they forgive and forget. The latter thing is hard to do, especially when the sin hits close to home. You don’t bring up past mistakes in your marriage. Why would you want to bring up someone’s past mistake and hold it over them as a bargaining chip of forgiveness?
Worst of all, we are merciless when we deprive our love to a fellow sinner. Jesus says in the verse before today’s Gospel begins: love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for He is kind to the ungrateful and the evil. That last clause says it all. You are the ungrateful and evil person. The Most High God is kind to you in forgiving your sins in His Son’s innocent suffering and death. His love for you knows no boundaries. He knows your sins no more for Christ’s sake. As the mercy of God in Christ has fallen on you, so in turn your mercy to your neighbor, especially your neighbor who knows not the Lord Jesus, and in particular your fellow Christian.
We sin against sinful brethren in Christ when we do not use the double-edged sword of the Holy Spirit: the living Word. We instead think common sense or sound judgment from reason will take care of the problem. If we were using rhetorical skills, common sense, sound reason, or anything outside of God’s Word, we are the blind leading the blind. Nothing good can come from it.
The Word of God is the infallible light that enlightens not only us, but also our neighbor. We use this Word, when it is our place to use it, in order to reveal his sin. We call that word “Law”. Yet the Law is the penultimate note from God.
The ultimate note is letting the Word free him from his error, from sin, and from the dominion of sin. That word is called “Gospel”. It is not given for us to beat someone over the head with the Law and let them go. The Law sinks its teeth into the sinful Christian, not letting go until it has shows sin. Once you see your sin and your lost condition, the Law is silenced because Jesus Christ has died for that sin and is raised for your justification. You are free. You are forgiven. You live because Christ lives.
Again, the end game of speaking the truth in love without compromising either the truth or love is to win your brother back. You win your brother back when you use the double-edged sword of Truth: the sword of the Spirit.
Our own sin must always appear to us as a beam. The sin of our neighbor must appear to us as a splinter. How quick we forget that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. So if we judge our neighbor, but are not strict with ourselves, it’s useless to give a graceful, appropriate admonition of our neighbor. Jesus reminds us, How can you tell your brother, “Brother, let me remove the speck in your eye,” when you do not see the beam in your own eye? We are hypocrites. We are an abomination to God. We disgust our neighbor with our admonition. We prevent the Word of God on our lips for an admonition from making an impression. On the other hand, when our neighbor sees that we exercise discipline on ourselves, we will find an ear easily lent for a hearing. First remove the beam from your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck in your brother’s eye.
When you forgive your neighbor, and your neighbor forgives you, there Christ is in action in your lives. Christ alone is merciful to you, for His mercy is His Father’s mercy. Christ’s judgment of guilt, even though He is not guilty, changes your divine verdict to innocent. He forgives your sins. He gives in the way of more in baptism, in preaching, and in His Supper: more forgiveness, more life, more salvation, more joy, more peace, and more sure and certain hope.
As He has judged you innocent, so you in turn consider your neighbor innocent for Christ’s sake. When it is your place, as we sung today, when you must and ought to speak, the words you speak seek to win your brother in Christ back from sin to forgiveness. That’s the direction Christ has spoken to you as well.