Note: I would like to acknowledge my debt to Alan and Eleanor Kreider and Paulus Widjaja and their very fine book ‘A Culture of Peace‘. Their analysis of Matthew 18:15-20 was a big help to me as I was preparing this sermon.
I wonder what your normal reaction is when someone does or says something that hurts you? I suspect that most of us fall into one of three categories – we either blow up, or we clam up, or we spread the poison around.
Those who ‘blow up’ immediately lose their temper, scream and yell and throw things at the offender. Reconciliation? That’s the last thing on their mind! What they want is revenge, and the harsher the better! (I have to say that this was the normal way of dealing with conflict in my family of origin; we lost our tempers and shouted at each other a lot. It was quick and nasty, but in half an hour the storm had usually blown over.)
Others ‘clam up’; these folks keep the pain inside, but they nurse it so that it hardens into bitterness and resentment. When you walk into their house, you can tell by the temperature that no one has spoken to anyone else in three days! This was what happened in the home Marci grew up in, so as you can imagine, we had some challenges developing a conflict-resolution style when we first got married!
But the third response is becoming even more common in these days of Facebook and Twitter: spreading the poison around. Someone cuts you off in traffic? Tell the world about it in your Facebook status update! Someone says something to hurt you? Tweet it so that all your friends know right away! Or, to use the older method – if someone at church has said something that hurts you or proposed a course of action that you disagree with, don’t go and talk to them about it – no, tell all your cronies, and have a secret meeting in the church parking lot where you can engage in some good old-fashioned character assassination!
Jesus’ instructions offer us a different way – a procedure that is clear and open, and designed not to produce winners and losers but to lead to repentance, reconciliation, and restoration. Let’s look at what Jesus has to say.
The first half of verse 15, in our pew bibles, quotes Jesus as saying, “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault, when the two of you are alone”. I note in passing that this is a very bad translation of what Matthew actually wrote in Greek. Our NRSV pew Bibles try to avoid using words like ‘brother’ and ‘he’ in order to be inclusive, but what Matthew actually wrote here was “If your brother sins against you”. ‘Member of the church’ sounds far too institutional; we Christians are sisters and brothers to each other, and that’s why conflict is such a huge issue – it splits up the family. So I’m going to use the words ‘brother or sister’, which is how the NIV 2011 translates this passage, rather than ‘church member’.
So what instructions does Jesus give us here?
First, Jesus assumes that there will be problems in the church. He says, “If your brother or sister sins against you”, and he gives no indication that he thinks this will be unusual. After all, I am a sinner and I often fall short of God’s standards; I hurt God and I hurt my fellow human beings by the things that I do. And churches are full of people just like me. So why should we be surprised when there is conflict in the church? We’re not surprised when we find sick people in hospital, so why should we be surprised to find sinners in church? Sins and conflicts will always be present in Christian churches. The question is – how do we handle them? Let’s read on.
Second, Jesus says “Go to your brother”, “Go to your sister”. In other words, don’t try to keep a false peace; don’t try to keep the lid on things. No – face straight into the conflict, address the issue. Don’t speak about your brother or sister to someone else; speak to your brother or sister about what has happened. Why? Because when we complain about someone to a third party, we’re treating them like an enemy and we’re trying to build up an alliance against them. An enemy is someone we talk about; a brother or sister in Christ is someone we talk to.
And do it ‘when the two of you are alone’. Why? Because it reduces the temperature. If we’re at a vestry meeting and you ambush me with a complaint that I didn’t see coming, you’re going to put my back up; I’m going to be defensive and I’m going to try to win, because you’re embarrassing me in front of ten other people. But if we’re alone together and you raise the issue, gently but honestly, it might still be threatening to me but the embarrassment factor is much lower. So start off just between the two of you, Jesus says.
This conversation that we are initiating with the other person may go in a direction that surprises us. We start out with the objective of being heard. Jesus refers to the other member ‘listening to us’ four times in these verses. But once a conversation has begun, there may be learning on both sides. The other person may have had no idea what was going on. They may have been completely unintentional in what they did and not be aware that it hurt us at all.
But there may be learning for us as well. In this passage Jesus talks about us having something against our brother or sister, but in Matthew 5 it’s the other way around: “So, when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there at the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift” (Matthew 5:23-24). So this is a two-way thing. In our conversation, we may discover that we have been misinterpreting what the other person said or did. Or we may discover that they too have complaints to make against us – things that we didn’t know about and that we need to recognize and repent of. So already the conversation is a healing thing.
Well – sometimes. But of course, the visit will not always be a success. So the third thing we see in this passage is that Jesus lays out for us a process for dealing with unresolved conflict. If the person doesn’t listen to us the first time, we’re to try again, only this time we’re to ‘take one or two others along’ with us, ‘so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses’ (v.16). In this case Jesus is quoting from the Book of Deuteronomy, from a section dealing with trials. One witness isn’t enough to convict a person, Deuteronomy says; two or three are needed to confirm the matter. In the situation that Jesus is imagining in this passage, the witnesses aren’t witnesses to the original offence; rather, they are witnesses to the conversation going on between us and the person we are confronting. They give an objective view; perhaps they help us to see that things aren’t exactly as we think they are, or perhaps they help to persuade the other person of the seriousness of the situation.
If this doesn’t work, Jesus commands us to ‘tell it to the church’. What is envisioned is obviously a formal meeting of a little congregation – remember that most New Testament churches met in living rooms – a meeting where I can state my case, the other person can respond, and the congregation as a whole can weigh the matter. Jesus assures them that they will not be doing this alone. In verse 18 he says, “Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven”, and in verse 20 he goes on, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them”.
You see, this isn’t just about us, it’s about Jesus and his Body. The New Testament tells us that the Church is his Body and each of us a member of it. Our conflicts in the Christian community aren’t just private matters; they damage the Body of Christ and tear it apart. So Jesus is intimately involved in this whole process.
Think of some of the church meetings you have been at, even ones that just deal with buildings and finances. Imagine the difference it would have made if everyone present would have remembered that where two or three are gathered in his name, Jesus is among them. We are sitting there in our circle, dealing with our issue, and Jesus is sitting quietly among us, listening to what is said, knowing that each person present is a child of God and is loved by God. Do you think that would make a difference to the way we do things?
I think it would make a difference in two ways. First, it would encourage us to ask for his guidance more. When we are dealing with a difficult issue, surely we shouldn’t be afraid of stopping the discussion for a few minutes and saying, “Now let’s all wait in silence on the Lord and ask him to give us his perspective on this”. Even when we’re dealing with business matters, like debating a budget or a building plan, we need to do this more often. How much more in the sort of situation Jesus is imagining, when we are trying to help two of our members deal with a conflict between them?
But it would also make a difference in that I think we would be more gentle with each other. Would we use hurtful and insulting language, or be dismissive and ignore the views of others, if we could see Jesus sitting among us? I think not! But surely by faith we know that he is sitting with us, because that’s exactly what he promises us in this passage. It isn’t just when we worship and share the sacraments that his presence is promised to us; it’s also when we meet together to talk about important issues in our common life.
Well, back to our process. The fourth and final step is hard for us to hear: Jesus recognizes that by refusing to listen, the offender has placed themselves outside of the Christian community. In verse 17 he says, “if the offender refuses even to listen to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector”.
This is a difficult statement, and it’s also somewhat ambiguous. Tax collectors and Gentiles were not allowed inside the synagogues; Jesus is stating that the offending party has demonstrated their contempt for the Christian community and so should be ejected from it – what later came to be called ‘excommunication’. There is no doubt that excommunication was practiced in the early Christian communities; it’s also been the historic practice of the Anglican Church until very recently. In the 1959 Book of Common Prayer, on page 66, we read these words:
‘The minister shall deal in the same manner with those between whom he perceives malice and hatred to exist, not allowing them to be partakers of the Lord’s Table until they be reconciled. But if one of the parties is willing to forgive and, to the best of his ability, to make whatever amends may be proper, and the other party refuses to do so, the Minister shall admit the penitent person to the holy Communion and refuse him that is obstinate’.
Obviously, refusal to be reconciled was taken very seriously by Jesus, by the apostles, and by the Christian church throughout history. And yet, when we read Jesus’ words about Gentiles and tax collectors, we must ask ourselves, ‘How did Jesus himself treat Gentiles and tax collectors?’ He actually spent so much time with them that the religious establishment criticized him for being soft on crime! He said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick… for I have come to call not the righteous, but sinners” (Matthew 9:12-13). So while Jesus recognizes that a break has to be made, he still does not see the offender as the enemy. They are more like a lost sheep, and he is the good shepherd who will always be going out to find them and bring them home.
Obviously there are real challenges for us in the modern Anglican church about putting Jesus’ words here into practice. People do not join our churches with the expectation that members of the congregation will be getting involved in their lives in the kind of way Jesus envisions here. We live in a private and individualistic culture and we want people to mind their own business.
Nonetheless, there are things we can do right now. We can repent of our bad temper, of our bitterness and resentment, of our gossip and talking about people behind their backs. We can resolve that, if we have something against someone, our first response will be to go and talk to that person alone, instead of talking to everyone else about them. When someone comes to talk to us in this way, we can resolve to learn to listen carefully rather than getting defensive and denying everything. And we can remember that this passage is immediately followed by one that deals with forgiveness, which ought to tell us what Jesus has in mind when our sister or brother apologises to us.
So as I draw to a close, let’s ask ourselves, “Are we living by this teaching Jesus has given us? And if the answer is, “Well, not always”, then let’s pray, not just as individuals but as a church, that God would help us to grow a culture of honesty, of love, of repentance and reconciliation. After all, that’s part of what it means to be the church, a community of Christians who are learning to follow Jesus together. God grant us grace to be reconciled to one another as he has commanded us. Amen.