I want to begin my sermon this morning by saying that I don’t like conflict and I don’t handle it well.
If someone does something or says something that hurts me, the last thing I want to do is go and talk to them about it. I’d much rather go and complain to someone else about it! I’d much rather blacken the other person’s name to my friends and family members. I’d much rather start a little gossip campaign against them. It’s so much easier to talk about the person who has hurt me with people I like, rather than going to talk to the person face to face.
I know I’m not alone in this. Very few of us do a good job of handling conflict. Some of us blow up, lose our temper at the other person, and vent our spleen on them. Some of us clam up: we hold it all inside, probably making ourselves sick in the process, especially if this is our habitual response to conflict. Some of us spread the poison around, talking to everyone else except the person in question. But very, very few of us actually follow Jesus’ instructions set out for us in today’s gospel reading.
Why is that? Well, I can think of a few reasons in addition to the ones I’ve already mentioned.
There are some cultural barriers between this text and our modern twenty-first century world. One of them is the existence of something called ‘personal privacy’. This didn’t exist in the ancient world. Most families lived in small houses in close proximity to each other; private life was impossible. No one ever said anything like “That’s none of your business”, because everyone’s behaviour effected everyone else. Extended families were intimately involved in every detail of each other’s lives.
And churches were too. The early Christians took it for granted that when you decided to follow Jesus, you were joining a fellowship in which people looked out for each other and helped each other follow Jesus. No one in the early church thought it was unusual or offensive for someone to take a fellow-Christian aside and talk to them about something they were doing that didn’t fit with the teaching of Jesus. That was called ‘admonishing one another’, and it was an accepted part of being a Christian in those days; it’s mentioned in several places in the New Testament.
Also, ‘the church’ in those days wasn’t an institution with large buildings and congregations. Most Christian congregations met in houses, which meant they were small. Most of them weren’t led by full-time professional priests; they were led by teams of elders who earned their living in the normal way and worked together to care for the church in their spare time. A group of maybe twenty people would know each other intimately and would have been through a lot together. So if a group of Christians from the same congregation got together to admonish a couple of people to quit quarrelling and be reconciled with one another, this would carry a lot of weight, but it would also be a much less institutional thing than it might be today.
It’s important for us to recognize these cultural differences. Nowadays we live in a different world. ‘Mind your own business’ has become a non-negotiable; I have a right to decide what I want to do with my life, and no one else has the right to talk to me about it. And people have so much more choice anyway; if they’re excommunicated by their congregation they can easily leave it and join another one.
We can’t just pretend none of this matters. For instance, our church isn’t set up to deal with the sort of procedure Jesus describes here. If a couple of people brought their interpersonal conflict to our wardens and vestry, we wouldn’t have any sort of process in place to deal with it; we just don’t expect that sort of thing to happen.
So how do we put into practice the teaching of Jesus in our very different culture today? Well, let’s take another look at what he has to say.
The first half of verse 15, in our church 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 not a very helpful 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? Well, 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’m 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 will we handle them?
Second, Jesus says “Go to your brother”, “Go to your sister”. In other words, don’t try to avoid the issue; face straight into it. 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 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 meeting and you ambush me with a complaint I didn’t see coming, I’m going to be on the defensive and I’m going to try to win, because you’re embarrassing me in front of 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.
This conversation we’re initiating with the other person may go in a direction that surprises us. We start with the objective of being heard, 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 too. 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). This is a two-way thing. In our conversation, we may discover we’ve been misinterpreting what the other person said or did. Or we may discover that they have complaints to make against us as well – things we weren’t aware of that we need to recognize and deal with. So already the conversation is a healing thing.
Well – sometimes. But of course, the visit won’t always be a success. So the third thing we see is that Jesus lays out 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). They aren’t witnesses to the original offence; they’re witnesses to the conversation going on between us and the person we’re confronting. They give an objective view; perhaps they help us see that things aren’t exactly as we think they are, or perhaps they help persuade the other person of the seriousness of the situation.
If that doesn’t work, Jesus commands us to ‘tell it to the church’; in New Testament times, remember, this would have been a little house church. The congregation gathers together, 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 won’t 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”. This isn’t just about us, you see: it’s about Jesus and his Body. The New Testament tells us the Church is his Body and each of us a member of it. Our conflicts 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’ve been at: ones that deal with buildings and finances, for instance. 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’re sitting there in our circle, dealing with our issue, and Jesus is sitting quietly among us, listening, knowing that each person present is a child of God and loved by God. Do you think that would make a difference to the way we do things?
I think it would make two differences. First, it would encourage us to ask for his guidance more. When we’re 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 with business matters, like a budget or a building plan, we need to do this more often.
But it would also make another difference: 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? But surely by faith we know he is sitting with us; that’s exactly what he promises us in this passage. He’s not just with us when we worship and share Holy Communion; he’s here when we meet together to talk things over as 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 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”.
That’s a difficult statement, and it’s also ambiguous. Tax collectors and Gentiles weren’t 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’. Excommunication was practiced in all the early Christian communities, and it was common practice through Christian history for a very long time.
So refusal to be reconciled was something Jesus took very seriously, and through the centuries most Christians have taken it seriously too. And yet, when we read his 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! So while Jesus recognizes that a break has to be made, he still doesn’t see the offender as the enemy. They’re more like a lost sheep, and he’s the good shepherd who will always be going out to find them and bring them home.
Obviously, as I said at the beginning, there are real challenges for us in the modern Anglican church about putting Jesus’ words here into practice. But whatever the specific details, there can be no doubt about the inner spirit of what Jesus is saying here. So what are we going to do about it?
There are some things we can do right now. We can repent of our bad temper, our bitterness and resentment, our gossip and talking about people behind their backs. We can resolve that if we have something against someone our first action 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 apologizes 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 that God would help us grow a culture of honesty, love, repentance and reconciliation in our church. After all, that’s part of what it means to be the Church – a community of Christians learning to follow Jesus together. May God grant us grace to be reconciled to one another as Jesus has commanded us. Amen.