Ezekiel 33:7-11; Psalm 119:33-40; Romans 13:8-14; Matthew 18:15-20
“If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one.” Have you noticed how maybe this scripture should be a part of the user agreement for all social media accounts? It seems like today our divisions seem to fueled by this mindset instead. “If another person sins against you, tell everyone except that person, post it on your Facebook page, and never sit down and talk to them about it.” Matthew 18 is the earliest and best model for the church to use, when we are dealing with any type of conflict, unfortunate misunderstandings, or little squabbles. If you think that conflict does not happen in church, just wait around a little bit and it please know, it will happen.
However, healthy and helpful conflict is not a bad thing. Opposing ideas presented in a loving way can move people and organizations forward is a fact of life. As a matter of fact, it is the conflict between your tires and road that helped you travel down the road today. However, no matter our age or situation, we all at some time, have in the past, or maybe are right now, or will in the future, enabled unhealthy conflict to hurt someone, or you have been hurt by someone else. Even the best of friends disagrees and we mishandle disagreements. Our own saintly superheroes the Apostle Paul and Barnabas had a little tiff and “they had such a sharp disagreement (so heated) that they parted company. Barnabas took Mark and sailed for Cyprus, but Paul chose Silas and left.”
We are human and fragile, because we are fallible creatures and like our favorite saints or superheroes, we succumb to the sin of strife and unhealthy conflict. Many of us have experienced the community life of church in many different places. I am sure you or someone you know has been on the receiving end of a conversation like this, “Hey, I have to tell you what so and so is saying about you.” Maybe the conversation was more like this one, “Can you believe that Bill would do something like that to me,” or “have you heard the latest rumor about so and so?” Conflict, strife, and dissension is normal, but the problem we have is unhealthy conflict devolves into undermining our Lord’s command to “love our neighbor.” When that happens, people get hurt and we risk losing our grace-filled witness in the world.
Our holy mission as the church is to proclaim to the world our loving bond with God, and by our shared baptismal identity in Christ, we proclaim our mutual love, peace and support for each other. The way of the Body of Christ is different from the way of the world, because we are called to invite and restore folks back to the flock; we are set apart so we can be about the business of reconciliation.
Do you remember the story of the young man who took his inheritance and left his family behind. He squandered it all and found himself broken, alone, and living in a feed trough with the pigs. He decided to come home, hoping for a job as a hired hand, but upon his arrival he was surprised at the welcome her received. He expected a trial and judgment for his failures, but that was not to be on that day. His father received the young man, not with condemnation, but with open arms and a party thrown in his honor. This story is our story of God’s reconciling love in action. This story is what Jesus means when he commands us to find the lost sheep and bring them home.
Steps to Biblical Conflict Resolution
Forgiving, making amends, and restoring is complex, but Jesus gives us some sound and simple advice on how to go about it. First, he recommends when we hurt one another that we take the initiative to talk about it one on one. This step avoids the unhealthy human drama associated with spreading rumors, backbiting, and the behind-the-back sin of tearing each other down. Now, if that move does not work, Jesus suggests we go return to the person who caused the hurt, but this time bring a friend along. Partnering with another brother or is sister to deal with a third party sometimes can become unhealthy triangulation, by which we might go to a third person and say, “do you know what so and so did to me?” No, this model is a move to bring a sister or brother along with you, and one who lovingly works with both parties to try to heal the broken relationship. It is kind of like spiritual mediation, but without all the attorney’s fees.
Now, if that does not work, Jesus offers us third option, which is to bring this before the church. In other words, Jesus suggests that we bring someone in authority into the conversation. Notice that is not the first thing Our Lord recommends when we have disagreements, but only after we have tried to work it out together, and only then should we consider going to this step.
Gentiles and Tax Collectors
Then, when all else fails and we have exhausted all other options, we are admonished to “treat the offender like Gentiles and Tax Collectors.” Some folks hear this and might say, “Oh I like that one, let’s start there and post this on the Gentiles and Tax Collector’s Group page.” In other words, people think Jesus is telling us to say, “I did my best, I tried everything, and I just couldn’t get them to see my side of the story, so I’m writing them off my list.”
Hang on there a minute and listen closely to what Our Lord is really saying. Ask yourself, how did Jesus treat those old Gentiles and Tax Collectors? Let’s see, He showed favor to a Centurion soldier, he healed a Gentile woman whose daughter was possessed, and he healed a Gentile demonic in Gennesaret. That doesn’t sound like “writing someone off” to me.
What about those old crooked tax collectors? Let’s see Matthew was at his tax booth and Jesus invited himself to go to his Matthew’s house for dinner. Now that was a scandal fit for social media! That doesn’t sound like he “wrote Matthew off.” By the way, today’s Gospel we heard today was the one recorded according to a faithful, forgiven, and restored Tax Collector; Matthew.
This little phrase, “treat them like Gentiles and tax collectors sounds more like a little twist on words. Jesus was not advocating for mistreatment; he was promoting an attitude of “don’t give up on them.” Treating those hardheaded folks like Gentiles and tax Collectors (those who refuse to reconcile), is not a permission slip to write someone off, nor is it a mandate to remain in an abusive situation either.
Keys to Reconciliation
Some broken relationships may never be reconciled, at least not in our lifetime. However, writing folks is just not something we do s followers of the one who never abandoned any of the sheep. Jesus never gave up hope of the possibility of reconciliation with those on the outskirts of the community nor should we. To restore our sisters and brothers who have fallen away, requires God’s grace of course, but it requires our obedience to “love our neighbor as ourselves.” This reconciliation work is thorny and complex. It is not a ministry of sentimental words of temporary forgiveness, and then go right back to the rumor mill. It is difficult work, but its work we must do, and it is work that requires honesty, humility, courage, and gentleness.
Open and direct loving honesty is vital to reconciliation because it requires us to set our egos aside when we hurt one another. We must be willing to take a risk and be authentic and vulnerable in order to participate in God’s desire to restore relationships when broken. Humility is crucial because it requires putting away our desire for power over one another, in order to participate in God’s desire to restore relationships when broken.
Courage is needed as well, because it may require us to go to someone who has hurt us, and reveal our painful emotions. If an abusive or unhealthy relationship is the case, we may just have “let go and let God,” in order to participate in God’s desire to restore relationships when broken. Gentleness is fundamental because it may require us to put on Christ’s meekness even in the face of persecution, so that we might love those who may not love us.
The ministry of reconciliation is essentially the mission of God, and it is essential for the church and our common life together. If we are to remain a lighthouse of love and restoration in the world, if we are to fulfill this mission of grace given to us by God, we must love and restore each other when we fall. We must recognize that we all are broken and we all will fail each other at some time. All of us. No one was perfect except Our Lord Jesus Christ. So, the drama of common life is messy, it is complex, but it is also joyful, enriching, Spirit-filled, and it is the life to which have been given. It is the life we live together as one family. In these uncertain and complex days, I believe our prayer should be that God will give each of us a new opportunity, to be strengthened by the Spirit, so that we can have open our arms of love. Maybe we too can offer the same kind of welcome that the Prodigal one received, who just like us had to admit the he was a lost sheep of the flock.