This passage from Matthew 18:15-20 was intended to give the early church guidance about how to deal with conflict and broken relationships. The first step toward reconciliation involves listening. Sometimes what we hear is not actually what was said. A good example is gossip. Several different stories or rumours often result from one story or incident. True listening means going to the other person. In other words, we are to take the first step. This is often painful, but it is necessary if there is to be any hope of reconciliation, forgiveness and peace. If a relationship is important to us, sooner or later we will need to swallow our pride.
If one-on-one efforts fail to resolve the problem, the next step is to involve two or three outsiders. Unfortunately, most people do this step first, and not in the way it was intended. People are often dragged into disputes as the parties involved look for allies. I saw this in a job I had a few years ago. Several of my co-workers tried to drag me into disputes that they are having with other co-workers or management. I told them politely that I was not going to get involved. There are times, however, where it is not possible or even desirable for the two conflicting parties to meet one on one, and therefore this second step actually has to be carried out first. Examples of situations where this is necessary include situations where the conflict is serious or sensitive in nature.
If the involvement of two or three outsiders fails, the next step involves taking the dispute to the entire church, usually through the governing body, but sometimes through a congregational meeting. This body has the final solution that can be used as a last resort-exclusion from the congregation by means of suspension or expulsion. Unfortunately, denominations such as the Mormons or the Jehovah’s Witnesses have used this to justify their policy of shunning former members. This is not what Jesus meant when he told the church to treat outsiders like tax collectors or Gentiles. After all, Matthew was a tax collector, and Jesus certainly didn’t treat him harshly!
We must remember that Jesus was the friend of tax collectors and sinners. His entire ministry revolved around bringing outsiders into the kingdom by reconciling them to God. He is doing the same thing today because we are all outsiders. All of us are outsiders of God’s kingdom because we are all sinners. Even if we have done nothing wrong in our lives, we are still sinners because we are tainted by the original sin of Adam and Eve.
While it appears that the church is forcing the offender outside its circle, it is, in reality, only acknowledging publicly that the offender has already placed himself or herself outside its circle. Jesus promises that God will support the church in this vital function. If the church doesn’t order its life, who will? If the church doesn’t deal with people in its midst that threaten its existence and mission, who will? The hope is that the offender will be motivated to take steps to regain membership in the fold. While the church regards the offender as a Gentile or tax collector, Matthew’s church regards Gentiles and tax collectors as a mission field.
Reconciliation is the key to healing rifts and conflicts. Is it possible? Yes. Icy conditions don’t provide a very good growth for new growth-spiritual and otherwise. In the words of a Jesuit martyr, “The natural world is for everyone, without borders. God’s table is a common table, big enough for everyone, each with a seat, so that each one can come to the table to eat”. The sacrifice of Jesus on the cross changes our concept of the role of violence in God’s protection of us; that is, violence is not a tool of our protection but rather our protection absorbs and transcends violence.
The process of reconciliation is made easier by the knowledge that God is with us if we come together in his name during the process. God is with us whenever two or three are gathered together in his name. God sustains us even when there is no hope. When we turn to the deepest centre of our hearts, we will find God and hope will spring forth. Reconciliation without God is not true reconciliation. It is merely peacemaking. When a believing community works to settle disputes, Christ is in our midst working to achieve the same goal. He is the ultimate peacekeeper and peacemaker. He is the role model for peacekeeping forces in trouble spots worldwide. Just like Christ laid down his life to reconcile us to God, peacekeepers are prepared to lay down their lives to bring peace and reconciliation to warring parties.
Matthew’s purpose was to make everything in the early church perfect. After all, he was a tax collector, and we all know how modern-day tax collectors like to have everything perfect and in order, especially when they want our hard-earned tax dollars! Matthew and Jesus wanted to restore order among believers. That’s why Matthew included these words from Jesus in his gospel. That does NOT mean that they went to the extremes the Pharisees did by making up rules to cover every potential situation. On the contrary, Jesus liked to keep things simple. That’s why he replaced the Ten Commandments with the two Great Commandments-“Love God and love people”. Reconciliation is easier to do if we keep these two Great Commandments in mind.
Although reconciliation is a desirable goal, there are times when it is not possible or desirable. For example, at the time I’m preaching this sermon, it will be only a few days until the world marks the anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. No one in his or her right mind would want to forgive or reconcile with Osama bin Laden and his colleagues after they committed mass murder.
Jesus isn’t interested in who is right or who is wrong. He only cares about getting a broken relationship fixed. Our concerns about who is right and who is wrong often lead to giving up on relationships with others. Our natural response is to wage war with the other person, but that’s not part of the blueprint God has for our lives-and that blueprint is the Bible. God’s blueprint for our lives includes having conflicting parties sit down face to face and reconcile. The process of reconciliation is helped by prayer. When we are involved in conflict, we need to seek direction in prayer. If an outcome or resolution is reached through prayer, it will be accepted by God. Living a Christian life within a community of faith is not easy and demands some maturity from us. We have to determine how to love one another. It is more than being nice. Real love in our world requires informed thought and tough choices.
Matthew 18:15-20 is not meant to be taken as permission for those in authority to harm others or abuse their power. It is about listening, accountability and a larger vision of God’s kingdom. It is about being accountable to others for the power we hold. It is about using the power of God’s kingdom to care for the least and most vulnerable.
As I mentioned earlier, the process of reconciliation is helped by prayer. For example, Corrie ten Boom worked to save several Jews from the Nazis in Holland during World War II. She was arrested and taken to the infamous Ravensbruck concentration camp. She later wrote of her experiences in the famous book, “The Hiding Place”. She often thought back over the horrors of the Ravensbruck concentration camp. How could she ever forgive the former Nazis who had been her jailers? Where were love, acceptance, and forgiveness in a horror camp where more than 95,000 women died? How could she ever forget the horrible cruelty of the guards and the smoke constantly coming from the chimney of the crematorium?
Then in 1947 Corrie was speaking in a church in Munich, and when the meeting was over she saw one of the cruelest male guards of Ravensbruck coming forward to speak to her. He had his hand outstretched. “I have become a Christian,” he explained. “I know that God has forgiven me for the cruel things I did, but I would like to hear it from your lips as well. Fraulein, will you forgive me?”
A conflict raged in Corrie’s heart. The Spirit of God urged her to forgive. The spirit of bitterness and coldness urged her to turn away. “Jesus, help me,” she prayed. Then she knew what she must do. “I can lift my hand,” she thought to herself. “I can do that much.”
As their hands met it was as if warmth and healing broke forth with tears and joy. “I forgive you, brother, with all my heart,” she said. Later Corrie testified that “it was the power of the Holy Spirit” who had poured the love of God into her heart that day. This is the only way true forgiveness can take place. We turn our hurt over to God. We ask God for the ability to forgive.
The Holy Spirit lives in each and every one of us, but Jesus promises to be with us in a unique and special way when we gather in His name for worship, service and mutual encouragement. He is in our midst when we work together to right wrongs. Forgiveness and justice should characterize the Christian community. If it does, others will recognize something unique about the church and might even recognize Christ alive and active in our midst doing what isn’t “do-able” without him.
Some of you might have heard of a country song entitled, “Anyway.” It reminds us of how we are to treat each other as Christians, and it also sums up how and why Jesus wants us to resolve conflicts. I’d like to share some of its words as I close my message.
People are illogical, unreasonable and self-centered,
Love them anyway.
If you are good, people will accuse you of ulterior motives,
Do good anyway.
Honesty and frankness will make you vulnerable,
Be honest and frank anyway.
People really need help, but may attack you if you help them,
Help them anyway.
In the final analysis, it’s between you and God,
It was never between you and them anyway.
The late Jack Layton, former leader of the New Democratic Party in Canada, put it another way in the last letter that he wrote to Canadians before he died. He wrote, “My friends, love is better than anger. Hope is better than fear. Optimism is better than despair. So let us be loving and optimistic, and we’ll change the world”. If we remember his words and the words of Jesus, especially when we are in conflict with our fellow man, we will change the world. Loving our neighbour fulfills any and every other divine command, for genuine love does no harm to its neighbour.
- Charles F. Stanley Life Principles Bible, NASV
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