Reconciliation 101

Matthew 18:15-20

Reconciliation 101

September 10, 2017     Maple Grove UMC

 

          Loving and hopeful as he was, Jesus was not naïve about the church.  Or if he was, he took off his rose-colored glasses before sharing today’s gospel reading.  “When another member of the church sins against you,” he says, here’s what you should do.  And if they keep on sinning against you, here’s what else to do. . .”  Even before there was such a thing as “the church,” Jesus was already giving a process for resolving conflicts in the church.  In fact, this is the one and only time Jesus himself ever uses the word “church”—when he’s teaching how to resolve conflicts in the church.1  Blest Be the Tie That Binds we’ll sing today.  And those ties are indeed blest, but they are blest because they are not automatic, because they cannot be taken for granted.  The ties that bind our hearts in Christian love are precious precisely because they are tender and fragile.

 

          (As an aside before we dig in, your own Bible translation may say, “If your brother sins against you” instead of “If a member of the church sins against you.”  Literally, the Greek says “your brother.”  But it’s clear from the context that Jesus is talking not about family relationships, but church relationships.  Matthew uses the word “brother” to refer to fellow believers, both male and female.  So “member of the church” is not a perfect translation, but is probably the best we can do.  Just so you know.)

 

          So . . . if a member of the church sins against you . . . Jesus lays out a four-step process for dealing with it. 

  1. First, go to that person one on one, privately.  Work it out yourselves. 
  2. If that doesn’t work, take two or three others with you, as witnesses.  Maybe that will get the person’s attention. 
  3. And if that doesn’t work, Jesus says, take it to the whole church—let everyone know what’s going on.  Surely that will change the person’s behavior.
  4. And if even that doesn’t work, he says, then let that person be to you as a Gentile or a tax collector, an outsider. 

I have to admit, this whole thing sounds harsh to me.  First of all, you’re not supposed to just let stuff go?  Jesus wants you to confront folks about their bad behavior?  Yikes.  And then he wants you to involve others in that conflict and make a public deal out of it?  Double yikes.  And then you’re allowed, essentially, to kick the person out.  Excommunicate, the Catholics call it.  Shun them, the Amish say.  Big time yikes.

          The whole business just sounded harsh to me upon first reading.  And second reading.  And third.  I mean we’re talking about the possibility of putting people out of the church here.  But the more time I spent with this scripture, the less harsh and the more loving it began to sound to me.  Let me tell you why.

         

          First, at least in Jesus’ plan the conflict is addressed, everything is out in the open.  I’ll admit to you, and many of you already know, that I am of the “ostrich” school of dealing with conflict.  The hope is that if you bury your head in the sand long enough, when you finally come up for air, maybe the conflict will have magically disappeared.  Please don’t ask me how well that works. You already know.  At least Jesus’ plan has a chance to deal with conflict positively; not dealing with it has a 0% chance of that.

 

          But here’s the thing:  clearly the goal of Jesus’ process is not punishment, though it could result in that.  The goal is not to remove someone from the fellowship, though in extreme cases that could happen.  And the goal is certainly not get revenge or to shame anyone—revenge is easy; this process is hard.  No, clearly the goal of all this is reconciliation, the healing of a troubled relationship, preserving the wellbeing of the whole community by putting out little fires before they become big fires.  In my initial readings of this scripture, I got hung up on the punishment part; Jesus is hung up on restoring relationships. 

          The context in Matthew’s gospel makes this even clearer.  Just prior to this scripture is the Parable of the Lost Sheep.  If a shepherd has 100 sheep and one goes astray, what does he do?  He leaves the 99 and searches for the one until he finds it. It’s all about reconciliation.  For Jesus it’s restoring relationships that matters.

          And right after today’s scripture Peter asks Jesus, How many times do I have to forgive a “brother,” that is, a member of the church?  As many as seven times?  No, Jesus says, not seven, but 77 times.  Not even 77 offenses is allowed to come between “brothers” of the faith.  For Jesus it’s restoring relationships that matters.

          Mennonite pastor, Arthur Boers, notes three errors people make when applying Jesus’ process from Matthew 18:

  1. Focusing on punishing a person rather than reconciling with a person
  2. Concentrating on the offense rather than the person
  3. Worrying more about rules and standards than about the person.2

In other words, if you’re focusing on the person, you’re probably doing it right.  For Jesus it’s relationships that matter.

 

          Here’s something else about Jesus’ four-step process:  When you confront a member of the church who has sinned against you, Jesus says, “if the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to,” then take it to the next level.  What the offended person can expect from the other person is simply to be listened to.  Jesus doesn’t say that the other person will always agree with your point of view.  He doesn’t say they have to change everything you don’t like.  He just says they have to listen to you.  Reconciliation may be less about changing other people than about simply listening to one another.  I can’t promise you that I’ll always agree with you.  I can’t promise I can change everything you don’t like about me.  But I can listen to you.  It’s about reconciliation; for Jesus it’s relationships that matter.

 

          And this:  even what I took to be the harshest part of Jesus’ conflict resolution process—to let someone be to you as a Gentile or a tax collector—even that isn’t as harsh as I was making it out to be.  I took this to mean removing someone from the church community, and maybe it does mean that.  But how did Jesus treat Gentiles and tax collectors?  He invited them to dinner, and he called them down from sycamore trees, and he even asked one tax collector—Matthew--to be his disciple.  In other words, when someone sins against you and won’t listen to you, what do you to?  You love them all the more!  You go out of your way to bring them back in.  It’s about reconciliation; for Jesus it’s relationships that matter.

 

          Before wrapping up today on God-Centered Wellbeing and Community, I just want to point out a couple of limitations with Jesus’ model for resolving conflicts.

  • First, in Matthew 18 it perfectly seems clear who’s right and who’s wrong, who’s done the sinning and who’s been sinned against.  But we all know it’s not always quite that clear.  I can think of several times when I thought sure I was the one who’d been sinned against, and lo and behold, the other person didn’t see it that way.  Earlier in Matthew, Jesus says to first take the log out your own eye before offering to take a speck out of your neighbor’s eye.  No, you don’t need to shy away from confronting someone who sins against you.  I’m just saying, oftentimes there’s more than one sinner in any crowd of two people.  And what matters most isn’t who’s right and who’s wrong.  What matters most is reconciliation.  For Jesus it’s relationships that matter.
  • And finally this: so many of our conflicts in the church aren’t really about one person “sinning” against another.  Our conflicts are about differing points of view, different visions of the church, different cultural or political or theological assumptions.  We have conflict not just because one person treats another person badly.  That happens, of course.  But more often we have conflict, for example, because we have different understandings of human sexuality.  Or because different things make us feel safe in the church.  Or because we like to sing different kinds of church music.  We’re not so much sinners and those sinned against; we’re brothers and sisters in Christ with different points of view.  Communications consultant, Nate Regier, has offered a four-point strategy for dealing with these types of conflicts:
  1. “Share how you feel about the conflict.”  It’s okay to talk about controversial things, so long as you don’t insist that everyone think and feel the same way you do.
  2. “Suggest what you are willing to do to work on the conflict.”  It’s amazing what others are willing to do to work on a conflict if they see you working on it first.
  3. “Discern and share what is at stake for you in [the conflict].”  If you can be clear and honest about why something is important to you, others may understand you better, have more empathy.
  4. “Temporarily suspend your own agenda in the conflict and listen to the other’s agenda.”3  And now we’re back to last Sunday and putting others first. 

          In the last verse of this scripture, Jesus says, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”  We know that Jesus is with us everywhere, all the time—when we are pray and when we are at work, when we are sleeping and when we are awake.  But Jesus promised to be with us when we are working out conflicts in the church, when we are reconciling with one another.  The gospel is all about reconciliation; for Jesus it’s relationships that matter.  How is that for God-Centered Wellbeing and Community?

 

1 John Howard Yoder.  Quoted in Arthur Paul Boers, Never Call Them Jerks: Healthy Responses to Difficult Behavior (Alban Institute, 1999), 88.

2 Boers, 89.

3 The Christian Century (August 30, 2017), 9.

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