Exodus 12:1-14; Romans 13:8-14; Matthew 18:15-20
Ordinary 23A; Proper 18
Church Conflict Management 101 is the order of the day for this Sunday.
I fear, however, in this very contentious and divided context, we need a remedial course first. We are infants in reconciliation, not yet ready for solid food. I read the comments (despite my keychain that advises me otherwise). I read almost every single one, but sometimes I have to stop, walk away and return to them when I am more grounded in the Spirit, lest I lose my religion. I often note that I am reading the comments on a Christian site, comments posted by fellow Christians and the level of vitriol and judgment is staggering. How is this so?
We need some training in humility and in seeing our follow Christians’ (and others’) humanity. Perhaps we might tape Romans 13:10 to our computer or wrap it around our cell phones: “Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is fulfilling the law.” But that may well be too advanced for us.
We need to start smaller. We need step-by-step instructions and, lo and behold, here they are in Matthew’s Gospel.
Step one: a one-on-one, face-to-face meeting with the person you perceived has wronged you. This is what some may call a “come to Jesus meeting” where everything gets laid out and aired out. Keep in mind Romans 13:10 and Ephesians 4:3: “making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” It wouldn’t hurt to prep with Romans 12:9-21 that ends with that greatest New Testament hit, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
Our one-on-one meetings, those painful meetings that give you a pit in your stomach and lump in your throat, should be approached in the manner of Christ, so that our gentleness will be evident to all. How often have you been a part of such a meeting? Too often when we say we are “speaking the truth in love”, we are actually attaching God’s stamp of approval on our self-righteousness. (Or is that just me?)
If brothers and sisters in Christ can’t work it out on their own, then step two is in order.
Step two: a small group of faithful and trusted church people needs to come together to listen and mediate. This is the time to get past the “he said/she said” deadlock of so many conflicts. This is the opportunity to invite different perspectives and solutions. This, too, requires humility on everyone’s part. This, too, requires that we assume everyone’s God-given worth, humanity and potential for transformation. Everyone must come to the table recognizing the truth that Richard Lischer named in his book, “The End of Words” that: “forgiveness always costs someone something. It cost God his son. It costs those who practice it the risk of further injury. We dare to use such language only because these words have been paid for.”
This is no flippant, “everyone needs to get along” or “forgive and forget.” The kind of reconciliation that we are seeking the Spirit to bring about is costly, difficult, uncommon and uncomfortable. Not everyone will cheer when those who’ve previously been at odds come together. In fact, there are always those deeply invested in maintaining divisions because their livelihoods, identities, power and pride depend upon it.
There are those times when step two can’t get even brothers and sisters in the faith to come together and so comes step three: bring it to the church. I suppose, depending upon your polity, this might mean the session or the congregation or maybe a group of bishops. Keeping in mind that the goal is not to shame or punish, but to restore. “In One Body Through the Cross: The Princeton Proposal for Christian Unity,” puts it thusly:
“The gospel gift and promise of unity both exclude both divisive sectarianism and liberal indifference. The Christian affirmation of diversity is what the New Testament calls agape, urgent commitment to the good of the other, that regards even wrong done by the other as an occasion for communion.
“My friends, if anyone is detected in a transgression, you who have received the Spirit should restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness. Take care that you yourselves are not tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ (Galatians 6:1-2).
“Agape is more than sentiment or inward attitude. It is a common life into which we must enter.”
To think of this meeting of the church with one who has erred to be an occasion for communion, for an opportunity to seek the urgent good of that sinful other, is wildly countercultural, but acutely needed in this season that spills so quickly from hateful rhetoric to deadly violence. Imagine what leaven it might be for the church to model such urgent seeking of the good, even of those whose good is visibly corrupted?
But what do we do with the second half of verse 17, the Godfather-like “You’re dead to me” part of this text? At first glance it seems Jesus is saying that step three is the last step, and if restoration doesn’t happen then those of us who’ve done due diligence are off the hook. “Go with God!” or “Just go!” we can say to the ones who’ve wronged us. Finally, they are out of our orbit. Thanks be to God.
Is that what Jesus is instructing his followers? I am not so sure and here’s why. Jesus has this curious propensity to go exactly to those categories of people: Gentiles and tax collectors. Remember that exchange with the Pharisees back in chapter 9 of this same Gospel? Verses 10-13? Jesus is eating with tax collectors and sinners and the Pharisees aren’t too keen on the company he is keeping. Jesus responds to their disdain with this: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’”
I think that back-and-forth in chapter 9 offers a lens through which to read chapter 18. Maybe treating the unrestored as Gentiles and tax collectors means we have more concern and responsibility for them rather than less. It certainly would be revolutionary, impactful in this realm and the next, if even Gentiles and tax collectors were brought into the fold. Radical reconciliation such as that shakes up the kingdom on earth and causes rejoicing in heaven.
“The Princeton Proposal for Christian Unity” says this: “A common life, in which those who were divided are reconciled in the body of Christ, is an essential goal of the mission that God has appointed for his people. Unity is not merely a means to mission, but rather a constituent goal: God gathers his people precisely in order to bring unity to a divided humanity. If we accept division from other Christians as normal or inevitable, we turn away from the mission God has given us.”
It is time we gathered together and asked, “God, help us fulfill the mission you have given us.”
- When have you been in a situation of conflict? How did you attempt to resolve it? Did you employ any of the teachings in this text from Matthew?
- Have you ever been part of the restoration of a fellow Christian? Participated in the healing of a divided congregation? Where did you see the movement of the Spirit? What were the critical actions that enabled reconciliation and healing?
- Use Romans 13:8-14 in your personal devotions every day this week. Be mindful of when you are called upon to owe someone nothing but love.
- How do Jesus’ instructions in Matthew apply to our lives online?
- Are there situations when it is not only appropriate, but faithful, to walk away from a person/relationship?
- Is there a fellow Christian with whom you need to reconcile? What is preventing you from doing so?
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