September 10, 2017
Watch a video of this sermon here.
Updated for September 6, 2020
School starts this week for our children and youth, but all of us have lots more to learn about becoming fully devoted followers of Jesus Christ.
Last week, we learned how following Jesus means surrendering our entire selves to God, just as Jesus did. We saw how discipleship connects the Kingdom of God to our earthly existence, and stretches our earthly walk toward God’s kingdom. We saw Peter rebuke Jesus, and Jesus rebuke Peter, and we were reminded that taking up our cross can often put us at odds with the world, and sometimes even with each other.
What happens when a brother or sister hurts us, or we have a sharp disagreement with someone? How are we supposed to be honest and loving at the same time? How do we maintain open lines of communication to promote healing and unity within Christ’s kingdom here on earth?
Today’s reading from the gospel of Matthew is part of a larger teaching on how to live in the Kingdom of God. In this passage, Jesus teaches us how to resolve conflicts so we can live together in peace. In the United Methodist Church we call this process the Rule of Christ. Maybe you remember receiving one of these cards to remind you of the way the Rule of Christ works in the church. But this “Rule” is more than a checklist of steps to follow when things get tense.
The Rule of Christ reminds us that we do not do this thing called ministry alone. We are in community together, and because we are all sinners, it means we are going to bump up against each other from time to time. We are going to disagree with one another from time to time. We are going to hurt each other occasionally. When that happens, Jesus gives us a means for getting reconnected, for making peace, for becoming whole again.
“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. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. 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. Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” (Matthew 18:15-20)
In the first few verses, Jesus gives us a process for working out our differences that seems like a simple problem solving method. It seems to follow a series of steps that start small, and expand as necessary:
- Start by addressing the one who has hurt you face-to-face. Whenever someone wrongs you, go immediately to them and tell them what is bothering you.
- If that doesn’t work, bring along a witness who can also act as mediator or advocate.
- If that doesn’t work, call on the resources of the larger church.
- If you still can’t convince the other person to repent, “let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” This sounds like one of those sayings that must have been its own catch phrase in first century Palestine, doesn’t it? We’ll come back to that in a moment.
Before we can even go to the one who has hurt us, though, Christ encourages us to do a little soul-searching, to recognize our own part in the conflict. Earlier in chapter 18, Jesus tells us to cut off any part of our own bodies that cause us to sin. To do that, we have to recognize our own sinfulness.
So before we can address sin in another, Jesus calls us to look at ourselves. Answering a few questions can help us gain clearer understanding, avoid overreacting, and move us toward wholeness.
The first question we should ask ourselves is, “Can I let it go?” If the offense is minor, and you can honestly let it go, there is no reason to confront the other person. There is no reason to create conflict where it doesn’t already exist outside our own minds.
But if you know this is going to keep bothering you, it’s time to ask another question: “What might the other person think I have contributed to this problem?” Taking the time to see things from the other person’s viewpoint can help us recognize what we need to take responsibility for, before we confront another.
And asking, “what does God see?” can give us an even broader perspective. This broader view helps us see the issue more objectively, and prevents us from allowing anger and fear to cloud our vision as we work toward resolution. We may discover that the problem we have is really within ourselves, and we can avoid causing distress in others and in the church through our own repentance and discipleship.
But sometimes, that self-examination shows me how I really have been hurt by another, and allowing that wound to fester will not lead to healing. Then I must get up and go to the one who has hurt me, and tell that person what is wrong. The purpose of this step is not to get even or express my anger. The purpose here is to resolve the conflict. As I work to understand the other person’s point of view, the goal is for us to work together to come up with solutions.
My family likes to banter, and we know how to push each others’ buttons. Maybe that’s true in your family, too. A few years ago, one of my sisters made a joking remark that really hurt me. I didn’t respond to it at the time, but it bothered me. I stewed over it. A few days later, this same sister asked me for information that I was pretty sure I had given her. The tone of my reply must have been less than kind. She wrote back, “don’t get snippy with me, sister.”
I realized that the hurt from the week before was still bothering me, and was clouding my interactions with my family. I told my sister this, and apologized for being snippy. You know what she did? She forgave me. We talked on the phone for a long time, and when the call ended, our relationship had been restored.
Did you notice what happened there? I felt hurt. I thought she owed me an apology. But when I called her, she forgave me. And I needed it. That’s what going directly to the one who has offended me can do. It can help me see my own part in the problem, my own need for forgiveness. It can teach me the humility that real love requires. And healing can happen in the process.
Sometimes, two people simply cannot agree, and when that is the case, Jesus urges us to bring in some help. An advocate or witness can offer yet another viewpoint, and may be able to point out possibilities that the two parties in conflict might not have been able to see. This could be church staff, or the SPRC, if the conflict is with a member of the church staff.
If that doesn’t work, it’s time to draw on the larger church. The conference offers resources for conflict resolution, and the district superintendent can also be a resource. But if we’ve followed the Rule of Christ with integrity, no church conflict should ever come to this “last resort” stage. Jesus encourages us to solve the problem as simply and directly as possible, before it becomes a full-blown crisis of the church.
Here’s something to ponder: that word “church” only appears twice in all the gospels, and both of them happen in Matthew. Jesus also uses the word “church” in chapter 16, when he gives Simon the name “Peter.” Both of these passages that include the word “church” also promise that what is bound on earth will be bound in heaven, and what is loosed on earth will be loosed in heaven.
Jesus emphasizes that what we say and do here on earth is connected to what happens in heaven. Resolution and agreement reflect a heavenly ideal of the “unity” in “community,” and Christ promises to be with us as we seek to resolve our conflicts with one another. Christ is present among us as we work out what it means to live in the Kingdom of God, loving one another in Christ’s name, seeking each other’s good, showing the world what it means to live in peace.
Jesus isn’t saying that we have power to dictate what will be acceptable in heaven by what we choose here on earth, any more than he is saying that we can ask for any whim to be satisfied, and simply tack on the words “in Jesus’ name” to get what we want. Jesus says simply that he will be present in the process of seeking reconciliation, and God will honor the solution reached by two parties who actively seek God’s will. We do not do this hard work of building community by ourselves, but through the power of the Holy Spirit.
But what happens when nothing works?
Even when we follow the Rule of Christ to the letter, some issues simply cannot be resolved within the church. In those cases, it’s best to remember our mission, let go of disappointment and anger, and move on with our ministry.
When unresolved issues become the center of a church’s attention, the wound never heals, and the church gets stuck in crisis mode. Christ’s words may seem harsh, but treating someone who refuses reconciliation as “a Gentile and a tax collector” may be the only way a church can survive such a crisis.
Here we are, back at that “Gentile and a tax collector” phrase I mentioned earlier. While his disciples may have heard this as a standard expression for excluding an outcast, Christ’s practice was to include both Gentiles and tax collectors among his followers. Matthew himself was a tax collector, after all!
Think about the way Jesus treated outcasts like the Samaritan woman at the well, or Zacchaeus. When we cannot reconcile with another believer, Jesus encourages us to treat that person as an outcast, but I don’t think he’s asking us to shun those who won’t agree with us. I think he’s asking us to spend even more energy on drawing them into God’s love and forgiveness, entering into intentional community with them, engaging them in ongoing discipleship. And sometimes that requires that we allow God to work on our hearts.
It isn’t always easy to turn God’s flashlight into our own souls to see where we might need to do some repenting before we accuse another of sin. And it certainly isn’t easy to get up and go directly to a person who has wronged us, to speak face-to-face.
It’s even harder to admit we can’t accomplish reconciliation on our own, and we might need some help from a broader circle of witnesses in the church. Hardest of all is admitting that, on rare occasions, reconciliation simply isn’t possible. This feels like failure, and we don’t like to fail.
There’s another aspect of resolving conflicts within the Body of Christ that we need to consider. What happens when someone causes an offense, but no one comes to tell them so? This happens too often among God’s people. Instead of going directly to the offender, we confide our pain in a third party, or worse, a group of our friends in the church, and the offender doesn’t even know that he or she has hurt us.
Psychologists call this “triangulation,” when a third person is drawn into a conflict between two people – not in the hope of helping with reconciliation, but to side with one party against the other. It is the most unhealthy way to approach conflict, and it is one of the major reasons people outside the church call us hypocrites.
Gossip spreads, and the worst part is that the offender is oblivious to the poison that is becoming attached to his or her name. How can this kind of behavior possibly reflect the grace and peace of Jesus Christ? The only thing triangulation does is weaken the Body of Christ, instead of building it up, as we are supposed to do.
So there is another part of this Rule of Christ that we need to remember, and that is to gently encourage someone who comes to us complaining of being hurt by another to go directly to the one who has caused the pain. If they refuse, offer to go with them as a witness, but don’t allow yourselves to be drawn into a conflict that is not yours to begin with. And when you hear a brother or sister starting to share information about someone else’s conflict, remind them that gossip has no place in the Body of Christ.
This church has a history of broken relationships, going back years and years. Some of those can’t be mended, because the people involved have gone to be with the Lord. But if you hold a grudge against someone else in this church, I encourage you to take the first step toward reconciliation this week. Do not delay.
Ask yourself the discernment questions I mentioned earlier, and pray over those answers: “Can I let it go?” “What might the other person think I have contributed to this problem?” and most importantly, “What does God see?”
Once you’ve answered those questions, if you are still hurting, take your hurt to the one who has caused it, trusting in God’s grace that you will be received with love and respect.
You see, the Enemy is eager to find ways to divide us. This is why Christ prayed for us to be one with him and one with each other, even as he is one with the Father. Our unity in Christ is how we stand against evil, asking in Jesus’ name for the Holy Spirit to protect us from Satan’s attempts to come between us.
We call it the Rule of Christ, but following Jesus isn’t really a set of rules. It’s a relationship to which we commit our entire selves. In a moment we will observe the sacrament of Communion, and there’s a phrase I repeat every time I consecrate the elements of bread and cup.
I ask God to make us one with Christ, one with each other, and one in ministry to all the world. Each time we pray this prayer of consecration, the words commit us to live in relationship with one another and with Christ.
Because the bottom line is this: God really cares about how we treat each other. God wants us to live in Kingdom harmony with one another, so that others may be drawn into this abundant life by our example. And there’s one more thing you need to know about the Rule of Christ.
We only hear a few verses of chapter 18 in today’s reading. Next week, we’ll see Peter step in to take this idea of reconciliation even further. But the thing you need to know is that this entire chapter is not about church polity. It is not about the steps you need to take for quick resolution of every argument.
When we read these few verses in the context of all of Matthew’s gospel, we find that the Rule of Christ is not a bunch of rules at all. No, the Rule of Christ is the Reign of Love over all of us, whether or not we see ourselves or each other as lovable.
It’s a way of protecting the most vulnerable, the most damaged, the weakest among us. It’s a way of protecting our children, and those in our society who have no power to speak or act for themselves. Audrey West reminds us, “it may be unsafe and perhaps even life-threatening for one person to call out the sin of another when the two are alone (Matthew 18:15).” and the Rule of Christ should never be manipulated to attempt reconciliation between an abuser and the one that person has abused.
This reign, this Rule governs our life together in the Body. Because we are made one in Christ Jesus. So as you come to this Table, where the feast of Bread and Cup have been prepared with love for you, open your hearts to be one with each other.