Matthew 18:15-20New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
15 “If another member of the church[a] sins against you,[b] go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one.[c] 16 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. 17 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. 18 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. 19 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. 20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them
Every so often, the scripture that presents itself in the lectionary for our consideration makes me slam my Bible shut and declare that there is no way on God’s green earth that I am going to even attempt to preach on it! Our Scripture today from Matthew 18 is one of those scriptures. In fact, I think when I first read this I said something out loud that made my husband Michael say, “What are you reading?” “The Bible” says I, “listen to this, I can’t preach this!” I think his response was something along the line of “Ew, no, you can’t preach that” Of course as soon as I say that I feel a little guilty and then I realized that if I am reacting to it so strongly, it probably means that this is one of those times, one of those things that I HAVE to preach. So, for the past month, I’ve been carrying this scripture around in my back pocket little realizing how appropriate it was going to be for this time and this place.
Will you pray with me please? May the words of my mouth and the meditation of all of our hearts and minds be acceptable in your sight O lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen
I am not exactly sure what it is about this passage in Matthew that bugs me. Maybe it is because I’ve known way too many “Christians” who are always more than eager to “go and point out the fault” of someone else, cause when you read this through the first time it sounds like it is giving people permission to go and get up in everyone else’s business. It sounds like it is giving us permission to point fingers, to shun someone, it sounds uncomfortable, and then at the end of the passage there is that huuuuuuge promise about asking and receiving that seems so, I don’t know, dangerously optimistic, I guess. So, no matter how you slice it, I just could not seem to find a reason to like this passage. So, I had to do a couple of things. I had to read a lot of commentaries, I talked to a variety of colleagues and I prayed about it a lot. And here is what I came to. As much as I may not like the feeling of legalism in this scripture, when I got over my bias and read the passage carefully I finally realized that Matthew’s deep concern in this passage is community- honest-to-goodness, authentic Christian community. And the two things I’ve discovered time and again about community is 1) we all say we want it and 2) we usually have no idea how difficult it is to come by.
When we talk about community what do we mean? For many of us community is something out of Cheers, it’s a place where we are accepted for who we are, where we’re never lonely, and, of course, it’s where everybody knows our name. But the really difficult thing about community is that is it made up of people! And people…not you and me of course…but people can be difficult, challenging, selfish, and unreliable.
Never in a million years would I assert that Christians are perfect and will not have conflicts. There will always be quarrels, differences of opinion on how and who, disappointments with preachers and church councils, hurt feelings, bent pride, loss of face, and lots of mistakes. But it’s the idea that Christians can resolve these conflicts as no other fellowship can, that Jesus puts before us today.
Comus, a Duke of Florence, had a saying: "You shall read that we are commanded to forgive our enemies, but you never read that we are commanded to forgive our friends."
That can happen in the Christian proclamation of the gospel. We preachers spend a lot of time in our pulpits talking about how Christians are charged by Jesus Christ to love their enemies and to pray for their enemies. When in actuality, right here in our seats, side by side are Christians who hold grudges, hang on to petty hurts, refuse to forgive and love each other within the fellowship. And when we do this, church and Christianity and the whole practice of religion is not the joyful experience it ought to be. We miss a large dimension of belonging to God’s family. We chose a side and it’s usually our own.
It is into this reality of community that Jesus speaks, and even though his words are hard to hear, they are refreshing. To break it down…
Things happen, people disagree, there will be disputes.
Communities are made up of people who disagree.
When that happens, and when we are involved, Jesus is telling us to do something about it: namely go and talk TO the other person that you disagree with directly, like a mature adult, do not gather with a bunch of your friends and snarl and snipe behind peoples backs.
If that doesn’t work, then involve some other folks from the community…this is not pulling more people onto your “side” rather, this is a way to involve and preserve the larger community that is affected by the dispute.
If that doesn’t work, if we can’t have rational conversations that do not involved finger pointing and harsh words, then things are serious and we are all at risk.
Authentic community is hard to come by, its work. But it’s worth it because when we find it, we are finding a little bit of heaven on earth, we are living in the Beloved Community, it is experiencing the reality of God’s communal fellowship and existence in our very midst. And as Jesus promises, when we gather in this way, with honesty and integrity, even when it’s hard—amazing things happen because the side that we choose is not my side or your side or their side, it is Jesus’ side. When we choose Jesus, we’re giving the gift of being formed and always forming into a community that truly lives out the gospel.
When there is conflict in the church there is an undercurrent, a river or stream flowing beneath the worship life, fellowship time, our service toward one another and the world. It is an undercurrent that bubbles up here and there in shared glances, careful avoidance, unspoken words; we nurse our resentments with care, imaging that a great wrong has been wielded against us until we become less like open willing hearts seeking God and more like carefully tended scabs that we pick open from time to time in order to feel the hurt again.
What Jesus brings to us in Matthew 18 is a practical way to solve conflict in the church, at home, at work, at school, in our own families, what we are reminded of here is that we should not judge on legalism, the letter of the law, but in the light of love. It is through Christian prayer, Christian love, and Christian fellowship that personal relationships may be righted.
Reinhold Niebuhr, in The Irony of American History, writes, "Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime: therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone, therefore we are saved by love. No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint. Therefore we must be saved by the final form of love which is forgiveness."
Sure, we’ll have conflicts within the discipleship, our congregation, the church. Sure, it’ll be tough resolving them. But our Savior tells us ways we can do it; we should do it; we must do it - if ours is a Christian fellowship and we are Christians. HA