September 10, 2017

Matthew 18:15-20
Romans 13:8-14

“Where two or three are gathered”

Where two or three are gathered together, there is the likelihood of at least two or three different perspectives, opinions, or preferences. And where two or three are gathered together, there is the potential for conflict.

Although it would be nice to say that whenever we gather in the name of Christ, we discover unity, and make peace, and live and serve harmoniously together, the reality is that even in the church, we don’t always get along that well.

Yes, I’ve heard about some of the conflicts that have flared up in this Christian community over the years. Some of them have been resolved or let go of, and some forgiving and even some forgetting has long ago taken place. And there are others that still plague us in our relationships, stirring up feelings of frustration, hurt, or anger, and continue to hamper our relationships as co-workers in the gospel and brothers and sisters in Christ.

I’ve also heard about some of the conflicts that plagued other Christian congregations to which some of you used to belong. You came to this church seeking peace and rest from the struggle, and a caring community where you could share happily in service and fellowship.

And I have my own experiences of conflict in the church as well. Sometimes I’ve witnessed it, and worked as a pastor to help bring resolution. Sometimes I’ve been right in the middle of it – as the person who was offended or hurt by someone else’s actions or words, and sometimes as the person accused of causing the hurt.

And I know that when conflict flares up in the Christian community, and when it can’t be easily resolved, it is heart-breaking for everyone involved. It is the kind of thing that starts us thinking, “If we can’t even manage to love each other in the church, what hope is there for the world?”

Now, I’m not talking about having differences of opinion. One of the most beautiful things about the church is that we have differences. We have different experiences, different gifts, different perspectives and ideas. Our Christian communities are enriched by people from different countries and cultures, from different age groups, occupations, and even theological perspectives.

In fact, our Presbyterian system for making decisions and setting goals and directions for our ministries assumes that we will come together with differences, that we will disagree. And our polity trusts that through discussion, debate, and decent, orderly process, the Spirit will guide us together towards what is best, towards what God is calling us to do.

The problem is not different opinions, but the problem is sin. The problem is angry words, insults, gossip, shunning, blaming, or the refusal to treat our sisters and brothers in Christ with respect and care.

That’s the kind of stuff that today’s passage from Matthew’s Gospel is about. It’s not about what to do when someone doesn’t agree with you. It’s about what to do when another member of the church sins against you. And it’s the go-to passage for pastors to check when a conflict arises in the church that needs some help getting sorted out.

We all remember the basic pattern… go to the person directly, and speak to him or her about the problem. Our instinct may be to talk to other people about it first, making sure that there are others that agree that person did a terrible thing. But that so easily gets us into sinful behaviour ourselves – gossip, slander, and perhaps a growing conflict in the wider community.

Jesus tells us to go to the person first, and talk to her or him about what they did wrong. One commentator adds, “If this is done in a humble, loving manner, then perhaps confession, forgiveness, and reconciliation may occur…. One cannot imagine Jesus advising a verbal casting of stones!” So you talk to the person gently, honestly, and humbly.

If that conversation is not successful, that’s when you bring others into the situation: “Bring one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses.” And if the person still refuses to listen, that’s when you talk to the church about it… your elder, the minister, maybe the Session.

In a theological reflection on this passage, Charles Hambrick-Stowe reflects that, “In contemporary North American church life, these hurts are commonly dealt with by one or more people leaving the church in anger, joining another church down the street, or dropping out altogether. In either case, death still has dominion. The congregation and those involved may carry scars for years to come. God’s grace is thwarted among the very people called to extend that grace to the world.” This passage offers us an alternative to responding to conflict by leaving, if we are willing to do the hard work involved in seeking reconciliation.

One of the things that I find interesting about the passage is that it is not directed at the sinner, at the person who caused the hurt. There are plenty of other passages that are directed at us as sinners… plenty of passages that call us to face up to our wrongdoing, admit our mistakes, and turn towards God’s loving ways.

Today’s passage from Romans, for example, reminds us of the commandments, calls us to lay aside the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light, loving our neighbours as ourselves and living honorably.

But Matthew 18 gives instructions for the person who has been sinned against, for the person who has been hurt, and for the wider Christian community to which both the sinner and the sinned-against person belong. And it is advice NOT for how to get justice for the sinned-against person, or the victim, you might say. It is advice for how to reconcile the sinner back to the community, how to REGAIN that member of the Christian community who has done something wrong.

When we feel that someone has hurt us, we are usually looking for a way to get that person to admit they were wrong, apologize, and make amends. Our goal usually has to do with justice, and we want to make sure that we get it, or that whoever we see as the victim is compensated for the wounds they have endured.

And certainly, the church should be concerned about those among us who have been hurt. We should be committed to ensuring that continual injury does not continue, that the church is a safe place for all people, and we should work to care for those among us who have been hurt by others, whether inside or outside the church community.

But that’s not what this passage is about. It’s about how we, as injured parties, and as church communities care for those among us who have done wrong. It’s about how we treat sinners in our midst.

Now, the reminder that we are ALL sinners might help us to get our heads and our hearts around the instruction we are going to receive from the Gospel text that our goal is not to show how right we are, and how wrong the other person is.

And our goal is not to get ourselves a public apology and affirmation that we were right all along. And our goal is certainly not to rid the Christian community of the worst of its sinners, in an attempt to keep things friendly and comfortable for those who might be left after such a sorting.

Because the Gospel text is clear that the goal of any intervention is to REGAIN the sinner. Notice that the sinner is referred to as a “brother or sister” because that person belongs to the same family of God. And notice that every effort should be made to prevent embarrassment or shame for the offender.

This passage will not accept an attitude that says, “He’s the one who hurt me. It’s up to him to apologize and seek peace.” Instead, it is clear that the initiative lies not with the offender, but with the other members of the Christian fellowship. Members of God’s family are responsible to – and for – each other. It is up to us to reconcile the member to the community, so that unity, peace, and fellowship are restored.

Now, you may have noticed, as I did, that after speaking to the person alone, and then bringing a couple of witnesses, and then asking the church to intercede, Jesus says, “if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”

I read one interpretation of this verse that allowed for the fact that sometimes a person may just simply refuse to repent, to submit, and to be accountable to the authority and discernment of the whole community. In that case, the person has, in effect, MADE themselves into a Gentile or a tax collector – made themselves into an outsider, a person who does not belong to the community of followers.

And perhaps, those who are no longer willing to be a part of the body fellowship should be LOOSED from membership. Maybe there is a time for that conclusion, after the hard work of talking and listening and explaining and trying to figure it out.

But we should be careful not to hear this verse as a license to excommunicate, exile, or otherwise shun an individual. After all, Jesus often interacted with Gentiles, with tax collectors, with prostitutes, and with other unsavory outsiders. One of the harshest criticisms of Jesus during his ministry was that he was “a FRIEND of tax collectors and sinners.”

“Far from shunning them, Jesus commands us never to give up on them, never to stop reaching out in love to them, always to yearn for grace to restore what has been broken.” (Charles Hambrick-Stowe)

I know, this is a difficult interpretation to hear, especially when we are tired of the unresolved conflicts, and we just wish that certain people would go away so we could get on with our ministry in peace.

The problem is that no matter how small and select a Christian community may become, there will always be conflicts to work through, and sinners to reconcile. And it won’t ever be as simple as “that person sinned, while those others were perfect angels.” We’ll all be in the sinner category at times, and there won’t be much of a church left after we all get cast out.

The good news is that Jesus has given us a way of working through it when these interpersonal issues arise. And with the Spirit’s help, we can receive the courage, the patience, the humility, and the love we need to forgive one another and make our focus the imperative to regain the sinner, and reconcile that person to the community.

Jesus promises us… “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.”

Let us pray together for the unity of our congregation and the unity of the whole church. And let us trust that Jesus is among us to guide, correct, and encourage us today and always.