15“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. 16But 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. 17If 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. 18Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.19Again, 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. 20For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”
There are two times in the gospels where Jesus uses the word “church” and both are found in Matthew. A couple of weeks ago churches that were reading from the lectionary heard the first. Jesus responded to Peter’s declaration that Jesus was the Messiah by saying “On this rock I will build my church.” Jesus builds the church. That is a relief to all those who mistakenly thought it was a human effort.
And Jesus says the gates of hell will not prevail against the church’s advances. The church, sometimes by its very presence, and sometimes by more forceful means, opposes, undermines, and attacks the outposts of evil and destruction in this world.
But this week we find the word church again. This time the focus is not on the impact on the world, but the internal repairing of broken relationships. Our faith is used by Christ to build the church, but some of the maintenance is our responsibility.
So the church fights evil in the world, but it has a job keeping itself together.
In John 17 Jesus prayed for the church that we might be one “that the world will know you have sent me.” Nothing makes it less likely for folks to believe there is any supernatural involved in church than to see Christians unable to get along with each other.
I John offers this insight that if we can’t love the brother or sister we can see then it is questionable how much we can claim to love God whom we cannot see.
Of course it is the case that loving people is easier in our imagination than in real time. People are apt to see things differently, have a different schedule, vocabulary. The fact that people are not carbon copies of us is part of the richness and goodness of community, but also a potential source of friction.
But the text today is not simply about the tensions of difference. It is about serious injury we can do one another. About how we can sin against one another.
The secret of keeping a marriage together or a family or a church includes several ingredients. Doing fun things together that build up trust and good memories. Affirming the goodness of others; recognizing and commenting on the goodness in acts, attitudes that we appreciate; being able to laugh together, doing things for one another (chavarim).
But above all being able to process and put behind us the hurts and damages that will happen, sometimes we intended to hurt at the moment, but did not mean to destroy completely. We were just made. Sometimes we did not realize we were hurting the other person. But however it happens, the hurt can be the end of a happy relationship if it is not dealt with.
The overarching concern is reconciliation. How can the relationship go on,? How can it regain a positive footing?
The first thing to note is that if we have been hurt Jesus tells us to take initiative to fix things.
This is important. Our instinct sometime is that if Max hurt me, he ought to come and apologize and I’m not going to have anything to do with him till he does. But Jesus says don’t wait on him to come.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus contrasted the demands of the law with the initiatives of grace. You have heard it said, don’t kill. Grace requires that we refrain from anger, But then Jesus talks about initiatives, practices that dry up the source of sin to begin with.
Here again Jesus is offering a practice that has the potential to neutralize the damages that sin can do. Be the first to address the issue. You have been hurt. Dong’ let it fester. Don’t indulge in the luxury of being an innocent victim. Don’t talk about it; talk to the person.
Matthew 18 first talks about not harming even the least of these. Not doing anything that would damage the relation of a brother or sister with us or with God. Causing a brother or sister to stumble is taken very seriously.
But if they hurt us, we are not to let it go, but work to overcome the damage and restore relationship. We are to confront, not with some subtext of taking a superior moral position over them, but to bring healing so we can go on beside one another.
The confrontation needs to be as private as possible. It needs to be direct. If someone has wronged me. I should go to them and not to channel 18. If they mishandle to confrontation, take a committee, or finally the whole community.
There are five lessons in this section of Matthew 18.
There is no church free of conflicts and misunderstanding.
Conflict should be faced.
The goal of dealing with conflict is reconciliation.
We need the help of others to keep objective about the conflict. (take 2 or 3).
When you have faced the conflict and done all you can for reconciliation, left yourself open for change, drop it. There is only so much you can do to bring reconciliation.
The purpose of confrontation is not so we will have the goods on them.
Not so they will feel bad
not so we can pass judgment on them.
The purpose for telling them is so they can know what is going on inside of us
and be able to respond to that.
And change in ways that will make it easier to continue in relationship with them.
Privately. This I believe underscores the principle of not wanting to humiliate or embarrass someone. This is the opposite of gossiping– rather than talking about someone to everyone else we talk privately and directly to the person. If possible, and it often is, to get the matter settled at this level– there will be fewer rumors and suspicions floating around in the community. What often happens instead is someone talks to another person who we hope will get back to the person who hurt us. We expect someone else will confront while we are not around.
Two or Three. If the person refuses to acknowledge there is a problem, Jesus says tajke two or three and go. Why? I believe 2 or 3 serves as a reality check. Sometimes if we are the victim of a misunderstanding or hurt we may lose our ability to see in the other person anything but “the-one-who-hurt-me” And if so we may approach everything he or she does with our guns loaded and aimed and ready to shoot them down.
2 or 3 means we may need mediators to help serve as a objective witnesses, translators, referees.
The whole community. Frankly I consider it a rare solution to any problem to bring it before the whole community. And perhaps it is not with hope of a solution that this level is introduced.
Perhaps what is at issue here is: while an individual can forgive on the part of all– he or she cannot damn. Only a community as a whole can pass judgment. But even the community leaves avenging to God.
In forgiveness I am dealing with a serious hurt I have suffered. Community can not be created or sustained under those circumstances by pretending that I am not hurting. I need to be real about my pain. And if it is serious enough to get in the way of community I need to approach .
What I am looking for is repentance.
Admit the truth of the person’s perception, if it is true.
Acknowledging the pain that the other person is feeling
confess- tell the other person you see the problem need forgiveness
promise not to hurt that way again.
This heals a relationship on the side of the offender. But there is healing needed on the side of the offended. The last stage is letting go.
What happens when you want to forgive and there is no repentance? No perception on their part of a hurt given, no understanding of the feeling. No confession, that is, no admission on their part of any responsibility, and no promise not to hurt that way again.
Well, there is still a need for the offended person to forgive. To release their desire to hurt back, to condemn, to destroy. And if there is no repentance the way the hurt person is to handle it is to let the other person go. If we can’t have fellowship, we still can have goodwill.
This letting go, which is our half of forgiveness, is not easy. We need to be under no illusion that it would be easy if the offender repented. But we are called to community.A task as well as a gift, our labor and joy.