September 10, 2017
Fourteenth Sunday After Pentecost
The Rev. Rod Sprange
Romans 13:8-14; Matthew 18:15-20
A man walked into a library, he walked up to the librarian’s counter and said “I’d like a burger and fries please”. The librarian looked confused and replied “Sir, this is a library!”. The man looked around, looked apologetic and whispered “I’d like a burger and fries please”.
There are expected standards of behaviour and other norms for most types of institutions, groups and communities. In the short excerpt from Matthew’s account that we read today Jesus seems to give us a formulae for dealing with someone who has sinned against another member of the church. First, the aggrieved person should speak to the offender in private pointing out the concern. If the person listens, then you have re-established relationship with them and brought them back into the fold. Jesus suggests that if they haven’t been willing to listen, the aggrieved person should take one or two other members along as witnesses so that their concern can be confirmed by them. If the person still refuses to listen then take the issue to the church community. If the offender refuses to listen to the community then you should exclude them. Pretty drastic if it get’s that far.
Is Jesus suggesting a standard of behaviour for us? I think he is, but not the obvious one.
But I don’t think the Gospel reading is about setting up a series of specific steps for resolving conflicts - a set of fixed rules for a hierarchical structure. I believe it and the letter from Paul are more about showing us the way towards creating loving community - about reconciliation and forgiveness. About not giving up on someone.
How do I and others come to this conclusion when on a quick or isolated reading the passage sounds pretty straightforward. If we really want to understand the meaning we need to dig deeper, read a little wider. Remember the Gospel accounts are not a series of random remembrances of Jesus life and teaching. Each of the Gospels is a well constructed literary masterpiece. The sequence in which events are told is deliberate. Each Gospel has its own theological approach and insights about Jesus. So we need to carefully consider the textual context of the passage and let scripture interpret scripture.
In this case, immediately preceding today’s passage about reproving another who sins, Jesus tells the parable of the lost sheep. Remember the shepherd leaves the 99 to find and bring back the one that is lost. And immediately following the passage he answers Peter’s question “how many times should I forgive a brother who sins against me, seven times?” And as you recall Jesus said “not seven times, I say seventy-seven times.”
After the parable of the unforgiving servant Jesus warns that the Father requires us to forgive our brother or sister from the heart. If we want God to forgive us, we must forgive others. Not just a quickly mumbled “I forgive you”, but really meaning it. That’s not the same as saying “what you did doesn’t matter”, or “it didn’t hurt”, or by pretending it didn’t happen. It is forgiving despite the fact it happened, hurt and mattered. In Christian community we must keep offering forgiveness and the opportunity for reconciliation
Now lets be clear, nothing in this suggests that anyone should tolerate an abusive relationship, that’s not what I am saying. No one should be expected to accept abuse - whether physical, sexual or mental. Abuse is wrong.
Forgiving is different than tolerating.
In today’s passage from Matthew, Jesus gives us an example of how we might handle a situation when another member of the congregation has done or is doing something hurtful and destructive to us. I don’t think he means disagreements about lifestyle, or minor aggravations - but about damaged or damaging relationships. The goal is to mend the broken relationship so that both members can resume full participation in the Christian community. One, by repenting what he or she has done, the other by the healing that comes from forgiving another in our heart.
How do we normally respond if someone in the church community acts in a way that upsets us? The easy thing is to talk about them behind their back. It gives us a sense of power over them, and it may make us feel better, at least temporarily. But what affect is it having on our relationship with the other person and on the health of the community. Gossiping and complaining about others is destructive. It’s destructive to the person doing the gossiping, to the person listening to them and to the person who is the object of their anger. And if the gossiping spreads, which is often the case, the destructiveness spreads with it, bringing a sickness to the whole community.
Another typical way we tend to deal with the situation is to swallow the anger and hurt and try to ignore it. But this typically leads to a growing sense of resentment of the other person. A hardening of our heart. And quite likely the hurtful action will be repeated, maybe against another member - what then?
Jesus wants us to be reconciled with one another and with God, to be in good relationship - to be a sign of God’s desire for reconciliation in the world.
The question is how to achieve reconciliation with someone who has sinned against us. When Matthew uses the word “sinned” it seems to mean more than a small slight - or annoyance. We know something is sinful when it is destructive. So I assume the kind of grievance that Jesus is talking about here is something significant that has the power to diminish another.
Jesus suggests that we should try to have a private conversation with the person. These are not easy conversations to have. They are difficult. Remember recently one of our Christian Education series was on Difficult Conversations 1. The book we studied gives some very helpful insights about conflict and about how to go about achieving a positive outcome from a difficult conversation. If you haven’t read the book, it’s really worth your time to have a look.
Jesus tells us, in this passage, that the first action should be to speak to the person privately. This takes a lot of courage and should be done with careful forethought and prayer. We don’t want to confront the other person with the intention of making them feel guilty, or to pay them back, or to enjoy a blast of anger - but to honestly, and lovingly let them know how their action or words have affected us. This takes more than courage, it takes empathy, trying first to understand why the other person may have acted as they did, it takes great patience and a willingness to listen as well as speak.
We don’t want a confrontation, we want to establish a dialogue through which our relationship can be restored.
Even when someone has hurt us we need to remember our baptismal promises. We are asked two questions which we would do well to keep in mind: “Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbour as yourself” and “Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?” And to each of these we are expected to reply “I will with God’s help”. We know we won’t succeed on our own. But we are not alone. So, in our approach to the offending person our purpose should be to strive for peace with them and within the community, and in our approach to respect their dignity as a child of God, seeking the face of Christ in them. We shouldn’t try to diminish them in any way or score points off them, but help them to see how we have been affected by their behaviour. But also to let them know that we seek reconciliation.
The book Difficult Conversations gives a lot of helpful insights and advice on how to prepare and proceed with such a difficult conversation.
However, there is no approach that will guarantee the person won’t react defensively or with a counter accusation. We need to be ready for that and refrain from an escalation of who did what to whom and try to calmly explain our concern and offer the hand of peace. As an indication of our forgiveness and desire to be reconciled with them, perhaps we could make a point of offering them the Peace of Christ at the next worship service.
In Jesus’s example he indicates that if that private conversation doesn’t work, then we should engage a couple of respected members of the church to go with us to speak with the individual. That way they can provide an unbiased witness and try to help bring the person around and repair the relationship. The point is to do everything possible to maintain the fellowship. The last step that Jesus spoke about was if the person won’t listen, even to the church community, accept responsibility and agree to try and change then they may need to be asked to leave. But do you think we just try each of these steps once? After this teaching Jesus teaches us that we shouldn’t give up in forgiving a brother or sister. When Peter asks if seven times is enough, Jesus says no, try seventy-seven times! I think he means we should never give up. God never gives up on us - God’s mercy is great. We receive unconditional love from God - and we are trying to walk in God’s ways.
We must remember, the goal is to bring back the lost sheep, not to punish them, but to effect reconciliation and forgiveness. So I think we have to consider that final step of excluding the person as failure.
Jesus teaching isn’t intended as a prescription for settling disputes but is an example for us in how to go about the goal of bringing a person back into loving community - it’s about our responsibility to establish and maintain loving Christian community. The last drastic step of the person being excluded from the community may be a warning to us, that our repentance is necessary if we are to be in right relationship with God. God forgives us, but we still need to accept that forgiveness, which means accepting that we have sinned and that we haven’t earned God’s forgiveness - it has been earned by Jesus Christ and freely given us by God.
The passage from Paul’s letter to the Romans very clearly tells us that the key to Christian community is to do all things from love and with love. He’s not talking about romantic love, or even brotherly or sisterly love. Paul uses the word agape - which we can understand as selfless love. This is what is meant by the commandment to love your neighbour as yourself, and demonstrated by the Golden Rule, do unto others as you would have them do unto you. We aren’t called to like everyone in our community, but we are called to show them agape - love. We are expected to treat them with respect and to seek and serve Christ in them.
Paul shows how the other commandments - prohibitions against actions that harm community and relationships , like adultery, murder, stealing, coveting - are summed up in the commandment “love your neighbour as yourself”.
These two passages from the New Testament recognize that living in community is difficult. They recognize that conflicts and differences will arise. And they give us two foundational expectations or norms for true Christian community.
True Christian community is built on a commitment to mutual love - agape; and the willingness to forgive our brothers and sisters in Christ. Our actions and intentions must be based on mutual, selfless love. We must do everything we can to establish, maintain and repair loving relationships in the name of Christ. We must live out and demonstrate to the world what it means to be an authentic Christian community.
As we read in John 13:35 “By this, everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another”. Amen
1 Difficult Conversations: How To Discuss What Matters Most, D. Stone,B. Patton, S. Heen Penguin Books 2010