First Mennonite Church
August 23, 2015
The Journey: Jesus and Getting Reconciled
Text: Matthew 18: 15-20
For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them,” says in Matthew 18:20
I remember when I was young and not many came to the prayer meeting, either because it was raining too much or because some were sick, my pastor Jesus Torres, would quote this verse. That night the prayer circle would be small, but this verse was an encouragement. We were assured that Jesus was present with us.
When we look at the context of this verse, however, we find that the reason Jesus said it was not to encourage small churches or small prayer groups to keep gathering. The reason was another. It referred to situations of conflict, but more importantly, it referred to what happens when reconciliation takes place.
Chapter 18 of Matthew is a chapter about conflicts. The chapter begins with the disciples’ open desire to know who is or will be the greatest in the Kingdom Jesus was proclaiming (1-5). The disciples could not resist the temptation of figuring out who would hold the highest position among them. They wanted to know who would be called “master.” They wanted to know who was going to exercise power over the rest. This same story is told by Mark and Luke and they say that the disciples were “arguing among them concerning who will be the greatest” (Mr. 9:34; Lk. 9:46). The disciples were actually fighting.
Matthew chapter 18 ends with the “Parable of the unforgiving servant”. In that parable Jesus tells the story of a man who owed lots of money to a king. Although the king forgave him his debt, he refused to wait to be paid a little money owed to him by his friend. The forgiven man assaulted his debtor and demanded to be paid immediately. The conflict in that parable is about money. The lesson there is that forgiveness is a gift, which we have to give to others also. When forgiveness is received and not passed along to others we are in danger of losing the gift.
The two topics of conflict in Matthew 18 are power and money. These two are common issues for conflict in families, churches, and people in general. The desire for power and money are always tempting and in pursue of these people often enter into conflict.
Interestingly, however, in the middle of chapter 18, Jesus teaches on how handle conflict in the church. He specifically sets the conflict in the context of the church. “When your brother or sister sins against you…” (v. 15).
Jesus’ teaching found in verses 15-20 is so clear to understand, yet it is often disregarded. Of all of Jesus’s teachings, this one and only this one is specifically addressed to the “ekklesia,” the church. And what makes it so interesting is that it is not regarding on the importance of keeping the right doctrine or about the right leadership structure. It is on how to resolve conflicts. We do apply all of Jesus’ teachings to the church but this is the only one which Jesus specifically addresses it to the church.
Here, Jesus gives four step on how to deal with conflicts in the church. “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. Most Bible translations begin this verse with the conditional conjunction “if.” Yet the Greek word “ean” can also be translated “when” or “whenever.” With such alternative translation, “if” is more than just a supposition or a probability. It is not “if” but “when” as we use to say about something in wait to happen. What follows are four steps Jesus gives to restore the sinning member of the church.
Step #1. If another member of the church sins against you, Jesus says, “Go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.” Stepping on the “toes of another” is bound to happen where people interact closely and constantly. Putting it euphemistically, Christians do “step on other Christian’s toe.” Whenever this happens, Jesus says, you or I should go to the one who has wrong you or me. The instruction seem so simple. So what is the reason this is so difficult to do? Sometimes instead of going to the one who has wronged us, we go to another who has nothing to do with the problem. We go to another to talk about the problem. Or we would go to the pastor or someone who can add more dirt on the person we have problems with. We do not like confrontation. Confronting another is hard and sometimes seen as impoliteness or everything but kindness. In my culture confrontation is many times considered “unchristian” or as being inconsiderate to the feelings of the other. Jesus tells us that confrontation is the initial step to restoring someone who has wronged us. But as John Paul Lederach says in the Unspoken 10 Commandments of Conflict in the Church “Thou shalt not confront each other in public,” (Reconcile, p. 144), is what usually happens. This refusal to go to the one who has sinned against us has caused many good Christians to go on in life bearing grudges and having unresolved interpersonal conflicts. This problem of not “going to deal alone” with the offender has created lots of distant and cold relations in many families, among friends and even congregations. After the last step, I will speak a little as to why the church today has great difficulty practicing these steps to resolve interpersonal conflicts.
The purpose of going to the sinning brother or sister while the two are alone is to honor the privacy of the person who is being restored to the fellowship.
Jesus says, If the member listens to you, you have regained that one.
Step #2. 18:16 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.
If the first attempt of reconciliation did not have the intended outcome, Jesus then instructs that we should take two or three witnesses. We are not told to include those who think like we do or people who are good at arguing a point, but witnesses. Witnesses are those who know of the sin and are concerned for the restoration of the errant member. Their presence should provide integrity to the process of restoration, not intimidation. Yet, if the erring person still refuses to admit he or she is erring, Jesus then says:
Step #3. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. The church provides a larger forum in which conflicts can be processed. Implicitly, what we hear Jesus saying is that the church is not exempt of conflicts. The church should not be surprised or afraid to deal with conflicts. On the contrary, the church should be the place and body where conflicts are transformed and where people can get reconciled. By taking the issue to the church also implies the church becomes the place where God calls those who have difficulty acknowledging their erring actions or ways. The church become the place where God pleads in the voices of those concerned for others to be reconciled with him. The church becomes the meeting place of God, a holy ground in which God desires to meet us when we sin.
The fundamental truth here is that Jesus has given authority to the church to pronounce forgiveness or to retain sins upon someone who does not want to repent. This matter requires a process of discernment first. The church needs to discern what the issue of conflict or sin is. This is important, especially if the process of restoration has gotten this far. There could be a lot of other peripheral issues that by this time may have come up and could cloud the original issue. Or, it could be that the matter of conflict has engulfed more than the initial people involved. The church should discern to find the heart of the matter. This process of discernment allows the church to engage with the conflict appropriately and not cause further confusion or hurt to the persons involved.
Step #4. 18:17 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.
In many instances this has been misunderstood. It has been taken to mean that if someone refuses to acknowledge his or her sin then the church should reject, cast away, or shun the unrepentant member. However, we are called to look at the way Jesus treated Gentiles and tax collectors. Jesus ate and related with this kinds of people. He welcomed the tax collectors and Gentiles. He was criticized for doing that. His justification is, “I have come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance.” (Luke 5:32) This too, is the mission of the church. Therefore the church should continue to embrace, care for, and welcome the offender. The church should continue with its attempt of redeeming the lost brother or sister.
When conflict arises in the church, we should not hide or deny it. It is natural. When we follow the steps Jesus gave to his followers, we will find that conflict can help us grow. The church is the space where conflicts can be transformed. Working with conflict is also spiritual work. We should remember that the church’s mission is to call others to reconciliation. In Paul’s words, “We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God” (2Corinthians 5:20)
Now let me say a word as to why following this simple steps given by Jesus are so difficult. There two underlying reasons why this commandment is so difficult to practice. One is cultural and the other is theological, although both are related. The first reason is the cultural understanding we have about ourselves as individuals. Our culture promotes and give high value to the individual. Sin, therefore, is viewed as an individual matter between the person and God. The idea that my sin is “nobody else’s business,” but only between me and God, is one major reason for which we have great difficulty either to allow another person to come and tell us what to do or for us to go and call the attention of another. Our culture cannot accept the fact that “my sin” should be of concern to another. The notion that religion, just as politics, is a private matters of the individual, blinds us from seeing the value and necessity we have of others in helping us to be restored.
The other reason why the command to go is difficult to practice is due to a skewed understanding of what is the church. For many, the church is a group of individuals who come to a place and pay their dues to keep their membership. For many the church is a place where spiritual consumer goods and services are offered to the individual to keep them morally right and right with God. Although the believer gathers along with many others, his or her concern is only to be right with God. Such a view of spirituality or religious life is solely a vertical affair, not horizontal in which others come into view. However, Matthew’s or more correctly, Jesus’ view of the church is that of a community bound in covenant to be God’s holy people in the world. The view of Jesus about the church is that this is his body incarnated in the world to continue his ministry of reconciliation and redemption. This view that the church is the body of Christ bound in a covenant as God’s chosen people radically transforms the primary concern of its members. Concern for the integrity, wholesomeness, and good standing of the community were central. The integrity and holiness of the community starts by being concerned for the wellbeing of each individual member. When one is hurting, all are hurt. When one rejoices, everybody rejoices. When one sins, the whole community is affected. Therefore, witnesses of the offense come together to restore the erring brother or sister. Sin was not only a personal matter between the sinner and God. Sin is a problem that affects the integrity and holiness of the whole community. Therefore restoration of the sinner takes center stage in keeping the community holy as corresponds to God’s chosen people. In this way, when the church calls the world to repentance, that call is exemplified within when the church acts together to restore its own. In so doing, the church witnesses to the world how God reconciles his own children when they stray away. But if the church fails to call its own to repentance, the power of its reconciling message becomes dull and powerless. Its call to repentance becomes a clanging sound only. But when the church practices it from within, the world can see that Jesus is among those who seek reconciliation.
Here are Jesus’ words to us again: For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them. Amen!