September 6, 2020
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. 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 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. 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. 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. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.’
God’s perspective and what’s involved in the tasks of life in community is a theme throughout this chapter of Matthew. Today’s verses reflect Matthew’s instructions for maintaining healthy community.
These six verses detail an intense process for resolving conflict for the sake of preserving community. It is a practical, understandable process and very hard to act upon. Can you imagine doing exactly as Matthews suggests? If you do not belong to a church community, suppose for a moment that you do — a neighborhood church, say, of about 200 people. Week after week you sit next to Roger, whom you get to know rather well, so well that one day in early summer he asks if he can borrow your lawn mower. His broke and he hasn’t had time to get a new one and his lawn looks like a field of alfalfa.
Sure, you say, full of good Christian cheer, and Roger assures you that he’ll bring it back within a couple of days. By Friday Roger hasn’t returned the mower. Then another week passes, until finally you call Roger and ask him if you can have your lawn mower back, which is when he tells you that he loaned it to someone else who has backed over it in his truck and that the lawn mower is no more. Roger considers this a piece of bad luck that the two of you share, but you consider that you have been wronged.
So the first thing you do is go over to Roger’s by yourself and talk it over with him, offering to take half of what the lawn mower was worth for the sake of the friendship, but Roger is offended. Can he help it if the guy ran over the lawn mower with his truck? He says these things happen, and he is sorry it happened to you, but that does not make it his fault. So remembering these verses in Matthew 18 you go home, open the church directory at random, and call the first two names you see, asking them to go back to Roger’s with you and help you work things out with him.
The next day after work the three of you knock on Roger’s door. He is surprised to see you and gets made when you tell him why you are there. What are you trying to do, gang up on him? Drag his name through the mud? Standing there on the porch, you start to tell him that you have reconsidered, that you are willing to report the loss of the mower to your insurance company if Roger will just tell them what happened. But before you can finish Roger tells you to get off his property before he calls the police, and he shuts the door in your face.
What do you do next? You guessed it: You call everyone in the church and ask them to meet you at Roger’s house next Saturday morning. Since you doubt that he will answer the door, you make signs he can read through the windows, signs that say, “Forget the lawn mower, Roger” and “We are your friends” or “Come out and talk.” On Saturday everyone is there, milling around in front of Roger’s house, carrying their signs and watching the house, which is dark and silent. Nothing happens for twenty minutes or so, but then you see one slat in the blinds pulled back, and while you cannot see Roger you know he can see you, so you wave and smile and beckon to him to come out. Then the slat pops back into place and nothing happens for another twenty minutes, until you look up and see Roger standing sheepishly on his front porch, a check for the lawn mower in his hand. The crowd cheers, you and Roger embrace, and everyone lives happily ever after. The end.
I know you’re probably thinking “maybe so and maybe not,” but how would we know? Have you ever tried anything like that? Our strategies are usually quite different when we’ve been offended or wronged. We respond in a variety of ways. We ignore or avoid. We tell others about the person who has wronged us. We seek revenge, hitting back sometimes even harder than we’ve been hit. Yet all these responses do nothing constructive. They only succeed in putting distance between ourselves and those with whom we are in conflict. Everyone suffers, including that neighborhood church of two hundred people. According to Matthew, when it comes to ruptures in the community, you don’t give up seeking to reconcile.
People sometimes are critical of preachers whom they believe give no straight answers or direction regarding what to do and not do as matters of faith based on biblical teaching. Well, here it is folks. When someone crosses us, we are called to be the first to reach out, even when we are the ones who have been hurt, even when God knows we have done nothing wrong, even when everything in us wants to fight back — still we are called to community with one another. That is how we know God and how God knows us. That is what we are called to do: to confront and make up, to forgive and seek forgiveness, to heal and be healed.
The result is when we heal our divisions and come together, God is powerfully at work and nothing is impossible. Moreover, Jesus promises that when we come together as a community to address our differences, resolve our disputes, seek to end conflict, and repair relationships — he is there. Always. Supporting, encouraging, blessing our efforts. We are not alone and that’s why we don’t give up.
All of this strikes me as timely as we deal with so many things which cause conflict in our relationships. We live each day with a pandemic, economic upheaval, inflamed racial tensions and cries for reform, and a polarized political landscape. The heart of this passage is about Christian community — what it is, how it suffers, how to address hurt, and what a healed community can do. It presents a prime occasion for every Christian to ask what kind of community we are going to be. Can we look at those around us and believe and affirm that even those who disagree with us on important issues are nevertheless followers of Jesus? Can we imagine that the goal of our community is to nurture relationships inside and outside our congregation? Can we commit to going to great lengths — even of tolerating those who disagree with us about who should be our next president — to engage each other in conversation, hoping that we listen to one another?
Where two or three are gathered, Jesus says he’ll be there and I can guarantee there will be conflict, too. But what if in this highly charged time we live in, we seek to be less assertive and more humble, realizing that we are more likely to see Jesus among us through humility than staking out our own viewpoints? How might life together be improved if we assessed our words, actions, even how we spend our time by asking “does this build up the body of Christ and nurture Christian relationships or not?” What if we as people called to tend the relationship of the larger community, we used communal imagination and strove to advocate and care for the vulnerable, being agents of reconciliation, and models of civil conversation?
This passage from Matthew should get us thinking together about what kind of community will we be as Christian congregations. How will we lead as people of faith to foster healthy and vital communities? I realize these days those questions seem too big to answer. But Jesus promises to be with us as we struggle together to address them. We are not alone. Ever. We are called to reach out, to engage, to advocate and care for the vulnerable while also seeking those who have gone astray. And as we do, Jesus is there. Always.
With appreciation to Barbara Brown Taylor and David Lose for the inspiration on this text.