How do you feel when you hear the word conflict? What images come to mind? Perhaps you think of war zones – they’re often called conflict. Or maybe people getting angry, anxiety, unpredictability. Conflict is usually experienced as a negative thing, most people try and avoid it.
Our gospel reading today is all about conflict and reconciliation. It has some detailed prescriptions – at first sight it seems like a straightforward rule book. Yet underlying that guidance are some important principles, assumptions that reveal a lot about what Christians believe and how our beliefs affect how we live together.
I’ll be looking at the passage closely, so please do turn with me to page 18 of the New Testament: Matthew 18v15-20…
‘If another member of the church sins against you…’ That’s very revealing. Jesus assumes that his followers will sin against each other, he expects that when they organise their life together into a church they will experience conflict, he knows offence will be given and taken. He’s not saying that’s a good thing, of course not! He just has a realistic expectation of how community life will be. Why is that?
There are two reasons for conflict. Firstly, God created variety. We are all different and so inevitably we understand issues differently, perceive different ways of reaching our goals. At times that variety leads to conflict. And conflict is not in itself bad. For when conflict is worked out maturely, talking through different views can lead to a deeper understanding of a situation and a better resolution in the end.
But as well as being created in a wondrous variety, we have also gone our own way. As Jesus described immediately before this reading, in the parable of the Lost Sheep, we are sinners. Sin can end up worsening our differences, so that conflict turns sour, becoming argument and division.
Jesus knew this would happen. He was entirely realistic. He knew that none of his followers would be perfect, that we’d all be on a journey for the rest of our lives. And because the church is made of ordinary people being changed by the grace of God, then the church will never be perfect this side of heaven either.
So don’t be upset when you find that churches have arguments just like anywhere else. Many times I’ve heard people say ‘We’re Christians so we ought to get on’, ‘Conflict has no place in the church’, or even ‘I used to go to church but I was disillusioned by the arguments’. I know it’s tempting to hope that a Christian community will be a refuge from all the conflict in the world around us – but that’s not the case. We still get things wrong, we disagree, we sin against each other. The wonderful thing about being the church though is that we can resolve our issues with the power of the Holy Spirit according to the pattern of Christ.
That’s the second assumption, that resolution is a good thing – in v.15 ‘if the member listens to you, you have regained him.’ But why would we want to? Might it not be easier just to be ‘right’? Isn’t it simpler not to speak to each other rather than go to the trouble of trying to sort things out? People do that. They isolate each other.
Christians must seek resolution because God gives us that example. The Christian message is all about reconciliation! Listen to 2 Corinthians 5:19: ‘In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself.’ God has not counted our trespasses against us, but has forgiven us. God has been reconciled to us and has committed to us the message of reconciliation. So as we have been reconciled with God, so we need to be reconciled with another. Reconciliation isn’t a kind of prelude to the gospel – it’s not exaggerating to say it is the gospel – and the reconciliation we have experienced with God overflows to those around us.
Therefore wouldn’t it be a wonderful vision for the church to be an arena where difference and conflict could be expressed and worked through in a healthy way which models God’s love.
Look at v15: ‘if a member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone’. Jesus encourages us to lean in, to engage with the other person. When there is disagreement, when we might naturally wish to divide, he urges us to move towards each other.
Either person could take the initiative. If you know you’ve done wrong, obviously you should apologise as soon as possible – elsewhere Jesus says leave your gift at the altar, go and be reconciled, and then offer the gift. But if someone’s upset you, you could be waiting a long a time for them to make the first move. Can you even be sure that they know they’ve upset you? Perhaps they just have a direct manner, or the skin of rhinoceros – maybe they’re wondering ‘why is she not talking to me?’ So rather than talking about them behind their back or complaining to someone else, we need to go and speak to them.
I once had a guy who used to send emails. And they were real stinkers. Aggressive. Disparaging. People used to dread them ‘Oh, I’ve had an email from, let’s call him Sid.’ One day I plucked up courage and had a chat with him. It was hard to do because I had to be vulnerable and admit where I’d been upset: ‘When you said such and such, I felt hurt and discouraged’. It turned out he had no idea his language was so strong. I won’t say it was miraculously cured, but it did get better.
Confronting someone and owning how we feel is hard. It takes real courage and prayer. A small caveat too – if you’re in the minority of those who find it easy to point out what’s wrong and don’t mind confrontation, then you might just like to pause and think about how others might experience it.
If we can do what Jesus says in v.15 openly, humbly and without aggression it’s amazing what the response can be. By hearing and understanding, listening for emotions, we can clarify issues and perhaps discover where there have been different assumptions at work.
For instance, when I first came to this Group some churches said they would like to see more of the Vicar. So I took lots of services. Three or four on a Sunday, all over the place. Soon people said ‘We don’t see much of the Vicar – he’s always dashing off after the service to go somewhere else’. Through discussion, I realised what was going on: I assumed that seeing the Vicar meant up front, leading worship. But there was also a need for accessibility, relationship – I realised that was quite right and we needed to provide for that too.
Getting to the point of understanding each other can take time. So there may be more than one meeting. In v.16 Jesus says that outside help may be necessary, not in the sense of ganging up on someone, but as witnesses, or mediators who can reframe issues and find a way through.
In v.17 ‘if the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church’. In New Testament times this meant a church meeting. Nowadays, for the most difficult situations, organisations need to have formal procedures which give protection and try to ensure justice is done.
And then ‘if the offender refuses to listen to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and tax collector’. Before they met Jesus, his disciples would have viewed Gentiles and tax collectors as outcasts. Jesus modelled a welcome to such people – he encouraged them to turn back to God. In other words, though someone who has committed a serious offence and has refused reconciliation might be excluded from the church, nonetheless if they repent, they are welcome back.
This will mean forgiveness. We’ll look at that in the reading for next week. All I need to say now is that we forgive one another because we have been so greatly forgiven by God.
Jesus ends with a few related sayings. Verse 18 tells us that the church acts with God’s authority. ‘Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven’. And, in v.19, when we resolve our issues, and agree a way forward before God, he honours that process and commitment.
This implies that the way we act in reconciliation shows our response to the love of God, his justice and forgiveness. Our processes of reconciliation model God’s justice, forgiveness and love to other people. The response they and we make has eternal consequences, which means we should take reconciliation very seriously.
Finally, v.20 Jesus says ‘Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them’. I’ve sometimes remembered this when I’ve come out of a vestry in a country church and viewed the gathered multitudes. Prayer group leaders often use this verse at the beginning of meetings. But look at it in its context.
It’s about reconciliation. Placed at the end of this passage, it seems to mean ‘When two or three are gathered together to work through their differences in my name, then I am there with them.’ Have we not had that experience? That talking through points of conflict can lead to greater understanding and wisdom as God’s Spirit helps us? That if we had not come together and taken courage to speak honestly, we might never have found God’s will? That in sharing our perspectives and feelings we discover mutual respect and understanding as children of God? And most of all, that when reconciliation happens and wounds are healed, the love and power of God flows. God’s blessing comes in reconciliation, let us follow Christ’s way in becoming peacemakers in our shared life together.