A handy piece of advice: Three out of four murders are committed by someone who knew the victim. That’s one good reason to maintain a small circle of friends. As we think about conflict in our gospel reading from Matthew 18v15-20, it reminds me of the saying by W C Fields: ‘The world is getting to be such a dangerous place that you’re lucky to get out of it alive.
Whether it’s the nuclear stand-off with North Korea, the turbulent Brexit talks, or the tragic situation in Burma, conflict is everywhere. We can experience it at all sorts of level – work politics, neighbourly disputes, marital disagreements, trolling on social media. It’s a part of human nature – and so we shouldn’t be surprised when we also find conflict in the church.
The church is made up of fallible human beings, on a journey of redemption. So it doesn’t make sense if people say ‘It’s the church, we can’t have any conflict’, or even, ‘I used to go to church but there was a disagreement and it put me off.’ I’m afraid it happens, we’re human. And conflict itself isn’t sinful – it’s not wrong to disagree – it’s the way you handle it that matters. You may have heard the joke: In 45 years of marriage my parents only had one argument. It lasted 43 years.
When Jesus speaks in this reading from Matthew 18:15-20, he knows that his disciples will fall out, which may lead to sin against each other. He’s assuming it will happen and giving guidance for what to do when it does. Do remember that in v.15 Jesus is talking about another member of the church doing wrong– a lot of the guidance he gives here would apply in any situation – but some of it is specific to the church
And it’s worth noting: not only does Jesus assume there will be times we get it wrong. He also assumes it’s worth sorting it out. When people fall out with one another, it’s good to do something about it. It’s good to lean in, to move towards conflict, to heal and reconcile. Why? Because when we do so, we follow the example of God who reconciles us with himself through Christ’s death on the cross. Jesus forgave those who killed him, he taught us to love our enemies, because we are all God’s children. Reconciliation therefore is at the heart of the gospel.
I wonder if you find that difficult? I do. It’s hard to go and speak to someone. It’s much easier to be right. Happier being annoyed. More comforting to close ranks with your friends and block out the offender. If you unfriend someone maybe you don’t have to worry about them again. But if we do that, we ultimately end in C S Lewis’s vision of hell: a grey barren plain with dimly lit houses spaced far apart – and the longer people spend there the more they fall out with their neighbours and the further apart they move from one another. Not addressing conflict makes people drift apart.
A loving parent cannot ignore it when one child pulls another’s hair. The Kingdom of God is built as we reconcile differences, make peace, and learn to live with one another. We need to make the effort.
So in verse 15 Jesus encourages you to make the first move. I saw a cartoon once: a couple sat glumly on a sofa. He’s thinking: ‘Why isn’t she talking to me?’ Do you know what she’s thinking: ‘Why isn’t he talking to me?’ Don’t wait for the other person. Maybe they don’t know they’ve upset you. Maybe the sin that’s obvious to you isn’t so clear cut to them – as someone once said ‘There are two sides to every argument –and they’re usually married to each other’
If it’s safe to do so – and do be aware, go and point out the fact when the two of you are alone. Not through others, not gossiping to the world, not pasting it all over Facebook. Preferably not by email or letter – so easily misunderstood, but face to face, one to one. Not in a kind of passive aggressive sort of way ‘I suppose I’ll be doing the washing up again then’. But clearly, directly, with humility and openness.
Confronting someone and owning how we feel is hard. Particularly if we have to say how we’ve been hurt. It takes real courage and prayer. But if we do so, it’s surprising how people can respond. I once had someone who sent the most horrendous emails. They were real scorchers and upset everyone. I had to gather courage to go and tell him how hurtful they were. He was genuinely surprised, and although I won’t say he was totally cured, the situation did improve.
A small caveat though – if you’re sitting here thinking ‘Well I don’t find that difficult. What’s the problem? It’s easy telling people when they’ve got it wrong. I do it all the time!’, then do please pause and think about how others might experience it. Many of us are nervous about conflict, a few people find it a bit too easy.
If going to see someone face to face doesn’t work, then Jesus escalates it to involving some more people. Not in the sense of ganging up on someone, but it can be useful in a difficult situation to bring in a mediator. Someone’s who’s not so intimately involved, who can try and be fair to both sides, who can create a calm atmosphere in which each person can say what they need to and be heard.
That sounds heavy. But it needn’t be. I’ve done a bit of work as a mediator, and the biggest problem is that you always get called in too late. It’s only once the relationships have broken down and people are thinking about resorting to legal avenues that someone says: ‘I know, let’s go for mediation.’ ‘Divorce is on the cards, let go to counselling’ It’s like a chaplain being called to a hospice as the patient takes their last breath – really to do any good you need to be there much earlier. So don’t be afraid to say early: ‘this is getting tricky, let’s get some help.’
If that doesn’t work, v.17 says ‘if the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church.’ Formal procedures have their place. Then, ‘if the offender refuses to listen to the church let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector’. So exclude them? Ostracise them like the Pharisees did? Or be like Jesus, who welcomed the tax collector and the Gentile, encouraged them to repent and find God? So if there is exclusion here, it is provisional. It is until such a time as the person who has done wrong admits to it, apologies and is ready to change.
In New Testament times, Christians were keen to keep disputes in house rather than go before corrupt secular judges. Besides, it did not look good if Christian fell out with one other in public. Nowadays though, for serious matters we cannot just keep things in house.
This year Dame Moira Gibbs reviewed historic child protection failures in the Church of England. Her report made it clear that resolving problems internally can all too easily be corrupted in a culture of cover up. Where crime has been committed we all have a duty to protect the vulnerable and involve the law.
But going back to the everyday problems, the kind of disputes which affect congregational life, just imagine what it would be like if all the church took this teaching seriously. Conflict would not simmer unaddressed but would be dealt with and healed. There would be fairness, respect, responsibility to one another. It’s a wonderful vision.
We would know the presence of God. In forgiving one another, learning to respect differences, we’d follow the example of Jesus. So as it says in v.20, where just two or three people living like this are gathered together, Jesus is there with them.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this famous verse ends the passage on conflict. So often we take ‘when two or three’ out of context. We use it as a promise at the beginning of a prayer meeting – Lord we are gathered, we know you are here. Sometimes I have to remind myself of it when I leave the vestry of a country church and find a congregation which comprises the churchwarden, the organist and a sleeping dog. Ah well, when two or three are gathered together, Jesus is there with them.
But that’s not what it’s about. Jesus says that when two or three don’t avoid their arguments but heal them, he is there. When two who have fallen out are helped by the church to be reconciled, he is in that process. When I admit I have done wrong and you forgive me, we follow the example of Jesus. When I apologise for over-reacting I reach out to you and you respond in grace. When division is worked through, evil is overcome. When difference is integrated the Kingdom of God is built. God’s blessing comes in reconciliation; let us follow Christ’s way in our shared life together.