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The Spiritual Power of a Truly Reconciled Community

Filed under: Pastor Jeff's Sermons — Pastor Jeff at 2:16 pm on Monday, September 11, 2017

A sermon preached on September 10th, 2017 based upon Matthew 18:15-20.

1-1-jess and maidie

“If brother or sister in the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If they listen to you, you have regained your brother or sister. 16But 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. 17If the brother or sister 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.18Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. 19Again, 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. 20For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there in the midst of them.”

It is remarkable that this particular Gospel lesson was assigned to be read on this particular Sunday, because this morning our service is all about the “church” since we baptized two persons and received three new members into the church. You might be surprised to know that the word “church” occurs only four times in the four Gospels – each instance in Matthew’s Gospel – and two of the four appear in the words of Jesus we just heard Bob read, and a third appears in the verse that immediately follows this reading.

So in this passage Jesus is giving us two things – first, some practical guidance regarding how we are to live together as his Church, and second, a remarkable promise.

Let’s look at the practical guidance first.  Nearly two thousand years before psychologists came up with the term “conflict resolution” Jesus begins by giving guidance for how to resolve conflicts that arise in the Church.

A couple of things to note:  First, Jesus assumes there will be conflicts in the Church, because we aren’t perfect. This should be a no-brainer given that the fourth reference to the church in the gospels is the one in which Jesus say Simon Peter is the rock upon which Jesus will build his “church,” and the one thing that comes through loud and clear about Peter was imperfections.

We will have disagreements, and even more, we will hurt one another’s feelings, offend one another — often without realizing it.   We don’t need to pretend to be perfect.  Nor do we need to pretend that we don’t have the kind of feelings conflicts can evoke: hurt feelings, angry feelings.  We don’t need to, nor should we put on a facade of perpetual niceness, because when we try to pretend that nothing is bothering us when something is in fact bothering us, what happens is that we push people away, often in subtle ways. We keep our distance, physically, emotionally, spiritually from one another, and as we will see that is precisely what Jesus doesn’t want to happen in His church.

So Jesus gives advice regarding what to do when conflicts arise.  When I have a problem with another person, I should in relatively short order go directly to the person – I should not let the thing fester.  Nor should I go looking for somebody to complain to, no matter how perversely satisfying it can be to say, “You won’t believe what so and so said to me!!”

So I’m to go directly to the person and to talk to them, and notice what the goal of my conversation is:  It’s not to win an argument, or to get them to say to me, “you’re right, I’m wrong.  I apologize.  I’ll never do that again.”

The immediate goal is simply this:  to simply get the person to listen to me — which of course, is a rarity in this world.  To take the time to try and see things through my eyes – in particular, what happened that left me feeling hurt and angry.  It doesn’t mean necessarily that the way I see things is accurate.  Hopefully a conversation will open up between us that involves give and take, with not only the other person listening to me, but me listening to them as well.

But note the larger goal: to regain a brother or sister in the church.  The conflict has created a wall, threatening the deep, familial connection that should be at the heart of the church, and the goal is to restore that connection.

And I would suggest that when you go to this person, lead with your hurt and not with your anger.  Say something like, “when you did so and so, I felt hurt.”  I think Jesus would agree with this given the theme of embracing vulnerability that is a part of his “way.” Often anger is a secondary emotion that arises after the initial feeling of being hurt, but anger keeps us from exposing our vulnerability.  But the thing about coming at another with anger in these sorts of conversations is that we can pretty well count on their defenses going up and anger coming back at us.

Now Jesus recognizes that when I try to open up such a conversation, the effort will not always be successful.  Sometimes the attempt may seem to make the conflict even worse.  So there is a second step:  a second conversation is to be initiated, this time with one or two others from the church present.

There are two reasons for this, the first of which is to hopefully bring some objectivity to the conversations.  The emotions that arise can block the capacity for either of us caught up in the conflict to clearly see what’s going on.  So the one or two others can listen to the conversation and help clarify what is going on.

The second reason is this:  when there is a conflict between two people within the church, it doesn’t just harm them – it hurts the body as a whole.  So involving others expresses this truth, as does the third step Jesus gives. If the conversation with one or two others doesn’t work, bring the conflict before the entire church. Now this may sound like publicly “shaming” the person, but there are two things to take note of in this regard.  First, in the steps Jesus has laid out pains are taken precisely not to be publicly shame the person.  First I am to talk to the person alone, then if that doesn’t work with one or two others.  It is only as a last result that the whole community is involved.

The fourth step can strike our ears like major shaming.  Jesus says that “if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”  That sounds pretty terrible, right?  Cut them off.  Shun them.  Shame thing.  And sadly there are countless stories of churches that have done just that, feeling like these words provide scriptural support for doing so. But there is an irony that is often missed.   The reference to a “Gentile and a taxcollector” should sound familiar to us if we have read the Gospels.  The Pharisees tried to shame Jesus – for what ? Keeping the company of “Gentiles and taxcollectors.” So even if a person proves to be so toxic to the community that the community needs to in some sense separate themselves from this person,  the person remains the object of the community’s love, and the door is left open for the possibility of reconciliation further down the road.

Now I know what many of you are thinking – what a part of me is thinking: all this direct conflict resolution advice sounds great in theory, but I’m not going do that.  I don’t like confrontation.  In order to avoid confrontation, I’m happy to just let a relationship have some distance in it.  If I’m angry and hurt, maybe the person will figure it out on their own by the fact that I’m avoiding them.

I get that.  But part of the reason we are inclined to resist the advice is because we haven’t experienced the kind of spiritual power that is possible in a community of grace – a community truly obedient to Jesus as Lord.  A community truly connected, without the walls, with everybody on the same page, flowing as one in the river of God’s love.

And that’s the link between the practical advice of the first part of this lesson to the promise Jesus makes in the second part.

“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 in the midst of them.”

I got a phone call this past Thursday from Maidie.  She was feeling worn down by the battle she’s fighting with cancer. She was worried about the toll it was taking on her beloved Jessica.  She wanted me to pray for them.

And there was another little coincidence that I pointed out to Maidie:  she quoted to me the very Scripture that we had scheduled to read this morning, that when two or more pray together, Jesus is right here with us.

So reflecting on this, I felt God calling us to pray together for Maidie, Jes and Ryan this morning in a special way.

Taking the words of Jesus seriously, let’s take a few moments to prepare our hearts to be vessels together of God’s Spirit.

If it feels right close your eyes.  I’ve asked Barb to play softly.

If you’re willing, reflect for a moment about any relationships you may have either within this church, or in your life in general where you have allowed walls to go up, allowed your heart to harden, allowed grudges to fester and to the extent that you are capable, offer these relationships up to God to heal, to reconcile.  Ask God to open the channels of grace in your heart, to let the Spirit move through you.

I’m going to place a chair here for Maidie to sit in, and have Barb play “Spirit of the Living God fall afresh on me,” that we may sing as those who feel so called come forward to gather around Maidie as we pray for her.

Maidie has been such a blessing to our Church since she came among us several years ago.  She has this unique ability to call forth love from people, to inspire us to be our best selves, to act courageously and selflessly for the sake of one another and this world.

(And here we prayed for Maidie, Jes and Ryan.)

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