I was told a story about a member of a church I once served. I never met this member. He died long before I came on the scene. But this member was known for letting pastors know exactly what he thought of their sermons, their prayers, their leadership, etc. One Sunday, this gentleman did not like the intercessory prayer the pastor led. It went on too long for the member’s liking. Ask for help, lift up the people in need, get it done, get it over with. Amen. After church, the member drove all over town looking for the pastor to make sure that he told him exactly how much he didn’t like the prayer. I guess the pastor had gone out to eat with his family, so the member finally tracked him down at his home. I don’t know if he knocked on his door or cornered him in his driveway, but he gave him a tongue lashing for the deplorable prayer given that Sunday.
While the members of the church who shared that story with me thought it was funny, I thought, “I’m really glad I was not the pastor, because that would have reduced me to tears, which probably would have made the guy give me an even harder time.”
Recently, I also heard a story of a family who left a church here in town supposedly because at a church dinner one member of their family was given a much smaller portion of meat than a member of a rival family. I doubt that this was the real reason for leaving the church. I suspect that there had been a feud brewing for a long, long time between the two families, but that camel must have had a very overloaded back if that was the straw that finally broke it.
These two stories represent opposite ends of our passage from Matthew. The first is taking your need or desire to confront someone to an unhealthy and, I think, mean extreme. It is one thing to confront someone who has hurt you, or you believe has done something that has harmed or will harm the fellowship of the church. But to hunt the pastor down because you didn’t like the prayer, well call me defensive, but you stand up and do better, then we’ll talk. That felt more like a demonstration of power than an actual confrontation over a conflict. The second is an example of what happens when you don’t deal with conflict; when you let it simmer and fester until it finally blows up over something small and seemingly insignificant. I am always saddened when I hear of churches splintering and splitting over inner turmoil and conflicts, but of the many reasons why a church may break down, may it never be known as the Great Roast Beef Debacle of 2017.
At first glance this passage from Matthew’s gospel seems to be strictly about the rules and regulations for dealing with conflict in the church. It is often referred to as rules of church discipline, and certainly our own rules of discipline are modeled after Jesus’ words in these verses. Matthew is often seen as the most legalistic of the gospel writers – which is one of the reasons that I tend to struggle with him. It’s not that I don’t want rules and order – I do. But I grow weary of constant legalism.
But is this actually legalism on Matthew’s part, or is that how it is has been interpreted? It is bracketed on either side by passages that are not legalistic in tone at all. The verses preceding these are about the shepherd leaving ninety-nine sheep to find the one that is lost. And the verses following are Peter’s question to Jesus about how often should we forgive someone? Jesus’ answer was an incalculable amount. Forgive and forgive and forgive and forgive.
So is this legalism that we are dealing with for the sake of legalism, or is it a way to be in relationship with one another for the sake of community? I think it is the latter. Jesus came to bring people into deeper relationship with God and with one another. The
was not a far off wonderland – some divine amusement park filled with
perfection and utopian delights. The kingdom of God was the true community, the
true fellowship of the people of God. So how do we live in fellowship, in
relationship, in community with one another? kingdom
I think it is important to note that what is implied here is that Jesus assumed there would be conflict. Nowhere does the text say, “Thou shalt not have conflict, but if you do, if you fail and mess up and have conflict, then here is what you do…”
We tend to see our conflict as failure. I tend to see conflict as failure. But I don’t think Jesus was saying that to be in conflict was a failure on their part. How they dealt or did not deal with that conflict might constitute failure, the conflict itself came from the fact that they were a community of flawed, finite, limited human beings. Remember when Jesus told Peter that on him he would build his church, gather his community? Peter was a flawed rock to be sure. So it is a good bet that the community on which it was built will also be flawed. Of course it is because we are flawed.
Conflict is inevitable. That’s what I feel is implied here. But how you deal with conflict can make a difference. How do we deal with conflict? How do we deal with someone we believe has sinned against us? Do we confront the person? Or do we take it to the parking lot? Or to lunch after church? My finger is not pointed outward with these questions; it is pointed firmly at me.
The truth is, it is much easier to take conflict to the parking lot or to lunch or to Facebook or Twitter or an email or some other method or means. It is much easier to not deal with it, let it go, try to forget about it. But then someone gets a larger serving of roast beef, and a family leaves the church. Conflict resolution is not easy, but the method Jesus offered was a way of dealing with it, of facing it and resolving it that kept the community intact.
But what if the steps that he laid out it didn’t work? Then we treat the person like a tax collector or a Gentile. We shun them. That is how this command has been interpreted. Yet, to read against the text, how did Jesus treat tax collectors and gentiles? Did he shun them? Did he make them even more outcast than they already were? Or did he continue to reach out to them? Did he continue to offer them fellowship, love, acceptance?
Just as taking conflict to the parking lot is easier than dealing with it directly, so is shunning easier than trying to offer an extended hand to someone who has hurt you. It seems to me that the conflict resolution steps Jesus offered were hard from beginning to end. And while we may see them as step 1, step 2, step 3, etc., when you are dealing with human beings, lines get blurred. Relationships are messy. Communities are messy. Perhaps Jesus was offering a warning about what we loose and what we bind. We have power, and we can use that power with love or we can abuse it. As one commentator wrote, be careful what you set in stone on earth because that can have cosmic consequences.
Being in community, in fellowship with one another is a messy reality. I took my title for my sermon from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s book of the same name. In that book, he discusses what true Christian fellowship is. I have only begun to read the book, and I cannot claim to fully understand every point he made, but he wrote about being disillusioned with one another. True fellowship happens when we reach the point of disillusionment. It seems to me that when we are disillusioned with each other, the blinders are off. We see each other as we really are – flaws, foibles, frailties and also blessed with wonderful gifts and abilities. True community, true fellowship happens when the blinders come off; when we see each other for who we really are – sinners yes, but also children of God.
I think Jesus wanted the disciples to understand that true community was hard, but it was worth it. I think Jesus wants us to know that as well. It is hard, it is messy, it is worth it. As we move forward together, may we move forward disillusioned with one another, aware of the messiness between us, ready to confront our conflicts, face our challenges and rejoice in our life together. And may roast beef never come between us.
Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!” Amen.