Sunday, April 24, 2016

Conflict in the Body (Matthew 18:15-22)

15 “If your brother or sister sins against you, go and correct them when you are alone together. If they listen to you, then you’ve won over your brother or sister. 16  But if they won’t listen, take with you one or two others so that every word may be established by the mouth of two or three witnesses. 17  But if they still won’t pay attention, report it to the church. If they won’t pay attention even to the church, treat them as you would a Gentile and tax collector. 18  I assure you that whatever you fasten on earth will be fastened in heaven. And whatever you loosen on earth will be loosened in heaven. 19  Again I assure you that if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, then my Father who is in heaven will do it for you. 20  For where two or three are gathered in my name, I’m there with them.”

21 Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, how many times should I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Should I forgive as many as seven times?”

22 Jesus said, “Not just seven times, but rather as many as seventy-seven times.

Today we’re continuing in a series of messages on “Living as the RISEN Body of Christ.”  Since Easter, we’ve been exploring what it means for us to not only call ourselves members of the Body of Christ, but also what it means to actually live like it.

We are meant to live in community.   It’s been said that one of the greatest things about being part of the church are the people!  And one of the most difficult things about being part of the church are . . . the people!  Where two or three are gathered, someone is eventually going to rub someone else the wrong way.  We call that conflict.

Even as we try to live in harmony with each other, within established boundaries of a healthy Christian community, there will still be times when we “miss the mark.”  Whether intentionally or accidentally, there are times when our words or our actions offend one another with the potential of harming our life and work together.  The Greek word for “sin” is hamartia, and it literally means, “to miss the mark.”  As one rabbi explained:

You shoot an arrow, but it misses the target.  Maybe it hits someone’s backside, someone you didn’t even know was there.  You didn’t mean it, but it’s still a sin.  Or maybe you knew he was there—his backside is where you were aiming.  Now that’s a sin! (Forest, “Rest for our Souls,” p. 30).

Matthew 18 are Jesus’ instructions for resolving conflict within the Church.  Think of it!  Have you ever heard of conflict within the Church?  Mercy!  Christians unable to get along with each other – my heavens!  Have you heard of such a thing??!

For some reason, people - even people in the church - think that following Jesus is easy.  Real churches have real conflict, which Jesus anticipated.

Conflict does not kill churches. Refusing to deal with conflict does.  In Matthew 18, Jesus gave us a four-step process for resolving conflict.

Step One: Go to the offender one-on-one in private.  Verse 15: If your brother or sister sins against you, go and correct them when you are alone together. If they listen to you, then you’ve won over your brother or sister.  Jesus clearly puts the responsibility for the first step of reconciliation on the person who has been offended, Person A.  Why?  Because, sometimes we sin, “miss the mark,” without even realizing we’ve done it.  Sometimes the only way we will know is for the person we’ve slighted to point it out directly to us.  Therefore, if you have been offended by someone, you must first go one-on-one in private to the person who has offended you to point out the offense and to try and understand what happened with that individual.

Maybe, after you’ve talked one-on-one, they still don’t get it.  They haven’t heard you.  So, Step Two:  Take a Christian witness with you.  Verse 16: But if they won’t listen, take with you one or two others so that every word may be established by the mouth of two or three witnesses.  Take one or two others with you who are committed to both of you and who want to see the relationship restored between you.  Do not take people who will choose sides.  The purpose of this witness is to help the two of you speak and listen for the truth in love for the purpose of understanding each other and restoring your relationship.

Maybe there’s still no reconciliation at this point.  So, Step Three: ask for help from the church.  Maybe you need to ask someone from church leadership to speak to the offender with you.  That could be the pastor, or a member of the SPRC, or the Lay Leader, or any number of people.  Again, that person is not there to take sides, but to continue to listen for and speak the truth in love, with the purpose of understanding and restoring the relationship.

Maybe it still hasn’t worked.  Verse 17 says to treat them like you would a tax collector or a Gentile.  What that means is that Step Four is to regard them as one who has chosen to remain outside the boundaries of belonging to the Body of Christ.  If the offender, after all those steps, still refuses to do what is needed to restore the relationship, then the church responds by treating the individual as one who has stepped outside of, and chooses to remain outside of, the fellowship of the Body of Christ.

But, this doesn’t make them an outcast.  It’s critically important for us to also acknowledge how Jesus regarded pagans and corrupt tax collector as we determine how to treat a brother or sister in this situation.  What did Jesus do to tax collectors and sinners?  He loved them, while also making it clear what behaviors and attitudes were expected and required to be part of the community of believers.  Likewise, our willingness and commitment to reconcile among one another as believers is one of the most crucial among these expectations.

When I look at this process, one thing stands out clearly to me.  99% of conflict can be resolved at Step One.  And yet, 99% of the time, we skip to Step Three or Step Four.  This doesn’t resolve conflict; it magnifies it.  It brings people into the conflict who have nothing to do with it.  We talk about each other rather than to each other.

We talk about people before we talk to them because we trust our own way more than we trust Jesus’ way.  In all his teachings in Scripture, Matthew 18 is the only place where he gives detailed step-by-step instructions.  Jesus knew that we would try to make things right “our way” rather than his, with the best of intentions, certainly, but that doing it our way would ultimately harm our relationships and the Body of Christ as a whole.  When we follow our own pattern of talking about people rather than to them, another sin results, the sin of gossip.

It’s said, “loose lips sink ships.”  They sink congregations, too.  I want you to meet Person A and Person B.  Person B has offended Person A, and again, Jesus has made it very clear that Person A must go to Person B privately, one-on-one, in order for reconciliation to take place.  But too often, we go to a third party.  Person A, instead of talking to Person B, tells Person C.  What does Person C have to do with it?  Absolutely nothing.  But now, all of a sudden, they’re part of the conflict, which is starting to grow.  And then, what if person C gets on the phone and tells Person D, P, M, and Z, and then all of them get on the
phone and call a few others, well, you can see how the conflict snowballs and involves a whole bunch of people who have nothing to do with it.  It’s the sin of gossip and triangulation.  Everyone is talking about the incident, except for the only two people who can resolve it – Person A, and Person B.

Why are we mortified to talk directly to someone about whatever the issue is, but we are not mortified to call 17 other people and tell them about it? 

Proverbs 26:20: Without wood, a fire goes out.  Without gossip, a quarrel dies down.

Gossip in our relationships is highly corrosive, and is the greatest sin that threatens the Body of Christ today.  Gossip magnifies the original offense and forces Person A and Person B farther and farther apart.  What was initially an offense that involved only two individuals becomes an invasive cancer that can threaten the entire Body.

We must remember that ONLY Persons A and B can reconcile the relationship through the grace of God and the unifying work of the Holy Spirit.  However, when other parties get involved without Persons A and B working together to heal the relationship, these two individuals are often forced further apart, and healing is delayed or destroyed.

What do we do if we find ourselves as Person C?  The only appropriate and godly action is for Person C to show compassion to Person A, and then redirect Person A to go one-on-one in private to Person B.  Furthermore, Person C should talk to no one except God, committing to pray for reconciliation between the two.

It happens sometimes that Person A shows up in my office to tell me what Person B did.  And I say, “Hold on, there.  Before you tell me anything, have you talked directly to them?”  And there’s usually this uncomfortable silence, and then I’ll say, “Tell ya what, before you talk to me, you need to talk to them.

Do not pass Go, do not collect $200, until you have talked directly, privately, one-on-one, face-to-face, to the person, so that the relationship can be restored. People sometimes say, “You’re just direct because you’re from the North.”  No, I’m direct because Jesus told us to be.  99% of conflict would be resolved, right there, if we would intentionally commit to talk to people and not about them.

Remember, for Christians, the goal is always reconciliation.  Before you share something, before you speak, before you CC someone on that email, ask yourself why you’re doing it.  Is your goal reconciliation?  Or are you trying to get people over to your side?  Prove a point?  Look good?  Make someone else look poorly?  Giving the old pot a stir just to see what bubbles up?  Does it have anything to do with you?  Will it fan the flames of conflict, turning a brushfire into an inferno, when you could rob the fire of fuel, and help it die down?

Friends, too many incidents of conflict are bigger and involve more people than they should.  99% of conflict can be resolved at Step One, by talking to each other, and not about each other.

Reconciliation takes place on a small stage, usually with only two people.  Two or three, united in Christ, that’s the basic building block of the body of Christ.

My Dad’s first pastorate was in a town of 700 people about 60 miles north of Oklahoma City.  The two big industries there were oil and agriculture.  There were two farm equipment dealers in town – one who sold John Deere equipment, and the other who sold Case Harvester International equipment.  They were competitors.

They were also members of my Dad’s church, and every week, they arrived to worship about 15 minutes early so they talk, and the goal of that weekly meeting in the back corner of the sanctuary was to go over the previous week, and to make sure that in their dealings with each other they had been fair and honest.  On the off chance that one had offended or wronged the other, whether intentionally or unintentionally, forgiveness was sought and extended, and then, together, they came to worship, having each grown a little bit, and having grown closer to each other.

Conflict is natural, inevitable, and actually essential to refine who we are, whose we are, and what we are to be about.  Conflict cannot harm us; how we respond to it can.

Let’s start by talking to each other rather than about each other.  If we can do that, we’ll already be 99% of the way there.

I am indebted to Rev. Beth Crissman and her book, Longing to Belong, in the creation of this sermon.

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