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By David Howell

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 Preaching Matthew 18:15-20

 

Reinhold Niebuhr once famously quipped: “The doctrine of original sin is the only empirically verifiable doctrine of the Christian faith.” This pericope in which Jesus describes a scenario of a sister or brother in Christ sinning against another member of the church further reinforces Niebuhr’s claim. Sin, manifested here in broken, fractured relationships, is an ever-present reality in any human community. The church is no exception. While Jesus may be speaking hypothetically, he’s a realist at heart, and so he lays out a very specific process to work toward reconciliation.
This passage from Matthew’s gospel is frequently lifted up as a model for overcoming divisions and healing conflict within a church. There is no passive-aggressive behavior allowed here; triangulation is certainly not endorsed either. Jesus describes an approach that is simple and straightforward. The starting point is a one-on-one conversation initiated by the one grieved with the offender. This attempt to clear the air and sort out the wrongs committed becomes a concrete example of speaking the truth in love. If these initial efforts fail, the grieved one then includes others to witness such attempts to address the offense and restore this relationship. If the offender still refuses to listen, the one grieved then shares this concern with the entire community.
In many cases, however, this blueprint for dealing with broken relationships and conflicts seems difficult to swallow or apply. When I think of any church conflict or rift between individual members, very often the dividing line between the one in the right and the one in the wrong cannot be so easily drawn. Recall Jesus’ words in another setting that only those without sin may cast the first stone (Jn 8:7). More often than not, those who are aggrieved (those who view themselves on the receiving end of someone’s act of offense) can become blinded by a sense of self-righteousness and moral superiority or clouded by a deep identification with victimization. Such moral clarity of who is in the right and who is in the wrong is, in fact, complicated by the intricate web of sin that ensnares us all. Too often this process is portrayed as a simplistic strategy to deal with members’ erring ways that only reinforces a stereotype of the church preoccupied with finger-pointing, fault-finding practices, a community bent more toward judgment and shunning than loving and welcoming.
In other cases, particularly those of abuse, it may be necessary to begin at the end of the process outlined by Jesus. Often, and unfortunately, by the time the abuse comes to the attention of the church, the victim may be long past the point of addressing the concerns directly to the offender. That ship sailed long ago. A question then for us to ponder when preaching this text is: how do we honor, acknowledge, and draw on the wisdom of Jesus while resisting the temptation to turn it into a one-size-fits-all blueprint?
The point of excommunication is reached in verse 17, where if a member a brother or sister refuses to listen to the church, Jesus advises, “let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax-collector” (Mt 18:17). Under further study, however, this verse actually serves to complicate matters by muddying the waters of moral clarity, at least if we look to Jesus. As we follow Jesus throughout his ministry, his words and works of mercy and welcoming love reached out and embraced tax-collectors and Gentiles. In Matthew 9:10-13, Jesus’ inclusion of tax-collectors in table fellowship disturbed the Pharisees’ sense of propriety and righteousness. Later in chapter 28, Jesus commissions his followers and sends them to “all nations,” so that even the Gentiles would be caught up in God’s mission of love for the world.   
It would seem that Jesus’ teaching in this pericope, a teaching that immediately follows his portrayal of a shepherd who leaves ninety-nine sheep in order to search for the one that is lost (Mt 18:12-14), communicates much more than a “how-to manual” for church conflict. Rather, Jesus points to God’s deeper desire for the reconciliation and restoration of human relationships and communities. The true intent of this process is to heal and restore community just as those who have gone astray are sought after by their loving Shepherd.
In a congregation I once served, I recall a long-stemming feud that finally erupted, prompting one of the congregational leaders to resign abruptly and leave the church with his family. While there may have been collective relief that one of the feuding parties was gone, I remember sharing with members of the congregation that this departure was no good resolution. The brokenness remained; the loss was something to grieve.
When it reaches a point that relationships are severed, we cannot escape the effects of sin. Sin is not only the refusal to listen to the ways in which we have grieved another and to recognize the pain and brokenness caused by our words and actions, sin is also the refusal to listen and respond to Jesus when he speaks of that holy desire for the healing of relationships and the restoring of those who have gone astray. As Jesus reminds us, it is the will of the Father that no one should be lost (Mt 18:14).
As we consider the hard, slow work of reconciliation toward which Jesus’ teaching directs us, we find encouragement and strength in his promise that where two or three are gathered, Jesus is present. Even in the midst of misunderstanding, hurt, grievances, and brokenness, Jesus is present.  Emmanuel, God with us, is working to bring about wholeness, healing, and restoration.  Relying on this promise, we may encourage our faith communities to risk undertaking this long process of reconciliation.

The Rev. Laura J. Thelander, Ph.D.
Seminary Pastor for Luther Seminary
St. Paul, Minnesota

 

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