September 6, 2020
Pentecost 14, Proper 18
Today's Gospel teaching is about conflict, or arguments, or disagreements. Jesus is not talking about disagreements in church because Jesus never talked about church. The church came later as people began to respond to Gospel teaching and the Word of God was catching on. Some sort of organization became necessary. We get some idea of how that happened in the Book of the Acts.
As the church got bigger so did the conflicts. Then Jesus teaching about disagreements among people could be put into practice.
Church conflict is nothing new. Sometimes people think there should be no conflicts at all in church. If everyone is living according to the wisdom of Jesus, there simply would not be any disagreements. Some think that by virtue of being Christians we can and should cover all disagreements with "niceness."
Jesus in his teaching seems to proceed on the assumption that conflict will happen whenever people gather for any purpose. And disagreements in a Christian community is normal and natural and should be dealt with honesty and compassion.
As we all know, honesty and compassion are seldom the watchwords of any church conflict. Many times, anger, hurt feelings and lack of clear communication drive us toward either sweeping everything under the rug to keep the peace, or open hostility and locked in positions that lead to explosions and people leaving the church. Very often they leave permanently.
The result is either a Body of Christ pristine on the outside but riddled with the disease and resentment on the inside. Or we have a shrinking Body of Christ, loosing members and vitality. There must be another way.
And Jesus does give us another way. First, he asks us to use direct and respectful communication. If we are struggling with something a church member has said or done, we are not to talk behind his or her back. And we do not stage dramatic confrontations at the coffee hour. We take time aside, after the initial rush of emotion has subsided, and engage in dialogue with that person one-on-one.
If that conversation does not help solve the situation, we create a small group of everyone involved to discuss the issue and pray together. If no progress is made, we search for a solution as a whole church community bearing one another's burdens and seeking reconciliation.
Some disagreements are so deep that even these steps cannot ease them, and so Jesus says, "If the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector." At first glance it looks like Jesus gives the permission to walk away. We have done all we can.
But it turns out that we are not off the hook at all. Why? Because of how Jesus treated gentile and tax collectors. What can we learn from his words and actions toward them that we can apply to our church situation?
When Jesus tells the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector praying in the temple, he emphasizes the Pharisee's pride and self-satisfaction with himself versus the tax collectors pained and private acknowledgement of his own sin.
Jesus says this tax collector went home justified and forgiven. Do we realize that we might be in danger of praying like the Pharisee, proud and certain of our own righteousness?
Matthew, one of the 12 apostles, was a tax collector, and Jesus called him right from his money table to follow him. When Jesus tells us that we are to treat our most stubborn and contrary church members like tax collectors, he is telling us to treat them like members of his inner circle, disciples who are key to the spreading of the Word.
If our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, who was perfect and without sin, can be persuaded to soften His approach and change his mind about someone, can we not do the same? Are we really paying attention to the argument our opponent in the church is offering? Jesus was not afraid to really listen and be changed by what he heard. We have the opportunity to do the same.
And so we see that this gospel lesson does not give us license to get rid of people we don't like, to ostracize troublemakers and be happy when they leave the church. Problem solved.
Jesus' instruction to treat the ones who seem to be the most difficult to talk to, the most uninterested in reconciliation, like tax collectors and gentiles, is to treat them with a greater love and greater understanding. When we attempt to see the best in one another healing is possible even years after we have forgotten what made us so angry in the first place.
When we imitate Jesus, we find that treating others like tax collectors and gentiles is a path of gentleness, hope and has a great potential for healing.
All of this is so important not just because of the simple reality that there is no such thing as church without conflict. It matters because of how Jesus concludes his instructions:
"Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven."
How we choose to treat one another when the going gets rough has consequences that far outlast any question of our theology or an argument about the color of the carpet in the church. We have the power to bind and to loose.
With the choices we make, we can bind each other even tighter into our separate camps and polarize positions. We can loose each other out into a world without the benefit of Christian fellowship, driving each other from the church with wounds that bleed for years to come.
Or we can loose ourselves from our pride and our ever-present need to be right. We can loose one another from assumptions and stereotypes and bitterness. And then we can bind ourselves together with the unbreakable love of Christ, a body tested, refined, healed and flourishing with new life.
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