10th September Arnhem, 17.00, Eucharist. Celebrant: The Rev. DrStrengholt. Readings:
Sermon: Jos Sermon: Never stop forgiving Matthew 18:15-20 Rev Dr Jos Strengholt
Conﬂicts in church can be devastating; they hurt us personally and this hurt can go deep. They also hurt the image of Jesus Christ, because he is the owner of the church. Such conﬂicts are bad – but it is impossible to avoid them. Where people live and work and wosrhip closely together, there will be friction. “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another”, we read in Proverbs 27:17. There is mutual beneﬁt in the rubbing of two iron blades together; the edges become sharper, making the knives more efﬁcient in their task to cut and slice. But the process can create a lot of sparks. What to do when the sparks of conﬂict ﬂy around? How to handle conﬂict? I apologize, I cannot lecture you about all the aspects of conﬂict management. But based on what Jesus said, I can give some pointers.
1 If someone else has hurt you
If someone has hurt you, the words of Jesus may sound as if he just gives you a system for disciple of the one who has hurt yoiu. And a way of getting rid of someone if he does not admit that he was wrong and that you were right. But when we are wounded souls we may not always be rational. So let us listen carefully to what Jesus has to say. What to do if someone has hurt you? If you feel that he sinned against you? If we feel that someone has treated us badly, we must not wait too long. The worst thing that we can do is to brood about it. That can poison your whole mind and life, until you think of nothing else – because you feel personally hurt. If someone has wronged you, ﬁrst go to see that person personally. If you have difference with someone, the best way to settle it is face to face. St John Crysostom said some good words about this: Jesus does not say “accuse him” or “punish him” or “take him to court.” He says “correct him.” For he is possessed, as it were, by some stupor, and drunk in his anger and disgrace. The one who is healthy must go to the one who is sick. The church is not a museum full of perfect people, rather a hospital full of sick people. If someone has hurt you, see his behaviour as a disease. Church is like a hospital, with Jesus as the chief physician. And we, all, have to behave as his interns. He wants to use us for healing each other. Not for kicking those who hurt us into the ground.
If a personal talk does not solve the problem, we may go one step further. We ask some wise people to mediate. Some outsiders may help you and the person who has hurt you, to see the issue in the proper light. This inviting of witnesses is not meant to be a way of proving to someone that he has committed an offence. They are not witnesses to the problem. They are meant to be witnesses in your talk with the one who has hurt you. It is meant to help the process of reconciliation. If someone has hurt you, you may not really be motivated to reconcile. But that is the way of Christ. And talking matters over with some wise and gracious people present, is to create a new atmosphere in which there is at least a better chance that we accept each other as brothers and sisters, and to recognise that none of us is perfect. Having some wise people involved may bring people together again. The Rabbis had a wise saying, “Judge not alone, for none may judge alone save One (that is God).” And if this effort at mediation does not lead to a solution, the whole congregation may be involved. Actually, the whole congregation is already involved – because if a few people in a congregation have a serious problem, it easily spills over. Usually when two people have a serious disagreement, all people around them can smell the sulphur. So the ﬁnal stage of the reconciliation process – to involve many more people – is to end the gossip in the community, to get things in the open, in order to put end to the disease that hurts the whole body. Our Lord wants his people to be one and united, not divided and hurting each each. So his advise is – solve it. Not by going to law, not by trying to just forget about it, not by ignoring it, but by talking together.
2. To save that one lost sheep
The goal of this process of discipline – that is, of being disciples – is not to get rid of someone. It is to gain someone. Jesus said: “If the member [who has hurt you] listens to you, you have regained that one.” “You regained him”, that means, he was lost to you. You could not have normal Christian fewllowship with that person. The goal is to restore Christian love and peace and joy. That this is the goal of the process is underlined by the context of these words of Jesus. When did he say all this? Listen to these three verses before the part of Matthew that we have read together: What do you think? If a man has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? And if he ﬁnds it, truly, I say to you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. So it is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish. Mat 18:12-14
The context of the passage about what to do when someone has hurt you, sinned against you, is care for the other. It is about regaining someone who is straying from the Good Shepherd. This is so hard for us. Because if someone has hurt us, our response is mostly, usually, maybe always, that we want satisfaction. We want our hurt being recognised. We want people to hear from the mouth of the one who hurt us, that he admits that he was wrong. The church is like a hospital; no-one is perfect, we all suffer from some sort of disease. If some person hurts you, and sins against you, then that person is sick, and needs care. Jesus cares for that lost sheep – just as he cares for you. And if your hope is to tackle that other person who has hurt you, than you may wonder whether your attitude is better than the attitude of the one who has hurt you. In his commentary on this passage, St John Chrysostom wrote wisely: The person injured may be the one who is more taken captive by passion. He becomes the one that is diseased and weak and inﬁrm.” The Gospel of Matthew, Homily 60.1. So for the sake of the one who has hurt you and for your own sake, it is good to call some wise people to help you solve the issue. Not to get rid of the other person, and not for you to be told that you are right and the other is wrong, even though you may hope for that outcome. The wise brothers whom you invite into the problem ought to be wiser than that.
3 let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.
But it is not always possible to solve issues between brothers and sisters. That is a fact and we see it often enough around us. And I think we all know some people that we would avoid at all costs. Sometimes it happens that someone truly did evil to you, and he or she will never admit it. Maybe some wise advisors have been involved, but the matter is still not solved. Maybe the whole community has become involved – and the issue is still not solved. If nothing works, what to do? Jesus says, “then let that person be to you as a gentile and a tax collector”. Sometimes there is a breaking point where problems cannot be solved. But what is Matthew actually saying here? I am not so sure that Matthew gives us here on a plate the right to push people out of the community. In the ﬁrst place, and this is often overlooked, Jesus does not say that to the church, to the whole community, this man must be treated like a gentile or a tax collector. “Let him be to you” is empahtically addressed to one person only. The singular for you is used. It is a message for the man who feels wronged.
The Pharisees would understand these words in a harsh was. For them, the gentiles and the tax-collectors were the worst sinners that had to be avoided at all costs. But I think Jesus is using the words ‘they be to you – person who has been wronged – as gentiles and tax-collectors’ as a riddle, if you like. From the beginning of his ministry, Jesus made it a habit to eat with tax-collectors and sinners. And he would not avoid gentiles. One day the Pharisees asked the disciples of Jesus: “why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” Jesus answered them: “Those who do well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.” And he then rebukes the Pharisees for not showing mercy. So what does Jesus mean when he says that after the whole process of discipline in church, the man who was wronged must treat the unrepented person as if he were a gentile or a tax collector? What Jesus says is, in fact, not an advise to abandon the man; it is a challenge to still win him with the love that can touch even the hardest heart. It is not a statement that some men are beyond the pale; it is a statement that Jesus Christ has found no-one hopeless–and neither must we. The one who wrote this Gospel story, Matthew, must have been chuckling when he wrote all this down. You remember his trade before he became a follower of Jesus? He himself had been a tax collector. We must never write people off, even after they have hurt us again and again. There is hope for all people, and we are to be God’s instrument for showing love, and forgiveness to all people – even to those who have hurt us. And if we have a conﬂict with someone in church, and we cannot solve it, we must avoid hurting the church and we must stop the negative gossip in church. If we are able to treat the person who wronged us with the love Jesus showed to tax-collectors, we do very well. We are like Christ. And pfff… This is totally counter-intiuitive. We would avoid people who make our life hard. But we are asked by Jesus to be as he was in this world: showing mercy and love all time. This is not a negation of right and wrong. It is after having been clear about right and wrong, still showing love and mercy anyway. Just as Jesus even on the cross prayed for those who cruciﬁed him. “Father forgive them”. No wonder Peter immediately asked: “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him?” Jesus was very clear. That process should never stop.
So concluding, my advise for myself and for you – when you have been hurt by others. Do not let the sun go down over your anger. Be quick to talk with the person and together get over it. The goal of the talk is to strengthen your relationship and to serve the unity of the church of Christ. If the matter is too hard, ask a few wise people to be involved. They may help you and the person who has hurt you to reconcile and make a fresh start. Or it does not help. That is a very normal possibility. But do not allow the whole church community to sufffer from your conﬂict. Stop the gossip in church about your disagreements. Make an end to any form of partisanship or division. The Christian faith is for people with stamina. Show stamina if you have been wronged. And love those who have wronged you. Love and forgive just as God loved us all, even when we were still sinners.