by Ellen Sims
text: Matthew 18:15-20
Never have I ever told a church member, “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point that out to them.” But that’s precisely what Matthew’s Jesus says in today’s Gospel text. It’s an honest, direct approach to kin*dom-like relationships, but it requires a nuanced implementation and maybe some cultural adaptations.
Jesus, of course, was not deputizing church people to be the hall monitors of this world or the easily offended Church Lady created by Dana Carvey. In fact, Matthew’s Jesus had already cautioned those who heard the Sermon on the Mount NOT to judge: “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?” (Mt. 7:1-3).
In that same sermon Jesus urged his followers to love even their enemies, represented by the oppressive Roman Empire (Mt. 5:43-44). However, he offered a creative, subversive, and nonviolent way that might shame and disarm any powerful agent of the empire, perhaps converting that person into a follower of Jesus’s way (Mt. 5: 38-41). You might recall a past sermon I preached on what Walter Wink believes it means to “turn the other cheek,” “walk the second mile,” and “give someone the shirt off your back.”
But in today’s discourse, Jesus imagines an interpersonal issue within his inner circle, which the Matthean community extrapolated to their sect of Jesus followers, their church. Therefore, Matthew’s Jesus instructs that any conversation with an offending church member should begin as privately as possible. I reiterate that this is a response to another church member, not a way to deal with someone outside the church; certainly it was not a way for a powerless Jew to confront a Roman representative’s offense against him or her.
Secondly, Jesus via Matthew explains that any “offenses” church folks report to their offenders should not actually be our personal prejudices masked as offenses against the church, as in (to use a modern example), “Your homosexuality offends me.” Such holier-than-thou criticisms of other people, within the church or outside the church family but in the name of the church, have deeply harmed the cause of Christ since the Church began. But we can mitigate against a misuse of confronting a brother or sister with a harm we perceive they enacted against us by bringing in one or two other neutral church members when needed.
Next it may be necessary to take the concern to the church. And as a rare last resort, a highly disruptive and hurtful member might be asked to leave.
Next Sunday’s lection, however, based on verses that follow today’s passage, pair the honesty required for healthy relationships with generous forgiveness for offenses. And the weight of this discourse will fall on forgiveness. So stay tuned for next Sunday’s emphasis on that critical and very difficult Christian practice. That’s when Jesus will insist that if someone offends us, we’re to forgive not “seven times” nor “seventy times” but “seventy times seven times.” Clearly, when Jesus asks us to confront a sister or brother with a grievance, he’s not urging us to create a quick and dirty process of excommunication spelled out in the church bylaws.
But I do think he was a big fan of honesty.
And he knew how to build a safe and lasting community.
Being honest and authentic with one another matters, and the good of the whole matters, too. That was especially true in Jesus’s culture when new members became “brothers and sisters of his family” with “a new identity as members of Christ’s body” (I Cor. 12:12). “As citizens of God’s kingdom” and members of a new family, moreover, the “personal identities and desires” in Matthew’s community were “shaped by others; and so one learn[ed] from others to have a ‘conscience,’ to share their evaluations, and to determine one’s duties from that collective description.” (Qtd. by Jerome Neyrey in “Dyadism” in Handbook of Biblical Social Values by John Pilch and Bruce Malina). In contrast, our modern Western culture values individualism, independence. We like to march to our own drummer. Or at least we like to think we do. Certainly, there are some Christian communities to this day–in monasteries and convents, for instance–where the individual bows to the authority of the religious community and its rules. But modern Christianity as a whole is less interested in receiving direction from the faith community, and many evangelicals speak of their very “personal relationship with Christ.”
Given our culture’s bias toward individualism, let me say that at Open Table, although we have not proscribed a strict adherence to Jesus’s literal directions for dealing with conflict within the church family, as Matthew has, we want to listen to these words, and while recognizing our cultural differences, at least sit with this ancient wisdom.
One way we at Open Table do follow the spirit of this emphasis on the group’s wisdom is in our group discernment process. We make decisions through mutual, prayerful, trusting discernment that assumes the group as a whole can listen to Christ’s spirit in ways individuals cannot. It’s a counterculture act to place our individual desires as secondary to the community’s needs. If we doubt the prevalence of individualism today, consider how many in our culture believe their right to go without a mask during a pandemic outweighs their neighbor’s right to avoid a deadly virus.
When Jesus said that if you can’t work out the conflict between two members of the church, ask others to hear the situation, he was saying that friction between individuals can infect the whole group. Factions can form. Or, unlike in Jesus’s day, it’s easy for individual church members to gradually slip away from the community and either find another congregation where that irritating person won’t bother them, or simply disassociate from the church, going solo as a Jesus follower.
But solo Christianity with one’s own private experience of God was never an option for the first Christians. They were forging an alternative community. They were building a counter-kingdom to challenge the ways of Caesar. Jesus anticipated the likelihood of all kinds of fractious behavior. He was explaining and warning that your actions affect me and the entire church; your sins can harm me; your growth and spiritual depth can inspire and strengthen me.
In a healthy faith community, we discern together and learn to know when and how to speak truth to one another: humbly, gently, clearly. We try to own our mistakes and limited perspective. We seek to value differing points of view.
We allow the Gospels to inspire us with tales of miraculous events and lofty theology. But the Gospels also can instruct with practical advice for everyday Jesus followers dealing with conflict. While today’s reading seems the latter — practical advice needed for any group — today’s scripture is not just a “how to get along with others” manual. It’s how to be the Church, which involves loving one another as we usher in the Kin*dom of God.
Matthew challenges Jesus followers today to live within a micro-church that recognizes it is part of the macro-church, the Church Universal. I care about both the micro-church where we learn to love the person sitting next to us in worship, which is the focus of this text. But I also care about participating in the Church Universal, that macrocosm which transcends space and time, and which matters greatly today even as the tectonic plates of culture shift and shatter what was.
I have told you over and over, my much loved friends, that you are a pastor’s dream church: a loving church, an adventurous church, an unselfish church, a courageous church. You can show these very words of mine to any minister who expresses interest in becoming your next pastor! And tell them one of the best things we do together is give one another permission to be who we are and to give space for people to engage at the level they wish to engage.
But a challenge for us is learning to let people know, though not in a heavy-handed way, that they are needed, and to say their participation matters because we both love and need them. And the cause of Christ demands it. Our concern that we will come on too strong may make it hard for new folks to connect and feel truly needed and included. This is both a growing edge for us and a way to grow as individuals and as a church.
However, even if there are only two or three gathered, we are the Church of Jesus. There is power in the gathered community. There is deep learning that comes from being in such a community. But just two or three, my friends, can constitute a Jesus community. Two or three can make up a church. Two or three. Our small congregation is no less a church than a grand cathedral, our prayers no less important to God. I know many leave the Church because they think it’s an institution that functions like an institution. But Jesus says it’s a community, an alternate, countercultural community that engages us in work meant to change the world into God’s kin*dom of love and justice. One or two or three relationships at a time.