Reconcile In Love – September 10, 2017
As a student of religion in the College of Wooster, a small town about 50 miles South of Cleveland, I was particularly interested in different sorts of Christian communities. So, when I had the opportunity, I liked to visit a non-denominational Protestant Christian community in nearby Mansfield, Ohio that was both an intentional community of people living together on the same property and a church with wider membership and attendance. I liked their music and their commitment to Christian community. The last time I went there they were studying this same passage from the Gospel of Matthew, where Jesus instructed his disciples on how to deal with conflict and hurt in the community.
That day the leaders of the community – who all happened to be men – were telling how they had carefully followed Jesus’ steps in Matthew 18:15-20. First one, then a couple leaders had confronted a member of the congregation – a woman – who was living with a man without benefit of marriage, telling her she must leave the relationship. She didn’t. So they brought the issue before the board and at this worship service were telling the whole congregation and visitors that this woman who they identified by name had been kicked out of the community for adultery and that they would shun her unless she repented. The justification and “instruction” to the community that day sickened me. It felt wrong on so many levels. I could tell that they were literally following the scripture but I didn’t think that they were being faithful to Jesus’ intent. I never went back to that community.
What was Jesus’ intent in these instructions on dealing with conflict in community? Did he offer them as a way to enforce morality, as the elders in Mansfield Ohio were trying to do, or to bring about reconciliation? Who exactly did this woman they were telling us to shun sin against, if anyone? Did Jesus really mean for these leaders to humiliate and shame this woman in public? Is that what Jesus did with the woman caught in the act of adultery? Is that what he did with the woman who wept at his feet at the home of Simon the Pharisee? Is that what he did with Zaccheus, the diminutive tax collector from Jericho? No! Jesus loved and accepted and stood with each of these sinners.
Jesus’ intent in these guidelines is reconciliation, not judgment, forgiveness, not condemnation. It takes a great deal of courage to go to another person, especially a person who has hurt you, and say “you know it really hurt me when you said or did such and such.” Especially when the purpose of the conversation is not therapeutic for my sake to express my anger but rather to speak to that person in order to win back our relationship. If one on one doesn’t work then bring some others from the community. That does not mean get more people to be on your side, but bring others who can be impartial and trusted by both sides to help bring reconciliation.
Once the whole community gets involved and still the person isn’t reconciled Jesus tells his disciples to treat the offender as a tax collector or a sinner. Do you remember how Jesus treated a tax collector named Matthew who was sitting at his tax booth collecting taxes? He invited Matthew to follow him as one of his closest friends. This is the same Matthew who compiled the Gospel where we find these teachings. Later that night as Jesus had dinner at Matthew’s house with a bunch of tax collectors and sinners. Jesus told the disapproving Pharisees that those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. If Jesus invites us to treat someone as a tax collector and a sinner we should do the same as Jesus and see that person as someone to befriend and invite to share in the good news of the Kingdom of God.
Jesus treats the same issue in a slightly different way in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5:22-24. Here he’s giving directions to the one who has in some way hurt someone else.
When you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.
In both cases the intent of Jesus’ dealing with conflict is to be reconciled: to seek to understand, to forgive or be forgiven, to reestablish trust and friendship and community.
The Bishop’s staff of the Episcopal Church in Connecticut deal with a lot of conflict. They deal with conflict between clergy and parish leaders, to assist struggling parishes, some of which will have to close their doors because they cannot pay their bills. They have to deal with boundary violations and misconduct. So, when dealing with conflict or potentially conflicted situations they ask those involved to agree to the following 9 guidelines for mutuality:
- “Try on.” Be willing to try on someone’s ideas or words. Be willing to try on sharing something that may be difficult for you to share.
- “It is okay to disagree.” People disagree all the time but that doesn’t mean they can’t respect and love each other and work together.
- “It is not okay to blame, shame or attack – self or others.”
- “Practice self-focus” Use “I” statements rather than “you” statements
- “Take 100% responsibility for your own learning”
- “Practice both/and thinking” Rather than thinking either/or, either my way or your way, try to see if there’s any way of including both ideas together. After all ideas and concerns that are dispute are not always opposites.
- “Notice both process and content” It’s not just what is said that is communicated but also how it is said. What are the dynamics of what’s going on here as well as what has been said.
- “Be aware of intent and impact” “I know you think you understand what you thought I said but I'm not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant,” is a quote attributed to the economist Alan Greenspan. Our words often have a different impact than what we intended.
- “Maintain confidentiality” That’s certainly something the leaders of the community in Mansfield, OH breached in my opening story.
Things can get hot when we try faithfully to deal with one another and work out disagreements in Christian community. These guidelines for mutuality can be helpful tools to practice the kind of reconciliation Jesus spoke about in Matthew.
I have a few more suggestion as ways to practice the kind of reconciliation and love in community that Jesus spoke about here in the Gospel of Matthew. First and foremost, care for one another. We are brothers and sisters of Jesus Christ. As the Apostle Paul teaches us we are individually members – or parts – of one another, of Christ’s Body. Get to know one another. Share your concerns. Bear one another’s burdens. If you don’t see someone in community for a couple weeks, call to see if he or she is OK. Second, is speak face to face. Facebook and email are great – we can be in touch with so many people at once – but it’s no substitute for real person to person communication. If there’s a problem don’t go online, make a phone call or better yet see someone face to face. Third, follow Jesus’ injunction literally, that if you have a problem with someone talk to that person directly. Don’t talk with others about him or her. And don’t spread rumors. Reconciliation takes courage. It takes honesty and transparency. To follow Jesus’ directions for conflict means making yourself vulnerable, putting yourself out there, risking getting hurt.
At the conclusion of this Gospel passage Jesus said “where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” We gather in Christ’s name. And Christ Jesus is in the very midst of us. He is the mystery at the very heart of our community. Jesus’ presence in our midst is the sacred context that makes us more than a fraternal organization or a club or a team or a corporation. His presence is what makes us one despite our differences. The differences that the world sees – whether we are male or female, whether we are brown or red or white, our ethnic heritage, how much money we make, whether we are conservative or liberal, young or old – don’t define us. Jesus and Jesus’ love defines us. We are gathered together in Christ’s name and Jesus is in our midst. We belong to Christ and in Christ we are members one of another. Christian community is a wonderful gift. It is also an awesome responsibility. For in Jesus we are a community of love and grace and healing. We are a community of reconciliation. We are to represent Jesus and Jesus’ love to the world around us.
Jesus never promises that living in community will be easy. There will always be disagreements and conflicts. But, if we follow his directions and his intent of reconciliation, mutual regard and love, we will be blessed and we will be a blessing to others. Amen.