"If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. 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. Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. 20For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them." -Matthew 18: 15-20
The Gospel text for this Sunday may not be an easy one to preach on, but it is a necessary one for faith communities and individual Christians to grasp in terms of good practices. I believe the Gospel of Matthew, the 18th chapter, verses 15 through 20, shows us a good practice for conflict resolution. In every relationship, there will be conflicts that arise.
Perhaps it is something done or said which hurts, offends or harms another. Perhaps it is the opposite, something that was not done or not said which can cause damage. Perhaps it is opposing viewpoints, philosophies, or beliefs which create a divide. Or a deeper moral or ethical injury which has broken the relationship.
Regardless of what it is, if there is brokenness in the relationship, if there is a break-down in communication, if there is a barrier between two persons, there is something that must be done to restore, repair and renew the relationship. The Gospel of Matthew offers a practical and sensible practice for us to consider and model in our own lives and in the life of the Church at every level.
The first step in this practice is to go directly to the person who has hurt you. (And notice there is even a directive of when to speak to the person-"when the two of you are alone." Actually, I think this is a step we so often get wrong. Too many times, the person who has hurt, offended, or harmed us is the last person we talk to about the situation. Instead, we talk to anyone who is in earshot or will listen about what we believe are the ways they have done wrong to us. This can not only damage the reputation of that person, but also it can escalate the situation by getting other people involved and getting ourselves even more worked up. More importantly, it does not give the person a chance to understand and hear from us how their words or actions have affected us. It also does not give them a chance to learn from their mistakes.
In my experience, when someone has come to me directly about how I have hurt them through what I have said or done (or not said or not done), even though it stings at first, it becomes an opportunity to restore the relationship, often leaving it stronger. It also gives me the opportunity to learn and grow. Many times, I had no idea how I was being perceived, how I came across, or how I messed up.
The second and third steps in this practice, which are offered in the Gospel of Matthew, are about others bearing witness. This is important when an injury is severe enough and has done enough damage that the person who has been harmed feels they are not being heard or have not received the needed response for restoration and healing. This is not about garnering more support for the sake of a fight or being right. Rather, it is always about reconciling persons so that relationships are restored, and the community is stronger and bound together which leads us closer to Christ and to one another.
One of the verses I find particularly compelling in this passage is verse 18. "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." For me, it reminds me of the incredible responsibility we have in the Church to be in good and right relationships as we are modeling God's presence and power to the world. Too often, what we model is not appealing to those seeking to know God more fully.
Consider what it is we bind to. Do we bind to revenge or making sure one who hurt us experiences the hurt we feel? Do we bind to being right instead of being compassionate and loving? Do we bind to making sure no one knows how we have faltered or failed?
Consider what we are willing to loose or free ourselves from. Do we free ourselves from responsibility? Understanding? Kindness? Growth? And forgiveness?
Imagine freeing ourselves from creating more drama and damage to our relationships, and instead binding ourselves to creating spaces for forgiveness to abound and for reconciliation to flourish so that all of God's beloved might experience a Christ-centered restoration and renewal in their relationships.
As Jesus spoke to the disciples about this good practice of truth telling, perhaps this is what he imagined for the Church and for you and I.
Blessings, Rev. Shana Johnson, ISC Conference Minister