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Where two or three are gathered

December 7th, 2012 No comments

“Where two or three are gathered” (Matthew 18:15-22)
by Pastor Katherine Goerzen
September 9, 2012, Grace Hill Mennonite Church

One of my favorite promises of Jesus is his promise that “wherever two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” I love writing this promise into prayers and worship services, for what a holy thing to know that when we gather together for Jesus’ sake, he is present with us, moving, comforting, transforming. It is an assurance to remember that even if only two show up for worship, it is still a holy thing to gather in the name of Jesus. I am reminded of this promise whenever the youth group meets, or a council meeting is held, or I meet with friends, that Jesus does not need to be invited to come and be present with us, for he is already there, moving, comforting, transforming.

Now this is a well-known promise. Yet often, the context is not remembered when this promise is spoken (although the contextual passage is well-known also). The context of these well-known words is the Rule of Christ which begins, “If another member of the church sins, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.” Jesus promises that when there is conflict and two or three gather together to address the conflict, there he is present also.

Hear again these words from Jesus: [Matt. 18:15-20]. Now often when Jesus spoke to the crowds, he spoke in stories, in parables with open-ended interpretations. Yet here we have perhaps the most explicit, and straight-forward teaching of our Lord and Savior that is recorded in the gospels. He gives very specific, step by step instructions for how we are called to deal with conflict.

Yet I wonder whether some in the crowds who heard him speak these instructions (or whether some who have read these words in the Bible in the centuries since then) questioned whether this course of action was even possible or feasible, or that it was a “nice thought, but advice that wouldn’t actually work in my present situation”, or perhaps some even went away grieving like the rich young man who had many possessions and was encouraged to give them to the poor. Perhaps they heard these words and went away shaking their heads for they recognized that they had conflicts in their life that they believed couldn’t ever be solved.

So yes, Jesus’ words here in Matthew 18 are well known, and yes they are very specific and straight-forward, but they are perhaps some of the least practiced in all the gospels. For though it is perhaps easy to think of others who we believe needs to engage in this practice, it is so difficult to think of following these instructions ourselves. And often we end up doing almost the opposite of what Jesus suggests we do when we find ourselves in conflict with someone else.

John Paul Lederach, in his book The Journey Toward Reconciliation gives a humorous (funny because it’s true) retelling of Jesus’ words based upon what people actually practice:

When you have a problem with somebody in the church, check it out first to make sure you are not alone in this problem. There is a good chance that if you have had a problem with this person, somebody else has as well. Go and pick a good friend who is likely to understand and agree with you. If she agrees with you that this person is a real turkey, then talk to some more people to see if there is broader consensus. . . If a friend, a small group, and a lawyer agree, then tell it to the church, preferably in private to the pastor and elders. When you tell them, say it is a concern that you have prayed about for some time and that there is a group of people who share the concern. . . Truly I say to you, from that point on, it is the responsibility of the pastor and elders to take care of the problem. Your task is to make sure they do it right.

This is what is much more comfortable, isn’t it? Instead of going and talking to the person we’re in conflict with, we go and find someone who will agree with us and tell it to them. We may and go speak to others in the church about this problem, but rarely do we go and actually go and speak with the person who Jesus instructed us to speak with.

Or, if we do want to speak with them directly, it’s much easier to leave an anonymous note. One pastor recounted the story of a woman who found a bottle of nail polish remover in her mailbox as a commentary on her bright red toenails. And other pastors have talked with me about how they have found anonymous notes in the offering plate when someone is unhappy with the way things are done in worship, or they have found anonymous letters in their mailboxes when members of the congregation disagree with them.

Or, instead of following Jesus’ instructions to us, there’s always the response to conflict that seems to be used perhaps the most often: we choose to ignore it and pray that it will go away. Although, I have found that when I try this method, my anger over the conflict often festers and increases rather than going away.

But when any of these methods are used, it just seems to escalate the conflict. None of the above methods we usually try make things better. They lead to hurt feelings and anger and are not only harmful to the people we are angry at, but they are harmful to us and those we love when we let our anger continue to grow instead of finding situations where we can talk it out with the person who has wronged us.

And so, perhaps we should assume that Jesus did in fact know what he was talking about, that his words weren’t just “a nice thought, yet wouldn’t work in our situation,” but that they are the most constructive way to deal with conflict when it arises.

I would like to now go through the directions that Jesus gives to us and speak about the implications that they have for our lives. But before I do, I want you to know that I am not seeking only to preach to you. I need to hear these words just as much myself (although that’s true of any sermon that I preach). I often don’t follow Jesus’ words when conflicts arise in my own life, and I am writing this sermon aimed towards me because they are words that I need to hear.

I am praying and seeking to come to a place where I can speak with those who hurt me and my loved ones with the love of Christ in what I say and how I react. But I am not there yet. I pray that I would have the heart to trust that Jesus is already present in these situation, moving, comforting, transforming, wherever two or three are gathering together to speak.

Jesus’ first instructions to us are: “If your brother or sister sins (against you) go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.” Jesus is assuming that conflict will happen. He does not expect the church to be a perfect place (yet even though these words of Jesus are directed specifically towards conflict that happens within the church, I believe that the Rule of Christ is a pattern to follow with any conflict that arises within our lives, with coworkers, schoolmates, family members, or other situations). Each of us were given freewill and minds to think and reason, and though we each seek to follow after Jesus, we sometimes come to different conclusions of what it means to be faithful; thus conflict is inevitable and expected to happen.

So when conflict happens, we are called to go and talk with the person who has wronged us. But I would advise everyone to be very careful about the spirit with which we approach them. If we go in our anger, very little will be accomplished; everyone will be on the defensive, and when that happens, we tend to speak past each other. If we go seeking only to convince the other person that we are in the right (even in situations where that may be the case), the other person will feel attacked and will not be able to hear clearly because of our accusatory and perhaps even self-righteous tone. At least I have a hard time hearing the other person when they accuse me of being wrong, nor do their words often inspire me to change.

I believe that the only way we can approach the other person is in the spirit of Christ, remembering that this is another person created in the divine image and who is a beloved child of God. And it may take some time before we are able to approach them in this manner. It will most likely take vulnerability, prayer, and self-reflection on our part. We will need to ask ourselves: Why does this situation cause me so much anger? What is at stake for me in this situation? Why do I feel such anxiety when I think about this person? How would Christ approach this person? How is Christ calling me to speak to this person? It may take a lot of careful and prayerful work on our part before we even reach a point where we are able to speak with the person who has wronged us. But we trust that Christ is already present in this situation, moving, comforting, transforming. And that is no small thing.

And once we reach a point where we can approach this person with the love and mind of Christ, then may we go to him or her seeking first to hear and to understand, not seeking first to be heard or to be understood. And may our words and actions towards this person reflect the love of our Savior who died for us while we were yet sinners.

And if, after we go and talk with this person reconciliation is achieved and we go away having both been heard and both being understood, then thanks be to God. Jesus has kept his promise and has been present with us all along.

I would love to say that this will work every time, that reconciliation will always be possible when this happens. Yet there will be situations when the other will not choose to speak with us or hear us, even if we approach them with the love of Christ. Or there are situations when we have been wronged when it simply will not be possible to approach the person who has wronged us, such as in situations of abuse or in situations where there is an imbalance of power. Yet Jesus has provided us with another step to follow when this happens.

“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.” To bring in one or two others allows for accountability, that the truth can be told and and mutual submission practiced. Again, this should be done in the spirit of Christ’s love. If the person feels as though he or she is being ganged up on, what hope do we have that reconciliation will occur? The witnesses should seek to be present and understanding of both people in the conflict. I would hope that they would help create a holy and prayerful space where reflection, listening, and understanding can emerge. And though the witnesses can help fill the role of mediator between the two, the primary responsibility lies with those who are in conflict with each other. And again, in this step of the process where three have gathered, we trust that Jesus is already present, moving, comforting, transforming. And if reconciliation is achieved, then thanks be to God.

But if not, Jesus offers another step to follow. “If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church.” This should not be done with the purpose of humiliating the person who has fallen short of God’s good intentions, as has sometimes been practiced in the past, for where is the hope of reconciliation? But for Jesus to tell us to bring the conflict before the church is to assume that the church is the place where we can discuss and prayerfully work with conflict, and is not a place where we will be free from conflict (and when there is conflict, it doesn’t mean that we have failed, for Jesus assumes that conflict will happen). We also know that reconciliation is the mission of the church, for Paul proclaims that Christ has given us the ministry of reconciliation, for we were first reconciled to God’s own self through the work of Christ. What better way to seek for reconciliation in the midst of conflict before a group of believers who can uphold us in prayer and guide us along the path of peace? For again, we trust that Christ is already present, moving, comforting, transforming. And if reconciliation is achieved, then thanks be to God.

But “if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax-collector.” How would those who heard Jesus speak these words have understood this? They knew how Gentiles and tax-collectors were treated; they were to be avoided as the sinners they saw them as. And that is indeed how the church has often interpreted this. Many have been shunned, excommunicated, or even killed. And schisms have rent the church asunder because of differing beliefs on how best to follow in Jesus’ footsteps. And the Anabaptist church has a long history of divisions over such issues “buttons, bonnets, and buggies”1 When we see sin in our midst, our first instinct is to separate ourselves from it, less we or our family be contaminated.

This seems to be the thing to do until we remember how Jesus treated Gentiles and tax-collectors. He didn’t avoid them at all costs. He didn’t angrily accuse them of sin and then sever all ties with them. He didn’t speak about them behind their backs with those who agreed with him.

He ate with them. Our gospels are filled with stories of Jesus seeking them out and eating with them. And when this happened, lives were changed.

There is something intimate about eating with another person. It implies a relationship and speaks of hospitality.

So when we experience conflict, may we seek to eat with those who have wronged us, trusting that Christ is already present, moving, comforting, transforming. And if reconciliation is achieved, then thanks be to God.

The whole goal of this process is reconciliation. Every step moves us towards reconciliation. If we have any other goal in mind, then I believe we are missing the point of Christ’s instructions to us. And yes, I guarantee it there will be times when reconciliation is difficult and seems impossible; and it requires much of us (vulnerability, prayer, self-reflection, love for those who have hurt us). But God’s shalom calls us to seek right-relationships with those in our congregation, in our families, and with those around us. If God’s shalom is life as it was intended to be, why would we possibly settle for less if we have the power to do something about it? And remember, Jesus is already present where two or three gather together when there is conflict, moving, comforting, transforming. Thanks be to God.

Notes:
1. Lederach, The Journey Toward Reconciliation

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Go and Be Reconciled

March 15th, 2011 No comments

“Go and Be Reconciled” (Matthew 5:21-26; 18:15-20)
By Pastor Peter Goerzen
March 13, 2011, Grace Hill Mennonite Church

I’ve always thought a little well-placed humor goes a long way when it comes to conflict. Apparently John Paul Lederach, long-time Mennonite peace maker and peace instructor, thought so too. He retells the passage we just read together, according to what he calls the “Actual Practice Version.” It goes as follows:

Actual Practice Version

When you have a problem with somebody in the church, check it out first to make sure you are not alone in this problem. There is a good chance that if you have had a problem with this person, somebody else has as well. Go and pick a good friend who is likely to understand and agree with you. If she agrees with you that this person is a real turkey, then talk to some more people to see if there is broader consensus. . . If a friend, a small group, and a lawyer agree, then tell it to the church, preferably in private to the pastor and elders. When you tell them, say it is a concern that you have prayed about for some time and that there is a group of people who share the concern. . . Truly I say to you, from that point on, it is the responsibility of the pastor and elders to take care of the problem. Your task is to make sure they do it right.

Anger/Conflict Denial
The contrast between the Jesus version and the Actual Practice Version “shows the many ways we tend to avoid and actually extend the conflict within the community.”1 That is to say, conflict in our relationships with one another is tough. And Jesus doesn’t seem to make matters any easier on us. His teaching here in Matthew 18, and also in Matthew 5, sounds tough. Why, skip back to Matthew 5, and it even sounds like Jesus says you’re not supposed to ever be angry!

Now of course, I think most of us have tried not being angry, and all the variations upon that theme. After all, isn’t the first unwritten commandment of being Mennonite, “Thou shalt always be nice?” So we deny our anger or frustration. We go ahead and just bury that nasty thing someone said, that disagreement we had, that time we weren’t listed to like we should have been. We just go ahead and bury that under a nicely finished veneer of smiles and “Oh, it’s no big deal”’s. And it works great for a while. Years, maybe.

But have you ever noticed what happens little by little when we pretend to deny our anger or our frustration, when we bury it and pretend everything’s OK? Have you ever noticed, how lots of little things start adding up, and before you know it, you’re questioning the motives of everything the other person does. You get that tight feeling in your stomach every time you see that other person. Before you know it, just about everything the other person says is an attack on you.

They say something innocent enough like, “Hey, nice haircut,” and you start wondering why on earth they would say such a terrible thing – such horrible sarcasm. Soon enough, you’re disagreeing with everything the person says, and no doubt sneaking in a few snide remarks now and then and maybe even start doing those sorts of things that we call “passive aggressive.”

And sometime down the road, there’s something that comes up – maybe even something totally unrelated – some disagreement or discussion, and you feel compelled not to give an inch. But you’re not angry. No, you smile and say, “Oh, it’s no big deal.” Yeah, right. Surely some of us have been down that anger and conflict denial road.

Transforming Initiatives
Well, I sure hope Jesus didn’t mean never to be angry, because that road of denial just doesn’t end well. And I recall reading about a few times when Jesus himself got angry. Well, you know, if you read it closely, you discover that Jesus didn’t actually say, “Don’t be angry.”

What he did was to warn about what happens when we get angry with each other, how angry insult comes after angry insult, how things start spinning out of control. You know how conflict tends to escalate. Insult follows insult. Accusation follows accusation. One person draws in one friend. The other draws in another friend.

We know the same thing is true even if we try and pretend there’s no conflict. It still escalates, just more subtly. Anger multiplies whether we insult someone directly, or whether it’s the inward bitterness and fear that grows over time. Jesus knows where all kinds of outward anger and inward bitterness lead. He knows how it corrupts our character over time, how it distorts our relationships with one another, how we start seeing everything in terms of conflict, how that coil of bitterness winds its way inside us and starts to choke out the life. How ultimately it compromises our unity, our witness before a watching world, and our faithfulness to Christ.

Jesus knows how frustration eventually comes to express itself in verbal, emotional, and physical violence. Like a doctor diagnosing an illness that will lead to death unless the patient takes certain actions, Jesus diagnoses a vicious cycle that will lead to judgment and destruction if not dealt with.

But he doesn’t say, “Don’t be angry,” either. He doesn’t say to pretend everything’s OK. Instead, here in Matthew 5, he says to do five things to transform the relationship from anger to reconciliation:

1. Leave Your Gift
First, if you’re offering your gift at the altar, and you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there. Now, the best way to tell if your brother or sister has something against you is probably if you yourself have something against a brother or sister.

And if your brother or sister has something against you, and you feel yourself getting frustrated about it, you could continue on and offer your gift as if nothing is wrong. You could respond in kind with more anger and frustration and bitterness and take another loop around the anger spiral.

Yet Jesus seems to be saying that the anger and frustration we have against others affects our worship and our relationship with God. How are we glorifying God by harboring bitterness towards others in the church? How is the Body of Christ honoring its head if its members see each other as the enemy. Anger and frustration are normal, but when they spin out of control, we don’t worship God.

Jesus says that rather than going on like usual and offering the gift, rather than letting the vicious cycle of bitterness continue, stop. Leave the gift on the altar. Break up the ordinary by deciding that as far as it depends on you, this bitterness will come to an end.

Last week, you may recall, we reflected on Jesus’ teaching about forgiving one another, about how forgiveness puts an end to the vicious cycles of bitterness and vengeance. I think leaving the gift behind at the altar is a lot like forgiveness. Leaving the gift, letting go of the claim on the other person, forgiving, is what makes reconciliation possible.

And yet, Croatian theologian Miroslav Volf adds,

Forgiveness is necessary, but will it suffice? Forgiveness is the boundary between exclusion and embrace. It heals the wounds that the power-acts of exclusion have inflicted and breaks down the dividing wall of hostility. Yet it leaves a distance between people, an empty space of neutrality, that allows them either to go their separate ways in what is sometimes called “peace” or to fall into each other’s arms and restore broken communion.2

“Going one’s own way” may be the “boldest dream. . . a person caught in the vortex of violence can muster.” That sort of separation may be “all that is possible or even desirable”3 at times for some relationships, but it is clearly not yet the peace and reconciliation Jesus desires for God’s creatures.

2. Go
Second, Jesus therefore says, “go.” It’s also the first step of the so-called “rule of Christ” in Matthew 18. Go to that person who has caused you pain, and the way these things usually work, whom you’ve probably hurt as well, whether intentionally or unintentionally, or simply by the bitterness you harbor in your soul. Jesus says to do the one thing most of us would much rather not do: go to the person with whom you have a conflict. Go to the person with whom you’re frustrated or angry or bitter.

We’re called, oddly enough, to move toward “the very source of our fears.”4 Isn’t it just so much easier to go and talk to a friend or someone who will take your side? Doesn’t it just feel so much better to unload all that bitterness and anxiety on someone who will take your side? Isn’t it just so much easier to talk about people than to talk with them?

We drag other people into the conflict to take some of our anxiety, and maybe even some of our responsibility. Soon enough, we’ve got a whole group of folks sharing our bitterness and probably not fully understanding what’s going on. So there are secrets and half-truths and behind-the-back whispers, when we don’t go directly to the person.

Of course, there may be times when we need a trusted friend to help us figure out how best to respond – how to find the strength and grace to move toward the other – how best to “go,” but that’s different from unloading our bitterness and getting like-minded folks on our side so we don’t have to “go.” Instead, Jesus says, “go.” Go.

Now, I don’t think that Jesus means we have to go and have a big discussion with someone every time we’re walking down the sidewalk and someone bumps into us. There are lots of things that we can just let go without any trouble. But when you’re up at night mulling it over, or when it’s eating at you the next day, and the day after, that’s a good sign that it’s time to leave your gift on the altar and “go.”

3. Be Reconciled
Third, Jesus, says, “be reconciled.” It’s one thing to go to the brother or sister with whom you have the conflict; it’s quite another to go and be reconciled. Our instinct is go to accuse and blame our brothers and sisters, and to defend ourselves, or we seek to show that we were right.

Reconciliation is more difficult, more risky because we go and become vulnerable. We become vulnerable to having our efforts to reconcile rejected, or to admitting that we had some role in the conflict and perhaps that we were in the wrong, or to giving up some of the certainty we thought we had, or to seeing things differently.

When we go for reconciliation, we make ourselves vulnerable, going with open arms, making space within ourselves for our brother or sister. But reconciliation cannot be forced. We go with open arms, and then we must wait for the other person. And that waiting may take years. In Jesus’ famous parable of the prodigal son, the father had to wait for a long time for his son to return. The process of reconciliation takes dedication, prayerful vulnerability, self-awareness, and grace.

4-5. Offer your gift; Make peace quickly
Then, Jesus says, come and offer your gift. Our worship of God is the most genuine when we are in right relationship with others. And finally, Jesus adds additional counsel: “Come to terms quickly with your accuser.” Don’t force reconciliation when it cannot happen, but don’t delay it either. Delayed reconciliation allows for bitterness to mount and vicious cycles to spin out of control. Jesus urges us to act quickly. When you sense hostility rising between you and another person, drop what you’re doing, go to the other with open arms, talk with the other, and seek peace, Jesus says.

Handling conflict in the church
In closing, Jesus also knows that sometimes reconciliation doesn’t happen. Sometimes wounds are so deep, misunderstandings are so immense, that we can’t find reconciliation on our own. So, hopping back to Matthew 18, he says to try it alone first, and then ask someone to help. The additional person involved must create a holy space where the parties in conflict can safely be vulnerable and honest. The additional person is not there to solve the problem but to be a source of accountability for all involved.

Then, Jesus says, if that doesn’t work, tell it to the church – perhaps a small group, or Sunday School class, or leaders, or the entire congregation. What this means for all of us is that conflict resolution is spiritual work. It requires prayer, discernment, openness, growth, and transformation. It also means that “the church is a place to process and work with conflict, not a place that is free from conflict.”5

And Jesus says an interesting thing – if you can’t solve the conflict, the church is to treat the offending parties as Gentiles or tax collectors. And I think we know how Jesus treated Gentiles and tax collectors. He reached out to them, healed them, ate with them, and died for them.

Sometimes we’re embarrassed by conflict – either in the church or in our families. We see conflict as a symptom of weakness, of lack of discipline, even of sin. But that’s often not the case. God has created and shaped us all in beautifully different ways. And when we all get together, we’re not going to see and do everything the same way, and there’s going to be conflict. In fact, I’ve wondered if you could find a family or congregation that truly trusts and knows one another and has absolutely no conflict.

When you go to the gym to lift weights, your muscles tear just a little bit. And if those tiny tears are allowed to heal, the muscle becomes stronger. But if they are not allowed to heal, the muscle becomes injured. Conflict is a natural part of growth, and it can be healthy if it is handled properly; if it is not handled properly, it causes injury.

As we continue to reflect on the reconciliation we share in Christ this Lenten season, when we encounter conflict or bitterness or anger, may we find deliverance from vicious cycles of living in anger and resentment, and deliverance into “transforming initiatives that build community.”6 Reconciliation is challenging and risky and often seems impossible. This Lenten season, as we look to the cross, we are reminded that it is impossible apart from the saving work of Christ.

May God grant us the healing empowerment to leave our gifts and drop what we’re doing, together with our claim of vengeance; may God give us the courage to face our fear and anxiety and go to the brother or sister; may God give us the grace and creativity and compassion to find reconciliation; may God give us the joy of worshiping in right relationship; and the wisdom to seek peace sooner, rather than later., and hopefully a touch of divine humor and grace to lift us up. Amen.

Notes:
1 John Paul Lederach, Journey Toward Reconciliation, 123.
2 Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace, 126.
3 Volf, 127.
4 Lederach, 124.
5 Lederach, 131.
6 Glen Stassen and David Gushee, Kingdom Ethics, 196.