Posted on Sep 14, 2017 by Pastor Dave Whetter
Well, if you ask me, this set of rules that Jesus has laid out for us in this story today makes a lot of sense, and it doesn’t sound that difficult, does it? I mean if someone sins against you, go talk to them, face to face. If they listen to you and respond positively, then move on. Your relationship has been restored. But, if they don’t listen, you have more work to do. Jesus says at this point take one or two more people from the community with you and again meet with them, face to face. Again, if they listen this time, your relationship is restored and you can move on. But, if they don’t listen, again there is more work to do; now, Jesus says, it’s time to get the whole community involved, and then, and only then, if they still refuse to listen, is it time to move on with the relationship not restored. What a great set of rules for us to live by. Living in community can be hard, and it is so helpful to have a set of rules that can help us deal with our conflicts, isn’t it?
But, you know, as I read this text again and again, something struck me. The more I read it, the more convinced I became that this isn’t a set of rules to live by, No, instead, I find this to be a way of living that is more about restoring relationships than it is about the rules. First and foremost, we have been created to live in community. In the very beginning of creation, God said, "Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness;” (Genesis 1:26). From the beginning, God has been in relationship, “let us…” and being made in the likeness of God, means we too are made to be in relationships. But the problem is living with others in community is hard. We don’t always get along. We don’t always see eye to eye, and there are times when we hurt each other; and so today Jesus says our goal should always first be to restore our relationship with those who we have broken relationships, and thus he offers a way of living that is focused on communicating and listening. This process focuses us on the practical work of the gathered Christian community. As one author noted, this process is about helping us turn “from sin to repentance and from conflict to reconciliation.” Living in community is hard, but for people of faith it is essential, and so today Jesus explains a way of living that will allow us to live and work together, as the body of Christ. But, let’s face it, this process isn’t very 21st century, is it? I mean, who wants to deal with a problem face to face, when you can email, tweet, text, or Facebook your problem?
Social media and electronic communication platforms like Facebook, Twitter, texting, and email have made it all too easy to blast each other and ignore each other when we have disagreements. Oh, I think these forms of communications are great ways to help stay in touch with others and they offer a great means of general communications, but they do not make for a good way to resolve conflict because they are not forms of communication that afford us face to face relationships. Remember what Jesus said in our story today, if someone sins against you, “go [to them]”. He didn’t say talk about them behind their backs. He didn’t say write to them. He didn’t say go do something to them to get even. No, he said communicate with them face to face and attempt to resolve your problem.
But today, social media has allowed us to share our grievances with the world and it has allowed us to increase our conflicts by saying things to and about each other without the immediate consequences of what we are saying. It’s so much easier for me to call you out on something if I don’t have to see you and if I don’t have to listen to your immediate response. I find it gut-wrenching to log on to Facebook, or a multi-recipient email, only read about someone’s personal issues with a friend or family member, knowing that the issue is now public and knowing that now people with no “personal” interest in rebuilding the broken relationship will comment and add to the problem. I am often horrified by the emails I see, some I receive directly, with words of anger and accusations. Usually such notes are sent with no interest in having true dialogue and no interest in restoring relationships; rather, they are sent with the intent to hurt and retain our brokenness.
Using electronic and social media to “get back” at another person is simply unbiblical. Again as one author noted, “Jesus’ conflict-resolution system feels downright revolutionary in a world that seems to encourage confrontations over texts and tweets. Jesus’ teaching is that we should go to the one who wronged us and attempt a resolution before doing anything else.”
In a world that is more interested in revenge, than justice. In a world that is more interested in getting even and being self-reliant, today Jesus challenges us to realize that in Christian community the most important thing we can do is rebuild our broken relationships with our brothers or sisters. In a Christian community that is willing to deal with its brokenness in such a way what is discovered is that Christ’s presence will continue to bring forgiveness, healing, and joy.
But, Jesus also points out that this relationship restoring process may not always work. There will be times when the other person, or persons, won’t talk to you. There will be times when the other person, or persons, will refuse to change their ways, or they will refuse to listen, and in such a case, we have to be willing to let them go, “let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector” (Matthew 18:17). Yes, he says let them go, but Jesus isn’t saying have nothing to do with them; after all, how did Jesus treat tax collectors and Gentiles. He invited them into conversation, he ate with them and he offered them opportunities to repent when the opportunities arose, and we are to do the same. Even when we have done all we can, we are to still grieve our brokenness; God, too, grieves when we lose one from our community, but God will also rejoice greatly if that relationship is restored. We know this because in the story right before our story today Jesus said, “If a shepherd 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 tell you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray...” (18:12-13).
Brothers and sisters, living in community is hard, and it takes great effort in this world today to ensure we create space where we can have healthy and personal relationships with others. This is why here at Salem we work so hard to offer opportunities for us to get together regularly, so that we can talk, we can share and we can have those difficult conversations that will help us stay in relationship with each other. My prayer today is that we all intentionally make a greater effort to be in relationship with each other and that we take serious Jesus' words to go to each other to not just talk, but to listen. Amen.