Fourteenth Sunday After Pentecost Year A 2020
Grace to you and peace, from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Conflict. Who likes conflict? I do not like conflict. In fact, I try to avoid conflict when I can, and I try to wisely pick my fights with other people. Unfortunately, there are people in the world (and in the church) that enjoy conflict. And much to my disappointment conflict is a natural part of all relationships and a fact of our life together.
So, it should come as no surprise that Jesus offered some practical advice on how to deal with conflict in the church and when one member has sinned against another member. Well, today is the day when we get to hear the instruction that he gave to His disciples concerning reconciliation and restoring relationships that have been damaged due to our human sinfulness.
Now, I must point out that I think that there are two basic ways to understand the gospel text from Matthew. The first way looks at the text as a kind of “How To” book that outlines how to deal with conflict in the church.
I have encountered people that have taken this text at face value and I have discovered that this text can become very self-serving if one fails to take into consideration the surrounding passages. And that is why I prefer the second way of looking at this text by examining the text within the larger picture that the Gospel of Matthew is painting for us.
In Matthew’s big picture, the need to deal with conflict is built upon the need to build a community of faith constructed upon mutual love, and respect, and forgiveness. The teaching “They will know we are Christians by our love” is front and center in the Gospel text today.
So, let us examine the two ways one can interpret the text we have before us.
The first way, the “How To” interpretation, states that the passage provides basic instruction on how to deal with conflict. Step one: If I have been wronged then I must confront the person one on one to seek reconciliation.
If that does not work, then I must proceed to step two and gather the support of one or two other individuals to confront the individual so that reconciliation can take place.
And if this does not work, step three states that the issue should be made public and brought before the church.
Finally, if this does not work, the offender can be removed from the community with the knowledge that the decisions we make here on earth have eternal consequences.
And that, in a nutshell is how we are told to deal with conflict in the church. Unfortunately, the steps to resolve conflict have not always been taken with good intentions, or from a loving place.
In fact, many times the steps have been taken with the expectation/the desire that there would be no reconciliation and the steps that Jesus gave us are often viewed as just a formality for outward appearance.
For you see the fact of the matter is, we are broken people, and if we try to treat this passage as a “How To” book we will fall short of God’s expectations. As Romans states: “All have sinned and all fall short of the glory of God.”
So, what should we make of this text today? I think that Jesus is talking about what it takes to be a community of faith. And from what I can tell it takes a lot of work.
And that is why the second way to understand this text is to consider the passage in its larger context.
Just prior to our reading today, Jesus told the parable concerning the lost sheep and how the shepherd, leaving the 99 sheep, goes and looks for the one sheep that was lost. And just after our reading for today, when Jesus is asked how many times we are required to forgive (Peter suggested seven times) Jesus replies no not seven times but seventy-seven times.
In other words, there is no limit to how many times we are told to forgive. So, the advice on how to deal with conflict is sandwiched between searching for the lost and endless forgiveness. Therefore, as a community of faith we should never stop searching for the lost sheep and we should never write someone off and forget about them.
Jesus died on the cross so that our sins could be forgiven. He suffered death to conquer death and offers each and every one of us grace and everlasting life.
In “God’s Redeeming Activity,” Christ brings us freedom from sin and freedom from death. And Christ implores us to serve as He has served, and to forgive as He has forgiven, to love as He has loved, and to judge like we would like to be judged.
And that is why the phrase “whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed heaven” should hit us like a ton of bricks. For you see, we are responsible for our own judgments. When we cannot forgive, we are only hurting ourselves.
Earlier in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus said: “Judge not lest ye be judged.” In other words, when we judge others, we are really judging ourselves.
The Good news is that God’s judgment is mercy. And His gift is grace. God loves all unconditionally and offers forgiveness to all of us. As a community of faith, we are called to do the same.
In the big picture, we are called to love each other unconditionally, and to forgive each other as many times as it takes. Amen.
Let us pray: God of mercy, you know us better than we know ourselves, and still you love us. Wash us from all our sins, create in us clean hearts, and strengthen us by your Holy Spirit that we may give you praise, through Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen.