The Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Pastor George Pejakovich
Matthew 18:15-20

 

WHEN I WAS THE PROTESTANT CHAPLAIN AT PATCH BARRACKS IN GERMANY, WE HAD A COLLECTIVE PROTESTANT WORSHIP AT 1100. THERE WERE ALL SORTS OF DENOMINATIONS REPRESENTED; EVEN SOME LUTHERANS WHO THOUGHT THE 8 O’CLOCK SERVICE WAS TOO EARLY. I INHERITED THE TRADITION OF ONE OF THE SUNDAY SCHOOL TEACHERS GIVING A SHORT CHILDREN’S SERMON BEFORE THE REGULAR SERMON. ONE SUNDAY, ONE OF THE YOUNG MOTHERS, LET’S CALL HER MARY, GAVE A DELIGHTFUL CHILDREN’S SERMON ON THE FEEDING OF THE FIVE THOUSAND WITH FIVE LOAVES AND TWO FISH. SHE FOCUSED ON HOW NICE IT WAS FOR THE YOUNG BOY TO BRING FOOD TO SHARE WITH THE CROWD, LINKING HIS SHARING WITH JESUS’ MIRACLE. AS I TOOK THE PULPIT, I JOKINGLY SAID, BEING A BIT OF A CYNIC, THAT I ALWAYS ASSUMED HE BROUGHT THE FISHES AND LOAVES TO MAKE A FEW COINS OFF THE CROWD. POLITE CHUCKLES FOLLOWED.

LATER THAT WEEK, A DELEGATION OF WOMEN CAME TO SEE ME TO TELL ME HOW UPSET MARY WAS, AND THAT I OUGHT TO APOLOGIZE TO HER. I ASKED. “WHY ARE YOU HERE?” THEY REPLIED, “WE JUST TOLD YOU.” I THEN ASKED, “DID I OFFEND YOU?” THEIR ANSWER WAS, “NO, BUT . . .” I INTERJECTED, SAYING, “I’M SORRY MARY TOOK OFFENSE AT WHAT I SAID, BUT, AGAIN, WHY ARE YOU HERE, AND NOT MARY? IF MARY TOOK OFFENSE AT MY LITTLE JOKE, SHE SHOULD COME TO ME AND TELL ME, SO THAT I COULD MAKE IT RIGHT BETWEEN US, NOT SEND A COMMITTEE TO TELL ME WHAT I DID WRONG.” THEY LEFT, MARY NEVER CAME TO SEE ME, AND LEFT THE CONGEGATION FOR A BAPTIST MISSION OUTSIDE THE GATE.

WE HAVE BEEN HEARING, OVER THE PAST FEW WEEKS, WHAT IT MEANS TO BE ONE OF THOSE CALLED OUT OF THE WORLD INTO THE ASSEMBLY OF BELIEVERS, ABOUT THE WAY OF THE CROSS, AND THE RELIANCE ON GOD’S WILL RATHER THAN OUR OWN. NOW, JESUS GIVES US AN OUTLINE FOR HOW TO HANDLE CONFLICT WITHIN THE ASSEMBLY OF BELIEVERS. ANY GATHERING OF HUMANS IS GOING TO HAVE CONFLICTS, WHETHER THEY ARE A RESULT OF MISUNDERSTANDING, FOCUS ON DIFFERENT GOALS, OR EVEN AS A RESULT OF THE SINFUL DESIRE TO GET OUR OWN WAY. AS WE SAW LAST WEEK, NOT EVEN PETER WAS EXEMPT FROM WANTING IT HIS WAY. THE MANNER IN WHICH MOST PEOPLE HANDLE CONFLICTS IS TO GATHER A GROUP OF LIKE MINDED TOGETHER, AND TRY TO SHOUT DOWN THOSE WITH WHOM THEY DISAGREE. WE HAVE BEEN SEEING A LOT OF THIS LATELY, BUT IT IS REALLY NOTHING NEW. THIS IS THE WAY OF THE WORLD, WHICH LEADS TO INCREASING TENSION AND STRIFE, AND, SADLY, USUALLY ENDS IN ANGER AND TOO OFTEN IN VIOLENCE. THERE IS ANOTHER WAY; THE WAY OF THE KINGDOM OF GOD.

THE WAY OF RESOLVING CONFLICTS TAUGHT BY JESUS IS ROOTED IN THE TEACHING OF THE OLD TESTAMENT; WHICH IS NOT SURPRIZING SINCE WE FIND IT ONLY IN THE GOSPEL OF MATTHEW. THIS GOSPEL WAS FIRST WRITTEN IN HEBREW FOR THE HEBRAIC FOLLOWERS OF THE CHRIST WHO WERE CONFLICTED ABOUT LETTING GENTILES JOIN THE CHURCH. THAT MAY HAVE BEEN THE UNDERLYING REASON FOR MATTHEW TO INCLUDE THIS TEACHING OF JESUS, BUT IT APPLIES TO ALL CONFLICTS BETWEEN MEMBERS OF THE BODY OF CHRIST, AND, EVERY ASPECT OF THE TEACHING IS FIRST AND FOREMOST A MEANS OF RECONCILIATION.

FIRST, IF YOU THINK A BROTHER OR SISTER HAS SINNED AGAINST YOU, GO TO THEM IN PRIVATE AND EXPLAIN HOW YOU WERE HURT. IT IS SIMPLE HUMAN NATURE TO GET DEFENSIVE WHEN ACCUSED OF DOING WRONG, ESPECIALLY IN FRONT OF OTHERS. IN PRIVATE, HOWEVER, THE CONVERSATION CAN BE CIVIL AND CONSTRUCTIVE, FOR BOTH PARTIES, BECAUSE YOU MIGHT HAVE MISUNDERSTOOD. IN ANY CASE, THE POSSIBLITY FOR RECONCILIATION IS THERE.

IF THAT DOESN’T WORK, THE NEXT STEP IS TO TAKE ONE OR TWO OTHERS WITH YOU, NOT TO SUPPORT YOUR POSITION, BUT TO BEAR WITNESS TO THE CONVERSATION AND YOUR ATTEMPT AT RECONCILING WITH THE ONE WHO YOU BELIVED WRONGED YOU. THE PURPOSE OF THE WITNESSES IS NOT TO SUPPORT EITHER SIDE, BUT TO GET THE SEPARATED PARTIES BACK TO THE TABLE TO WORK OUT WHAT IS WRONG.

FAILING RECONCILIATION, THE FINAL STEP IS TO TAKE THE ISSUE TO THE CHURCH AS A WHOLE, WITH THE WITNESSES TO CONFIRM WHAT EACH PERSON HAS SAID. IF THE OFFENDER REFUSES TO LISTEN TO THE JUDGMENT OF THE CHURCH, JESUS SAID, “LET SUCH A ONE BE TO YOU AS A GENTILE OR A TAX COLLECTOR.” IN OTHER WORDS, DEAL WITH HIM OR HER ONLY AS YOU HAVE TO. THIS DOES NOT MEAN TO KICK THEM OUT OF THE CHURCH; REMEMBER THAT MATTHEW WAS SUPPOSED TO HAVE BEEN A TAX COLLECTOR, AND JESUS CAME TO RECONCILE EVEN THE GENTILES TO THE FATHER.

AS CHRISTIANS, WE BELIEVE THAT CHRIST IS RECONCILING THE WHOLE WORLD AND EACH OF US TO GOD AND TO EACH OTHER. WHEN CHRISTIANS TAKE THEIR CONFLICT AS AN OPPORTUNITY TO PRACTICE RECONCILIATION, WHAT THEY DO IN THE CHURCH CAN STAND AS A VISIBLE SIGN FOR THE WORLD OF WHAT WE BELIEVE CHRIST IS DOING FOR THE WHOLE WORLD. CHURCH CONFLICT, THEN, CAN BE AN TESTAMENT TO AND A SIGN OF THE GRACE OF GOD WHICH WE BELIEVE IS HAPPENING IN A BROADER AND MORE MYSTERIOUS WAY IN THE WORLD.

SAINT BENEDICT CALLED CHRISTIAN COMMUNITY A “SCHOOL FOR SOULS,” IN WHICH WE LEARN NOT JUST HOW TO LIVE, BUT HOW TO LIVE THE ABUNDANT LIFE PROMISED BY OUR LORD. THE COMMUNITY OF THE CHURCH, THOSE CALLED OUT OF THE WORLD, IS THE COMMUNITY WHERE CHRIST IS PRESENT IN ITS MIDST. EVEN IN THE MIDST OF CONFLICT, CHRIST IS PRESENT, AND WHERE CHRIST IS PRESENT IS WHERE THE RECONCILIATION OF US TO GOD AND TO EACH OTHER TAKES PLACE. “IF TWO OF YOU AGREE ON EARTH ABOUT ANYTHING YOU ASK, IT WILL BE DONE FOR YOU BY MY FATHER IN HEAVEN. FOR WHERE TWO OR THREE ARE GATHERED IN MY NAME, I AM THERE AMONG THEM.”

IT IS TRUE THAT NOT ALL CONFLICTS IN THE CHURCH LEAD TO RECONCILIATION; WE JUST NEED TO LOOK AT ALL THE SCHISMS OF THE HISTORICAL CHURCH, AND THE SPLITTING OF CONGREGATIONS RIGHT TO THIS DAY. EVEN THE GREAT TUMULT OF THE REFORMATION WAS A RESULT OF ONE SIDE REFUSING TO RECONCILE TO THE OTHER. LUTHER NEVER WANTED TO LEAVE THE CHURCH, HE WANTED TO CALL IT BACK TO ITS ORIGINAL PURPOSE; TO RECONCILE MAN TO GOD. HIS OPPPONENTS, HOWEVER, WOULD NOT LISTEN TO HIM TO UNDERSTAND, BUT LISTENED ONLY TO MARSHALL ARGUMENTS AGAINST HIM. HE POSTED HIS NINETY- FIVE THESES TO PROMPT A REASONED THEOLOGICAL DISCUSSION OF WHAT HE SAW AS ABUSES IN THE CHURCH. AS WE APPROACH THE FIVE HUNDRETH ANNIVERSARY OF HIS NAILING HIS THESES TO THE DOOR OF THE CATHEDRAL CHRUCH IN WITTENBURG, WE MIGHT WELL WONDER WHAT THINGS WOULD BE LIKE IF THE RECONCILING LOVE OF CHRIST WERE THE BASIS FOR THE DISCUSSION OF THE ISSUES AT HAND, AND NOT THE PERSONAL ATTACKS AND ATTEMPTS TO DISCREDIT A MAN WHO ONLY WANTED TO CALL THE CHURCH BACK TO BEING THE CHURCH.

AS CHRIST IS IN OUR MIDST, AND AS HE IS WITH US IN OUR CONFLICTS, EVEN AS WE FIND OURSELVES AT ODDS WITH EACH OTHER, HIS RECONCILING LOVE MUST GUIDE OUR HEARTS, MINDS, AND MOUTHS. IN THIS WAY, THE LOVE WE PREACH WILL BE THE LOVE WE DEMONSTRATE TO EACH OTHER, AND SHOW THE WORLD THE GRACE OF THE LOVE OF GOD. AMEN

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