"Resolving Conflicts, Jesus Style": Sermon for the 14th Sunday After Pentecost, Year A

"Resolving Conflicts, Jesus Style": Sermon for the 14th Sunday After Pentecost, Year A

Sep 10, 2017

Passage:Matthew 18:15-20

Preacher: The Rev. Dr. Robert Pace

Series: Pentecost

Category: Love, Forgiveness, Reconciliation

Keywords: community, conflict, forgiveness, love, reconciliation


Jesus tells us to love on another. But what about when we have a problem or conflict with each other? What about when there are real, deep and painful disputes between us? Jesus tells us what he expects in these situations...


In the name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.

A few weeks ago, I was chatting with one of our parishioners, who said he would have to miss the service that week. He jokingly commented, "as far as the sermon, the basic point is going to be God loves us and we need to love, right?"

The truth is, he was right. That tends to be the thesis of most of my sermons.

And the reason it's the thesis of most of my sermons is, that's a pretty good summary of the Gospel.

We come together in church, as people created by a God who is love, for the purpose of loving each other.

But every once in a while, we might come across a problem with that basic thesis.

Every once in a while, even though the ideal of us being the Body of Christ, loving one another as Christ loves us, sounds great... we look around and realize...

...we are actually just a bunch of broken individuals with pain and problems and sorrow and anger and egos and personal agendas. Every once in a while... we might struggle with the ideal of being the loving Body of Christ that sees to the needs of each other and the world.

In this brokenness we can also find opportunities to be hurtful to each other and even use the Church or the Holy Scriptures to support our actions.

Today's gospel reading from Matthew, for example, has provided a perfect opportunity for Christians to be harmful to each other.

Upon first reading, it appears to be simple, practical advice from Jesus about handling conflict. Unfortunately, based on this scripture, Christians throughout the centuries have justified condemning and excommunicating hundreds of thousands of their fellow believers.

Jesus advises: "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."

So far, this seems pretty straightforward. But already, it's a bit confusing and contradictory. After all, Jesus is also the one who tells us to "turn the other cheek." Which is it? Do we "turn away" or "point out the fault?" What kind of "fault" are we talking about?

Clearly there is some complexity here. In this situation, Jesus is talking about someone with whom you have a relationship. Jesus is concerned about the status of that relationship--the fault that has caused separation, pain, anger, fear, shame, or worry. Jesus wants to save the relationship.

In light of healing the breach, Jesus says we should find time--just the two of us--when we can be alone. We need to speak openly about the issue that has caused the separation, the pain, the anger, the fear, the shame, or the worry. Jesus assumes that, most likely, this meeting will result in healing.

In some cases, Jesus warns, the other person will reject our attempts to bring about reconciliation. They will hold on to the feelings and the issues that have threatened the relationship.

But Jesus demands that we don't give up on the relationship... on the community. He says we should find one or two others from the community to come with us, so that "every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses." Once again, it could be easy to misinterpret Jesus here. We could think he intended us to have the witnesses as a group to "gang up" on the let them know "how wrong they have been." These witnesses are actually here to listen to both sides. They are the "trusted community." The goal is restoring relationship!

It's possible, Jesus tells us, that this step won't work. We all know that some conflicts run deep in our human souls and human psyches.  But Jesus does not want us to give up. If the person refuses to reconcile after the witnesses are brought in, Jesus says take the issue before the whole gathering of the church--or a better translation would be the "assembly."

Finally, Jesus says: "if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector."

It's based on this verse that the church has been excommunicating our troublemakers and "loudmouths" for centuries.

But, if the Gospel is about loving one another as God created us to do and to be, how is kicking people OUT of the Body of Christ "loving?"

Jesus came to restore all of creation back to God.

We humans are created in the image of God--we are created "to love."

But we rebel. We fall away from that which we were created to do. That is sin.

If Jesus is saying that in our conflicts with each other we might get to the point we are to be treated as "Gentiles and tax collectors," what does that mean?

In the first-century Judea, Gentiles and tax collectors were considered the bottom of the social structure. Jews were not supposed to interact with them. If we read Jesus' statement with this lens, it feels pretty condemning. It feels like he is saying: "those troublemakers have gotten to the end of the rope...cut them loose."

But if we look at how Jesus actually treats Gentiles and tax collectors (for goodness sakes, Matthew himself was supposedly a tax collector!), we understand that Jesus continually brings them back into the fold. Jesus specifically targets these two groups with his radical acceptance and love.

Jesus turns the world, as we know it, upside down! In other words, what Jesus is saying here is: "When all else seems to fail, continue to seek to save the relationship anyway! When reconciliation seems impossible, continue to seek reconciliation anyway! When forgiveness seems beyond your ability, continue to offer forgiveness anyway!"

Never give up. It's not easy. Sometimes the person won't accept reconciliation. Sometimes the person won't receive forgiveness. But we are called to leave that door open. And how do we do that?

It's important to see that Jesus follows this advice with the command: "whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven."

Again, from the place of our brokenness, this sounds quite harsh if it were applied in the context of excommunicating people. Throughout the history of the Church, some have used this verse to say, "hey, not only are you out of the church for your behavior, but your separation is now permanent for all eternity because Jesus gave us the power to bind in heaven what we bind here on good riddance."

It's quite hard to hear the "Good News" in that version of the scripture.

But what's important for us to understand is that the language of binding and loosing is not about our authority to be the official gatekeepers for who gets in or who doesn't get in to heaven! Instead, the language of binding and loosing is really about whether a specific scriptural requirement applies in a specific situation or not.[1]

In other words, Jewish rabbis would "bind" a law when they agreed that it applied in a specific case. But, importantly, if they looked at a situation and came to an agreement that a commandment or a particular part of scripture did not apply in a given situation (even if that scripture is otherwise eternally valid), then they "loosed" it.

So, when we Jesus proclaiming this language of "binding" and "loosing," we need to remember that people  are not bound or loosed, the law is bound or loosed.

Jesus is saying, "I know this community--this assembly of my beloved--has the ability to be loving and forgiving. I know that when conflict arises, you will find the way to remove those things that separate you from God and from each other. You are wise enough to guide people past their destructive habits and behaviors and you can look deeply within yourselves to use the Holy Scriptures with the help of the Holy Spirit to keep this community whole. Let love and forgiveness and reconciliation be your guide."

As I think about it, even though the possibilities of conflict within the Church, as with any groups, are real. The answer is that we need to continually turn toward forgiveness, reconciliation, and love.

[Today we baptize Thomas Welch. As his community of faith, we recite together our commitment to love him, support him, and love each other. And we promise today that when we fall into separation, we will, with God's help, repent and return to the Lord.]

In the end, we need to keep the door open to healing and hope and relationship. So, as it turns out, this was one more sermon where the thesis is: "God loves us and we need to love."



[1]Jeremy Troxler quotes scholars John Howard Yoder and Mark Allan Powell  for this interpretation for “binding” and “loosing.” See Jeremy Troxler, “The Tie That Binds,” Faith and Leadership Website, December 6, 2011,