The English language is strange – to say the least. For example, read and lead rhyme and read and lead rhyme; but read and lead don’t rhyme and neither do read and lead. Yes, English is weird. It can be understood through tough thorough thought, though.
I bring this up because I am beginning a series of sermons with the overall title: No Fair! And, given the spelling, you might suspect I was – somehow – going to do a whole series of messages addressing the fact that COVID-19 has forced the cancellation of the Iowa State Fair. But even if I brought in the many other state fairs that have been forced to cancel, I don’t think I could do a whole series of sermons on the topic; nor do I believe any of them would be spiritually educational or uplifting. No, this is a series on fairness. Specifically, God’s idea of fairness; which is fortunately very different from ours – as the Gospel of Matthew shows.
One of the first lessons of social interaction we learn as children is that things don’t always seem fair. Sometimes our brother or sister gets a bigger scoop of ice cream, or a friend gets a longer turn of the swing. “Hey! No fair!” we say. As adults, maybe we feel the boss passed us over for a promotion or raise. “Hey! No fair!” we think to ourselves; showing that we have learned at least two things: 1) Some things in life never change even as we get older and 2) It’s best not to say “No fair” out loud now that we’ve gotten older.
The gospel of Christ is not merely personal, but social. Followers of Christ are called to model the kind of selfless love that Jesus exemplifies, even when people seem utterly undeserving of it. The amazing grace we so joyfully sing about for ourselves is not so easy to swallow when we watch someone else receive it, but this is the heart of Christian community. As we grow in Christ, we learn to love like Christ, even when it’s not fair. For the next three weeks, we will look at passages from the Gospel of Matthew which challenge our notion about church life, forgiveness, and grace.
Most of the time, Jesus speaks in nebulous parables that invite reflection and analysis. But occasionally in the Gospels, He is remarkably practical and direct. This is good news and bad news, of course, as Jesus’ practical instructions may be easier to understand but leave much less wiggle room in terms of interpretation.
Jesus takes it for granted that there will be “in-sinning” against one another in the church, but something as important as relational hurt within the body of Christ cannot be left to chance. When it comes to forgiveness within the Christian community, Jesus says, “Here’s how, so just do it!” Or, rather, “Just(ly) do it.”
The irony, of course, is that churches are often the most indirect, passive places in the world. I read about one church that we so intimidated by their elderly longtime organist that they couldn’t fire her, so they just threw her a retirement party. When that didn’t work (and I’m not making this up), they actually gave away the organ. In the very places where the gospel should be manifest in our interactions with others, we may be even more likely to gossip, whisper behind closed doors and nurture old grudges in the dark, while vehemently denying those actions in the light.
If we are to forgive as God forgives, we have to pay close attention to the way God forgives us. In God’s economy, forgiveness is not a feeling: it is choice made in faith. We, the stiff-necked, need to hear that a lot, because many of us assume that being able to forgive is a matter of feeling like it – that we will know it’s the right time to forgive because we will want to – but Jesus implies that moment is NOT coming.
So Jesus spells out conflict resolution in three easy steps. But, before we get to the steps, it’s important to ascertain if your brother or sister has actually sinned against you. Look at the first part of verse 15: “If your brother sins,…” This is important because sometimes we label something as sin when it is actually a preference or a pet peeve or a personality trait or just a personal irritation that bugs us. In those instances, we’re called to “bear with one another in love” according to Ephesians 4:2-3, which says: Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.
Other times we are called to overlook something and not say a word…if we can. Proverbs 19:11: A person’s wisdom yields patience; it is to one’s glory to overlook an offense. It would be good for us to put petty things in the “grace box” and then put it in a hard-to-reach place.
While we must bear with some things, and overlook other things when we can, we are not to put up with sin. Matt Smethurst writes: “The church should be a safe place for sinners without being a safe place for sin.” And sometimes we can’t keep our anger and animosity inside the box. If your brother or sister has sinned against you, Jesus explains the steps we must take. First, go directly to the person who has wronged you, and speak alone. This simple directive alone would change the course of Christian history. I can think of a few points in my timeline as a Christian that likely would have diverged in a different direction had someone who felt wronged by me had simply come to me, taken me aside and spoken to me privately rather than speaking to everybody but me or, perhaps worse yet, holding onto the slight until it festered and exploded like an untreated wound. I imagine you can see points where the same is true for you.
Now, imagine the millions through the centuries who have been pushed away from the body of Christ – not by a personal negative experience – but because of the bitter words of a Christian friend who grumbled to them about an offense (real or imagined) when that Christian should have gone directly to the one who offended them and worked it out.
Before we discuss it with others, before we harbor it so long that it slowly poisons us against the possibility of reconciliation; as well as poisoning others toward the Church, before we spends weeks, months, or years waiting until they catch on to our signals and come to apologize, go and find the one who has sinned against you. Is that fair? Absolutely not. Does it sound like Jesus? Unfortunately yes.
Step two of the Jesus plan for reconciliation is to involve others. This step escalates the situation way beyond a simple personal offense. The purpose of these extra friends or perhaps even people familiar with the situation is possibly to convince a person of their fault, and even to witness their response of willingness or unwillingness to change.
Before going any further, however, we need to be clear that not all offenses deserve to be taken to the next level. Personal offenses may range from a simple misunderstanding to gross sins like being swindled or defamation of character. When Jesus said, “if they will not listen, take one or two others along,” that is not encouragement to escalate every single dispute. This is a principle, not something to apply literally every single time someone disagrees with us. Mostly, we simply forgive and forget when our friends cannot understand what they have done. The offense is not worth taking any further. Is this fair? Perhaps not, but if Jesus can ask God to forgive those who are in the process of unjustly crucifying Him, we can agree to disagree and part as friends. We only escalate really bad situations.
Again, Jesus is not saying, “Go and talk about this person behind their backs.” Jesus is saying, “Bring in others whom he or she might listen to.” The proper role of having others be part of a conflict, according to Christ, is to give some perspective to the issue. And this can be perspective in both directions. While they may very well bear witness to the frustration you are having in getting this person to see the truth, it is possible, upon hearing both sides of the dispute, that the one or two others may look at you and say, “Friend, I think you are making too much of this. Let it go.”
If the one or two others cannot resolve the issue, then Christ calls on us to involve the church. We are not to go on a witch-hunt nor are we called to be the “sin police.” Membership has its privileges and its responsibilities. This level, like the first two, is meant to be loving; though it may not seem like it. Again, the goal is reconciliation. The congregation’s role at this step is to plead and pray for a change of heart.
Of course, this invites imagining how much work we would need to do in this faith community to make it a place of healing and reconciliation for our members, much less outsiders. The point is clear: the church is meant to be mediator in a world of misunderstanding, peacemaker in a world of passive-aggressiveness.
So, as you think on this passage, I invite you to consider these questions:
- Am I treating the other person I’m in conflict with as someone God loves? These verses are all about reconciling with a brother or sister. First John 4:20 says, Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. If we don’t love the person we approach, we don’t love God.
- Is my goal reconciliation or retaliation? I must make sure that I don’t fight or use my might because working towards reconciliation is always my responsibility. James 5:19-20 reminds us that we are to bring back the one who is wandering: My brothers and sisters, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring that person back, remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of their way will save them from death and cover over a multitude of sins.
- How’s my attitude? Before I go to a brother or sister I must make sure that I am not going with any spiritual superiority but with humility. I am to come alongside, not above the other. Elsewhere in Matthew, Jesus says, How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.
- How willing am I to obey? These commands of how to handle conflict come directly from the mouth of Jesus and as such I cannot deem optional what He has declared obligatory. This is the way to deal with someone who sins against us. When we disobey and default into denial or denigration, we do so at our own peril. As followers of Christ, we don’t have the option of just opting out simply because it’s difficult.
We often forget that Jesus’ wonderful declaration that He will be with two or three gathered in His name comes in the middle of a discourse about hard conversations and reconciliation. According to Jesus, the church ought to be reducing conflict through direct discussion, accountability, and transparency. When the church fails to live this out, when the church fails to invite Christ into our conflicts, we shouldn’t be surprised when it’s hard to see Jesus in our midst, no matter how many are gathered.