Reading Matthew 18.15-20
Preacher Revd Neil Summers
It is stating the obvious to say that conflict is one of life’s certainties. It takes many forms, from the relatively trivial to the positively dangerous: from the small-scale and domestic, to wars with global consequences. Tomorrow is the anniversary of 9/11, a painful reminder – along, sadly, with many subsequent terrorist attacks – of how conflicts of ideology, culture, worldview, politics and religion can have such horrific results. Conflicts are played out daily in community life, at home, in the workplace, in politics, in courtrooms, in relations between family, friends and neighbours. And then, not least, there are those internal conflicts, deep within ourselves, which we sometimes struggle to keep a lid on.
The myths and stories which have shaped the Judaeo-Christian tradition are laced with conflict. The Bible indicates they began when things turned sour in the Garden of Eden. And straight after that, in the very next chapter of Genesis, one brother rises up against another. After Cain killed Abel, the trail of blood continued to run through history from one conflict to the next: from slavery in Egypt to the conquest of the promised land; from invasions by other nations, to the destruction of Jerusalem, and exile; from the arrival of a promised Saviour to Herod’s slaughter of the innocents; from the controversial teachings of Jesus to the clash with the authorities which led to his death; the birth of the church that was frequently in conflict with its persecutors; the countless clashes between so-called religious orthodoxy and perceived heresy which have marked too much of Christian history. And if we go to the end of the Bible, to the book of the Revelation, we read of a great conflict to take place at the end of time. The fact that Jesus is reported as saying that he had not come to bring peace but a sword, and the centrality of the cross, both serve to highlight conflict at the very heart of Christianity, because the faith takes seriously what it means to be human, and that God actually entered fully into our human condition, including its conflicts.
When Matthew’s Gospel was written, there was no institutional church such as we would recognise today. Matthew describes the ‘church’ existing as ‘where two or three are gathered’ – small pockets of Jesus’s followers dotted around towns, villages and the countryside. So today’s reading about handling conflict can’t be regarded as some sort of organizational disciplinary procedure, but more a breakdown in relations within the family of Jesus’s followers. And in so many ways, even with the more ‘organised’ church that developed later, that is still what lies close to the heart of conflict in the church, whether based on moral or ethical points of principle, or weighty matters of theology and doctrine, or the ordering of worship or buildings, or breakdowns in relations within congregations. There was a case, a few years ago now, of a vicar who was charged, among other things, with intimidating church people. One of the witnesses described, in her own words, a parish ‘grotesquely divided and riven with factions and disagreements’. She spoke of a climate of rumour, innuendo and gossip which, she said, had ‘made the process of belonging to the church wretched.’ In controversies in the Anglican Church over recent years, some leading clergy have told of poison pen letters arriving from people who oppose their views, sometimes with the most vulgar, vile and abusive language, signed – with supreme irony – ‘Yours in Christ’. Conflict among church people is nothing new. There have been disagreements among us over all sorts of things from the very beginning. Some are soon forgotten, but others can linger and fester for years, causing wounds and grief for all involved. I guess many of us have, at some time or other, been wounded and, if we are honest, have probably inflicted wounds as well. It is part – albeit a very hard part – of the reality of being alongside one another in a fallible, human community.
Today’s Gospel deals with the subject of how conflict among Jesus’s followers should be handled. The advice it gives is quite hard to stomach, and a bit of an affront to human pride. In a nutshell, this is what the writer of Matthew says should happen. First, go to the person with whom you have a conflict, one to one. If that doesn’t resolve the issue, take along two other members as witnesses. If that doesn’t work, tell it to the whole community (can you imagine it?) And if that final step fails, and the offender refuses to listen even to the whole church, then (quote) ‘let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector’. And what does that mean, precisely? Well, essentially, it means excommunication and banishment. In the Jewish thinking of the time, a Gentile (a non-Jew) was outside the covenant, outside the scope of God’s care. A tax collector was even worse, for they were Jews, but they worked for the Roman occupation, and collected taxes for them. Not only that, they also had a reputation for taking more than due. It’s bad enough when a stranger or enemy steals from you, but when it’s one of your own, the resentment and anger is even harder to overcome.
This teaching ascribed to Jesus sounds harsh and out of character. After all, didn’t he also say you must forgive without limit, and that you should not judge, lest you yourself be judged. But here’s the crunch. How does Jesus himself generally treat Gentiles, tax collectors and other outsiders? This is where we encounter the good news. He doesn’t send them packing, but rather includes them in his circle. He mixes with, and heals, Gentiles; he calls a tax collector to be an apostle. He sets a pattern – and it’s a really tough lesson to learn – that forgiveness, reconciliation and restoration are possible whatever the conflict. His words from the cross, ‘Father, forgive them….’ push the point home. They didn’t, of course, stop his death. The act of forgiveness itself may not always bring the desired outcome, but it nonetheless remains the Christian imperative, and it applies not only in the context of the Christian community, but also to the gravest of international conflicts, and the most intimately personal conflicts which lie deep inside us. On the larger scale, it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t seek to right wrongs, challenge injustice, or seek proper legal recourse when crime is committed. But it does mean turning away from demonising or cutting off those with whom we disagree, and even those who do us harm, which goes against our human inclinations. Yes, it is an understatement to say it is hard to forgive, to let go, to try to set things right. It may well seem impossible or unrealistic, and it may make us look weak in the eyes of the hawks of the world. But neither the fact that it is tough, nor the risk of ridicule, negates the Gospel imperative to practise forgiveness and seek reconciliation.
Each time we come to the Eucharist, we make our confession and we hear the word of forgiveness. This is not the gift of the priest, of course, who needs to hear the word of grace just as much as any other member of the church. It is the gift of the God whose very nature is love and mercy without limit, who longs for reconciliation between, among and within people, who is passionate about our transformation and the transformation of the world. Being forgiven offers us a way to begin to resolve what seems otherwise unresolvable. It means that a new start and moving on are possibilities, and that we need not be bound forever by our past failings. It tells us the God of mercy is on our side. But it also presents an enormous challenge. We have received forgiveness, time and time again, but that is not a charter to simply carry on as we were before. The privilege brings with it a responsibility, for the Gospel urges us, as forgiven people, to go on to practise forgiveness. The mercy which lies at the very heart of the Christian understanding of who God is also encourages us to seek reconciliation with the ‘Gentiles and tax collectors’ of our day, to seek to restore those relations that have fragmented or broken down completely, and to face up to those personal conflicts that lie deep within us, which we take great strides to keep hidden away. Alongside the imperative to forgive others, as we ourselves have been forgiven, we all know that, often, the hardest question to answer is: can I also forgive myself?