Preached by Terrell Carter on 4/28/13
In the 1980s, there was a greeting card line that was eventually turned into a network cartoon called the Get-Along Gang. The characters were all cute furry animals that were friends. The main characters were named Montgomery “Good News” Moose, Dotty Dog, Woolma Lamb, Zipper Cat, Portia Porcupine, and Bingo “Bet It All” Beaver”. The goal of the greeting card and television series was to use these characters as ways to teach children how important it was to get along with their friends and how to work together for the betterment of others.
In the utopian world of the Get-Along Gang, life was about….getting along. Life was about not making waves. Life was about avoiding conflict. Life was about avoiding disagreements. Life was about getting along for the sake of getting along. In an 11 minute time span, the cartoon characters would face a problem, each side would express their opinions, and eventually, the character that wasn’t getting along with everyone else would recognize the error of his/her way and get in where they fitted in.
Don’t you wish your life was like that of the characters in the cartoon? A life where no one argued on a regular basis? A life where disagreements were minimal? A life where every morning you were greeted by the sun shining and theme music playing in the background? A life where any actual disagreement that did occur was solved in an 11 minute time span, and that’s with commercial breaks?
But, we all know life isn’t like that, don’t we? In the real world, I have an opinion. In the real world, you have an opinion. In the real world, we all see things in very particular and very different ways, don’t we? We have different opinions about almost everything. We have different opinions related to the religious faith we share. We have different opinions about the politics. We even have different opinions about whether we have different opinions. Because of these continuous differences, our relationships experience times of peace and days of conflict.
That word conflict can be a scary word, can’t it? What kind of images does it conjure up for you? Personally, I think that the word conflict is not necessarily a bad word. One of the blessings/privileges of being in relationship with one another is the fact that we don’t all have to agree on everything. One of the blessings/privileges of being in relationship is…..to be in conflict.
Wait a minute, Terrell. Are you trying to tell us that conflict is a good thing? Are you saying that I should find opportunities to disagree with my family and friends? No. I am not saying that. What I am saying is that conflict in relationships is not necessarily a bad thing. Conflict comes because we are all individuals. Conflict comes because we all have a voice that we want to have heard. And, if conflict is handled in a loving way, it can actually lead to the growth and strengthening of a relationship. Conflict can serve as a way to identify areas where there are disagreement or areas where people are not on the same page and it can open doors for people to find out why they think differently and how to move their relationships to a better place.
One of the main challenges with dealing with conflict is that if it is not handled in a loving way, it can lead to severely damaging a relationship. When conflict occurs, many times, we have the tendency to think it is always the other person’s fault, don’t we? When there is conflict in a relationship, we tend to wait for the other person to apologize or come around to our way of thinking, don’t we? We have our stance and our position and no one will move us from it.
I think that an important question is raised in Matthew 18:15-20 about conflict. And the question is, when there is conflict in our personal relationships, when there is disagreement among friends that we have had all our lives, when we don’t see eye-to-eye with our brothers and sisters from church, should we wait for them to come and apologize to us, or should we seek to make things right with them on our own?
I think that we can find the answer to that question in exploring the circumstances that are raised and addressed in the entire chapter of Matthew 18.
Let’s take a few moments to explore the background to Matthew 18. At this point in Christ’s life, He has experienced multiple ministry milestones, as well as multiple instances of conflict, misunderstanding, and disagreement. The funny thing is that these conflicts, misunderstandings, and disagreements were not only with the religious leaders who were against Him. They were not only with Roman officials. They were with His own disciples. His own followers.
Misunderstandings with His disciples were so frequent that we regularly read throughout the Gospels Christ repeating the phrase, “Haven’t I been with you long enough?” Haven’t I been with you long enough for you to understand what I have been talking about? Haven’t I been with you long enough for you to know the meaning of what I am teaching? Haven’t I been with you long enough for you to understand Me and My mission? Haven’t I been with you long enough for you to know better?
In Matthew 15, Jesus is confronted by religious leaders because He and the disciples did not follow the practice of washing their hands before they ate. Christ responded by saying that the food you eat and how it goes into your body is not really what makes you unclean. You are unclean because of your heart which affects your actions. After this confrontation, the disciples came to Christ and said, “Do you realize that you offended the religious leaders? And what were you talking about anyway?” Christ’s response was, “Uhh…have I not been with you all long enough to figure this stuff out?”
Later in the chapter, it says that Christ had spent three days healing people and performing miracles. The people were hungry and the disciples couldn’t figure out how they were going to feed over 4,000 people. Christ performed a miracle by turning a few fish and loaves of bread into a meal for the masses.
In Matthew 16, Christ is again confronted by the religious leadership, this time with the request for a sign from heaven. Christ responded by saying that they really didn’t want a sign. They were looking for a way to continue to give Him a hard time. After this exchange with them, Christ went to His disciples and said, “Beware of the leaven of these religious leaders.” The disciples thought that Jesus was mad at them for not having enough bread to feed the masses in chapter 15. Christ’s response was, “You all don’t get it. Did you not see the miracle(s) that I performed? This is not about the fish and bread. Don’t you understand that this is not about physical things?” Only after Christ became agitated with them did they finally understand what He was saying.
But that’s not the only misunderstanding in that chapter. Later, Christ asks them the famous questions “who do people say that I am?” and “who do you think that I am?” to which Peter eventually responded, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” But, as is often Peter’s habit, he goes from saying something profound to saying something rather stupid. As Christ tells them that He will eventually die for them, Peter scolds Christ for even thinking those thoughts, to which Christ responds, “Get behind Me Satan.”
In Matthew 17, the disciples couldn’t cast a demon out of a child, and Christ’s response was, “You boys are goobers. How long do I have to deal with you and your lack of faith?”
The point of me sharing these stories is to show that even though Christ loved the disciples, and most of the disciples loved Christ, their relationship was regularly filled with tension. Filled with misunderstandings. Filled with conflict.
Which leads us to chapter 18. This chapter opens with the disciples arguing over who would be the most important person in the new kingdom that Christ was initiating. This is the epitome of unnecessary conflict. Their minds are not focused on the meaning of Christ’s teachings or His miracles. They are thinking about who will be first in line when the new kingdom comes. Who will have the position of authority in the future?
Some probably thought it should be Peter. Didn’t Jesus tell him that He was building the new kingdom on what Peter said about Him being the Christ? Or maybe it would be Matthew with his political connections? Or maybe it would be one of the two brothers since they were some of the first disciples that were called?
Christ tells them that they are missing the mark. Instead of jockeying for position, they should have the attitude of a child. An attitude that is thankful. An attitude that is awe struck at God’s power and love. An attitude that is aware of its own weakness and need. Jesus then tells them that life is hard enough already. Don’t make it harder for yourself or for other people. Sin is a constant enemy that seeks to destroy you. Be disciplined and avoid sin, avoid self-serving actions, at all costs.
He then tells them a parable about a shepherd who leaves the majority of a flock to go and find one sheep who somehow got away from the flock. It doesn’t matter to the shepherd how the sheep got away or why it left. All that matters is that it did, and it is the shepherd’s responsibility to go find it and bring it back to safety. It didn’t matter if the shepherd has to search for an hour, a day, or a week. The shepherd found the one that was lost and brought it back to safety.
What was the point of Christ’s words and attitude in the midst of these types of interactions? I think that they are a part of Christ’s overall teaching about relationships. Relationship with God and relationship with others. Relationships as they relate to the coming kingdom that He proclaimed. I think that Christ was teaching them how to get their relationships kingdom ready.
Which brings us to Matthew 18:15-20. “If your brother sins against you…” Some of us would say, “not if, but when your brother sins against you.” I think that a better translation of this verse is, “If your brother hurts you or does something wrong to you.” When this happens, go to that person and try to fix whatever is wrong and restore the relationship.
As we look at this passage, we have to be aware that people of that day found their meaning in life from their relationships. Meaning was gained from properly fitting in to an expected role, and meaning was lost or forfeited by stepping outside of your allotted place in society and family. Society was essentially based on an honor/shame mindset. When you did what was expected of you by society and family, you brought honor to your family and self. When you did not do what was expected by society and family, you brought shame to your family and self.
Sinning against/hurting someone was a breach of interpersonal relationships and was frowned upon by the community. It brought a dark cloud over one’s social position, and even how one’s family was perceived. The way to fix that shame was to restore the relationship that had been broken. Forgiveness had to be issued by the hurt party in order to restore the relationship and for the offender to be restored in the community.
But, do you notice, Jesus does not say wait for the person that has hurt you to come and ask for forgiveness. He doesn’t say go to Facebook and make a post about how this person has hurt you. He doesn’t say start a rumor/slander campaign against that person. He doesn’t say storm out of the church and tell everyone how you will never darken the doorway again. Instead, He says go to him/her/them and work it out among yourselves. Don’t sit around brooding and pouting. Take initiative and make the first step to make things right. This is contrary to the common practice today of placing the responsibility for reconciliation on the shoulders of the person who has done the hurting.
If this act of self-initiated reconciliation doesn’t work, Jesus says try it again. He doesn’t give explanations or excuses about why it may not work. He simply says if it doesn’t work, try again. This time, take a few other people with you. But why take someone else with you? It’s not so you can have people who will be on your side and agree with you and tell the other person that they need to repent. Instead, it’s a way to involve and preserve the larger community that will eventually be affected by this dispute.
Jewish law required that when there was an accusation against someone about wrongdoing, there needed to be two to three witnesses to uphold or testify to that complaint. Ideally this would help to ensure that people wouldn’t falsely accuse other people. The penalty for a false accusation was that you would suffer the punishment that would have been experienced by the other person. But, another benefit to having other witnesses was that they potentially could point out the error of the person making the accusation.
What, Terrell? Are you trying to tell me that I may be wrong when I feel like someone has offended me or hurt me? All I can say is that adding other people to the process for the right reason will hopefully keep us all honest and help us see the both sides of the picture.
Christ says that if this attempt at reconciliation doesn’t work, try yet again. This time, involve the larger body. Why involve the larger body? Because, what happens among a few in the body has an effect on the entire body. When two believers are not getting along, many see the conflict and potentially divide over it and choose sides. Again, the point is not to embarrass the person, or to put them in their place, or to show everyone that you are right. Instead, the point is to restore relationships. The point is to try to get everyone to the table to work together at a solution that will restore fellowship.
If this fails, then treat that person like gentiles and tax collectors. Treat them like outsiders. To command this action was a harsh thing. Tax collectors were despised. Jewish law taught that when a tax collector entered a house, that house immediately became unclean. Gentiles were no better. And no good Jew spent time with any of them. Well, no good Jew, except Jesus.
At this point in His ministry, Jesus was infamous for spending time with the wrong people, including tax collectors like Matthew who wrote this gospel. I think Jesus actions and practices showed what He really meant by this statement “treat them like sinners and tax collectors.” A forgiving and restoring hand should be extended whenever possible. This was Christ’s practice. Whether it was towards tax collectors like Matthew and Zaccheus, or a woman with a checkered past like the woman at the well, or any of the disease riddled people that flocked to His side. Christ, like the good shepherd, made tangible efforts to restore and return people to a place of wholeness, dignity, and holy purpose.
Okay, Terrell. We get it. God wants us to make an effort to restore relationships with people on a regular basis. God sees reconciliation as a good thing. God wants us to make an effort and not just wait for someone to come to us to fix things. Blah, blah, blah. But what’s the deal with binding and loosing and agreeing, and how does that affect God in heaven? Can two of us agree on something and God is obligated to honor that, no matter what it is?
The short answer to that question is… nope.
Those particular verses have been regularly taken out of context and used to tell people that they can get whatever they want from God. When two to three believers touch and agree upon an idea, God is obligated to make that thing happen. This is not what they are saying. Viewing these verses in the correct context shows that they have a very different meaning.
Binding and loosing were Jewish idioms essentially meaning that what is announced or agreed upon on earth has already been predetermined or approved beforehand in heaven. When people are reunited and relationships are restored, God has already deemed this as acceptable and a good thing. When people say that they want to be restored to one another, God says, this is what I have already commanded you to do. That is what I want. When people work together to bring peace to relationships, God says that this is how it should be. This makes heaven happy.
When we gather in Jesus’ name, when we take the name of our savior and claim to follow Him, we represent Him and the mission that He was given by God. The mission to bring God’s Kingdom to reality. Part of that kingdom responsibility is to live among others and love each other, even when we don’t necessarily get along.
Real churches have real conflict. Real couples have real conflict. Real families have real conflict. Real friends have conflict. Just because we belong together doesn’t mean we will always get along together. Conflict arises because we all have our own individual faults and idiosyncrasies, and not necessarily because someone is trying to ruin our lives. Sometimes, we have real conflict because we each have our own particular understandings of life and what God wants us to be doing in our particular context.
The harm is not in having the conflict or disagreement. The damage is not done just because we disagree. The reality of conflict doesn’t cause the most hurt and pain.
The damage is done by how we respond to that conflict. The damage is done when we circle the wagons and point fingers and blame someone else without recognizing the part that we played in straining the relationship. The damage is done by recruiting people to be on our side so we can show that we have the most people that agree with us and that makes us right. The damage is done when we stand with our arms crossed waiting for someone to seek our forgiveness.
God’s kingdom is not built through closed hearts and closed hands. God’s kingdom is not built on the shoulders of the proud or on those who think that they are always right. God’s kingdom will not be brought to life by people who are unwilling to forgive as they have been forgiven.
God’s kingdom will include those who have been wronged and those who have committed the wrong. The body of Christ is made up of those groups of people.
Will you pray with me?