When another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.Matthew 18:15
It has been said that Christianity is not a religion, but a relationship, and there is wisdom in these words. Today’s Gospel Reading (Matthew 18:15-20) is all about relationships, particularly our relationships with each other. And these relationships are very important. But they’re not the reason that Christianity is described as a relationship. It is described that way because, at the heart of our faith is our belief that the one who created us, and all that is, wants to have a real, life-giving, loving relationship with us.
The heart of our faith is not a set of teachings and beliefs about God. It is not a set of rules to follow to please God. It is a relationship with God. A relationship that is made possible by the gift of God’s grace in Jesus Christ; and a relationship that is made alive in our lives through our faith. It is the most important relationship we will ever have, our relationship with God. But a close second is our relationship with each other.
Think of what Jesus said about the greatest commandment: It is to love the Lord our God and to love our neighbor as our self. Or think of the Ten Commandments. The first table is all about our relationship with God. The second table is all about our relationship with each other. Both relationships are important. So today, I thought I would spend some time looking at these relationships, taking them in order of importance. And that means I want to start with our relationship with God.
Our Relationship with God
The most important of our relationships is without a doubt our relationship with God. We were created by God, and created to be in relationship with God, and, as St. Augustine once pointed out, our hearts are restless until they rest in God. If our relationship with God is not healthy, all our other relationships will suffer. I even wonder whether a lot of the problems in our world these days might be because this primary relationship between us and God is not healthy.
But God has a plan to restore and and reconcile this primary relationship. That’s why Jesus came, right? To reconcile us to his heavenly Father. To restore that vital relationship. Because sin had damaged that relationship. Our sin, ushered into the world through Adam and Eve’s disobedience, but kept in the world through the sin of every subsequent generation, damaged that most important relationship of all. So what did God do? Rather than give up on that relationship, God set about fixing it. God’s only Son was sent, to take our sins to the cross and to restore our relationship with our heavenly Father.
It is a gift we call grace. But a relationship takes two. Grace describes God’s action, and reminds us that it is a free gift. But faith describes our response. Faith describes our part in that relationship. We receive this gift in faith, trusting God’s promise to us. By grace we have been saved through faith. But what does it mean to be saved? First and foremost, it means to have our relationship with our Creator reconciled and restored. Christianity is about that relationship.
Our Relationship with Each Other
But we can’t stop there. Because before Jesus went to the cross to restore our relationship with His Father, he was very busy working on another very important relationship: Our relationship with each other. He called disciples – not just to follow him – but to gather together, to become a community, and to form a church.
It was very important to Jesus that his followers stay connected, that they become a community of believers. A community that cares for one another, and prays for one another, and shares our gifts with one another, and with the world around us, and grows in our faith and discipleship with one another.
This was so important to Jesus that he made an amazing promise in today’s Gospel Reading: Wherever two or three are gathered in my name, he said, I am among them. Thankfully, he doesn’t tell us how we must gather, so we will trust that Jesus will honor this promise as we gather in this unusual and necessary way!
Today’s Gospel Reading
So, today we are gathering – in whatever way that we can – to be the church, and to celebrate his presence among us. And churches around the globe are doing just that. But, unfortunately, churches around the globe are doing something else, too: They are arguing and disagreeing with each other. And church members are not all getting along with one another; and are even hurting one another through their words and actions.
This is not just happening in churches, of course. It is happening in schools and workplaces, and even in families, too. But it is particularly painful when it happens in churches, the last place where we would expect it.
Jesus knew that this would happen to his church. Church, after all, is a community of sinners. And that’s why he offers this wonderful teaching in today’s Gospel Reading. He offers advice to all who are in a difficult relationship. And that advice is the heart of today’s gospel reading.
But before I get to his advice, I want to point out a very important difference between our relationship with God, and our relationship with each other. In the case of our relationship with God, Jesus heals it by dying for us. He acts on behalf of his heavenly Father to restore that relationship, and then directly invites us into that relationship.
But what about our relationship with each other? Jesus takes another approach there. Because it is not really his problem to solve. It’s not his relationship. So what he does is give us advice. He gives us advice, and then he makes us a promise. So, let’s look at his advice.
He starts with my favorite. He says:
When another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.
This is the first step to dealing with conflict in the church, or anywhere. And it is a wonderful first step! And it is as simple and as complicated as it sounds. When someone sins against you, go and talk to them, one-on-one. Don’t ignore the disagreement. Don’t expect someone else to deal with it. Don’t hope that it will just go away. Don’t get angry at someone else. Don’t internalize it. Don’t do all those things that you and I are so tempted to do, because at the time they seem easier than dealing with the disagreement head on. Instead, go and talk with the person, one-on-one. Tell them of your hurt. Share with them what you are feeling.
Take a chance and open up with the person. But do it when the two of you are alone. Don’t point it out on Facebook. Don’t hold a press conference to point it out. When the two of you are alone. Imagine if we all did this faithfully. What a difference this one thing would make in our relationships!
But of course, it won’t always work. The person who hurt us won’t always listen to us. That’s true, unfortunately. If that happens, Jesus says:
If you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses.
If sharing with them did not work, it is time to ask for help. This is not the first step, but it is the next, and important step, to take when conflict exists. Ask for help. Keep looking for ways to bring about reconciliation and healing. If we can’t do it ourselves, don’t be afraid to reach out to someone for help.
Now there are times when a member of a community is so stubborn and unrepentant that the entire community needs to be involved. Jesus suggests that if the member refuses to listen to two or three, tell it to the church, and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile or tax collector.
This last piece has always interested me. When someone refuses to listen even to the church, let them be as a Gentile or tax collector. What does Jesus mean by that? Isn’t he the one that spends a lot of his time with Gentiles and tax collectors? Isn’t the author of this gospel, Matthew, a former tax collector? Does this mean that we should never give up on them? Even though they can’t be part of our church community, should we still care about them? It would certainly seem so.
This is how Jesus teaches us to deal with conflict. But along with this teaching, he offers us a promise.
For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.Matthew 18:20
Jesus promises to be with us, whenever we try and be reconciled to our brother or sister in Christ. When we gather in His name, when we pray in His name, when we seek to be reconciled in His name, He promises to be with us. Why? Because more than anything, Jesus wants all of our relationships to be healthy and whole. Our relationship with God, and our relationship with each other.
Jesus went to the cross to have our sins forgiven, and to have our relationship with God reconciled and restored. But he also went to the cross to keep his promise to be with us always, and particularly when we seek reconciliation with our brother or sister in Christ.
And this promise is not just a doctrine to be believed. It is a relationship to be enjoyed. A relationship that is at the heart of this wonderful thing we call, Christianity. There is nothing more important to God than our relationship with God and with one another. So let us tend to both of these relationships faithfully. To the glory of God. Amen