I don’t think I’ve ever preached on Matthew 18:15-20 because I just didn’t quite know what to do with the procedure of the early Christian community in dealing with conflict. In some ways the scripture sounded more like it was calling someone out and making an example of them. And if they didn’t change their ways, it sounded like they were shunned. Then I heard a different perspective from theologian John Shea.
(For the full video version, click here.)
In his book, On Earth as it is in Heaven, Shea said that “Jesus teaches and exemplifies a relentless drive for reconciliation.” Within the early church community, this imperative spawns a set of procedures to be applied to breakdowns of community relationships. If the process doesn’t work, the person isn’t to be shunned or ostracized (though some commentaries I read suggested this passage helped justify the practice of excommunication), they are to be treated as someone in need of “missionary work to be brought back into community. They are like the Gentile and the tax collector, a special object of the community’s relentless care.”
That made much more sense to me; that and the suggestion that Jesus calls for acts of reconciliation to stem from a spiritual center.
Now, I understand that the concept of reconciliation (the restoration of relationships) is a touchy subject. I am asking you to have an open mind and not just shut down because you believe what I’m talking about is impossible. Stay engaged in this, struggle with this with me, because it is important.
First of all, I recognize that reconciliation is not always possible because it takes two willing parties to work toward repairing the relationship. One can forgive another without being asked for forgiveness, or having any interaction with that person. But restoring a relationship requires both parties to come together. Not everyone is capable of this.
John Shea tells a story about a couple that he had sent to marriage counseling. The counselor came back and told him, “They don’t have the background to make it. They have never learned to work through conflicts. Walking away is what they know best.” Some people simply don’t have the skill set to work through problems in a constructive way. Nor do they have any desire to acquire that skill set – to change, in other words.
The question really is: do we have the skill set? Do we want to acquire it? How do we learn to deal with conflict better? And how do we work on our own spiritual growth to a point that reconciliation becomes our standard goal – not walking away or giving up or shutting out or going into a rage, but reconciling with those around us.
Quaker pastor, Philip Gulley, in his book “If the Church Were Christian,” tells a story about a couple whose estranged daughter was dying of a terminal disease. The parents made several overtures but were turned away when they went to visit their dying daughter. (Several years before, the daughter and her sister had quarreled, the parents had refused to take sides, advising their grown children to work out their differences peaceably. The daughter felt betrayed and resolved never to speak to her parents again.)
Gulley said he thought of bringing the daughter and parents together in hopes of a reconciliation. But the daughter’s bitterness was so deep and sharp that he lacked the nerve to challenge her. In her final months, the daughter spoke often of her Christian faith and how it sustained her, while seemingly blind to one of that faith’s bedrock principles – forgiveness.
Before she died, she left strict instructions that her parents and siblings were forbidden from attending her funeral. The mother and father, mystified and heartbroken by their daughter’s anger, and not wishing to anger her spouse, stayed home to mourn privately.
What causes someone to get stuck in a place like this? Pride, ego, hurt, fear, anger, insecurity, stubbornness.
Gulley points out that traditionally the church has emphasized being “right with God” over reconciling with one another. The sacrament of confession in the Catholic Church, while great perhaps for self-reflection, lets one off the hook after doing penance through prayers. Not a bad deal. Or in earlier times sacrifices of money and perhaps animals and grains were required.
Jesus didn’t ask for sacrifices… at least not of that kind. Jesus asked us to let go of the things that keep us separated from others: pride, ego, judgments, the need to be right, the need to be better than, fear of rejection, etc.
Being truly engaged in our spiritual paths and intent upon doing more than just warming a seat in church on Sunday morning means (I believe at a soul level anyway) we want to respond to the conflicts in our lives in a healthier, more compassionate, caring, concerned way. Why? Because deep down we care more about the relationship than the perceived grievance. We care more about the person than our pride and ego. Yes, it takes working through whatever issues there are, but the goal in the end is to restore the friendship or relationship.
Our spirituality helps us in two ways (if we’re willing to focus on it in times of conflict):
- Staying centered. If we’ll look deeper than our hurt to the place in us that is filled with the energy of Love, the compassion of the Divine, the light of hope, it will help guide our attitudes, actions and words. It will help us remember that we are more than our hurt and so are they. Staying centered reminds us that we want not only our own well-being, but the well-being of the other as well.
- Staying sensitive to our connection with God and one another. Remember we are one. As such we may be aware of a force that wants to pull us back together, that wants us to apologize or to forgive. There is a force that wants us to make up and make amends. One couple described it like a rubber band… they could only pull so far away before the force became so great it pulled them back together.
At the end of the day, it’s up to us. Will we pay attention to the pull of the Spirit that is there asking us to lay aside our stubborn need to be right? It may not always be possible with certain people. But I believe that if we raise ourselves to the level of the Spirit, come at conflict from a non-judgmental, compassionate place of seeking understanding and resolution, we may just be able to lift the conversation to a place where peace and healing becomes possible. If not, we know we put our best effort forward in love.
Seek reconciliation… relentlessly.
Love & Light!