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By The Rev. John Bedingfield
In the name of one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
During the Clinton impeachment proceedings, Rep. Dick Armey was asked what his wife would say if she found out that he had had an affair. His response was that the first Armey would’ve heard from her would be as “I looked up from a pool of my own blood on the floor and heard her ask, ‘How do you reload this thing?’” Although that is just a joke, it is also unfortunately the reality of the way many of us handle our disagreements with others. We may not literally settle them with firearms, but we also don’t try to reach reconciliation, we wait in ambush until we can be sure of “winning the war.” And that is a model that is absolutely not acceptable to Jesus Christ.
This morning’s Gospel reading gives us some real, concrete, step-by-step instructions from Jesus with regard to how we should handle conflict. Many people complain that the Bible is obtuse or otherwise hard to understand in its instruction to us. A recent example of that thought is in The Simpsons Movie, when Grandpa Simpson seems to be seized by the Holy Spirit and is rolling on the floor of the church, speaking apparent gibberish, Marge tells Homer to help him and Homer grabs a Bible, “Oh” he says, “This book doesn’t have any answers!” Not so in this passage from the 18th chapter of Matthew. In this passage, Jesus lays out a step-by-step plan for how one Christian should handle a disagreement with another member of the community.
In most churches today – and I don’t think St. John’s is any different than any other church – what typically happens when people disagree with each other is that the one who is upset says nothing to the person who has caused the upset. But the angry person does talk to his or her friends and supporters and begins to gather sympathetic ears for a message that the other person has done the injured party wrong. Soon there is a large and growing group who know of the wrong done and they all begin to search their own memory banks for examples of when the person wronged them as well. Meanwhile, the person who is now being vilified and whose list of transgressions grows every day, has no idea that he or she has done anything to anyone. Then when the problem ultimately comes to a head, the original issue has either been completely forgotten or has morphed into something entirely different than the slight it started as. Meanwhile, the person who started it all with some relatively minor act has become a major villain, – simply from the power of bad feelings, innuendo and accusations, simmering over time. This is precisely what Jesus talks about in Matthew 18.
Jesus lays out how these things are to be handled by a Christian community. And quite simply, His prescription is to talk about things openly, honestly and directly, person-to-person. Jesus wanted people who had been hurt to talk directly to the one who hurt them and to lay things out in an honest fashion, in hopes of having the issues worked out. Jesus doesn’t say, “Ambush them.” And neither does He say, “Meet at high noon, in the middle of Main street and shoot it out. Let the best man win.” Instead, He says that we should speak honestly and directly with each other, not in anger, but also not hiding the hurt that has been done. Now note that He does not suggest that one person should be the winner and one the loser. No … what He wants from this direct communication is reconciliation. Both parties getting back, as much as is possible, to a place of shared care and concern – of forgiveness and understanding.
Jesus wants all of His people to be reconciled to one another, not so that one is right and one is wrong, but that both can come together and put their differences behind them. Or, as St. Paul told the Romans, “Let’s therefore throw off the works of darkness, and let’s put on the armor of light. Let us walk properly, as in the day; …not in strife and jealousy.” But Jesus doesn’t give His instructions so that the person who has sinned against gets a free pass. What He really wants is for the person who has been sinned against to engage in forgiveness, so that that person can get his or her life back in order, no longer bound by anger and resentment that can extinguish the flame of Christian love.
You see, no matter how much harm may come to the person who has committed a wrong and is then ambushed by people because of what he has done, it is the person who was originally wronged, the one against whom a sin was committed, who suffers irreparable harm if there is no forgiveness. The one who asks for forgiveness goes on, once the forgiveness is requested. That person has done what he or she can do by asking forgiveness. It is the person who refuses to forgive who continues to suffer.
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The great Anglican writer, C.S. Lewis in his book, The Great Divorce, describes Hell as a great, huge, dark place where there is no contact between people. He says that Hell started out small, but people quarreled with one another and moved away from each other. Then there was another quarrel and the people moved farther away. And so on, and so on, until finally no one could even see anyone else. And there they lived, alone in the darkness. That’s what Jesus wants us to avoid.
Jesus says we should take our disagreements directly to those with whom we disagreed precisely because that is the opposite of Lewis’ vision of Hell. As children of God we are to love one another, and that requires contact and involvement in each other’s lives. But it’s not just because we are all children of God and should be reconciled with each other … no, it’s for us who harbor grudges. It is for us that Jesus says this straight forward communication should be done.
If we tell the one who wronged us how we feel about what they have done and we then give them the opportunity to ask for forgiveness, we set a process in motion. If the person asks for forgiveness and acknowledges the wrong done, then the issue is to be put to rest. That is Jesus’ prescription. That means that we are enjoined by Christ to forgive our brothers and sisters who ask forgiveness. Because just as Jesus says that the one who refuses to acknowledge wrongdoing should be put out of the assembly, the same is true of the one who refuses to accept the request for forgiveness when it’s made. And I would submit to you that Jesus wasn’t really talking about “putting people out” of the assembly in a literal sense – at least not in most cases. I think it was more like an extension of what Lewis talks about in The Great Divorce. The people disagree, refuse to be reconciled and then begin to live farther and farther apart – putting themselves out of the assembly.
Of course, like every other, seemingly easy to follow, statement in the Bible, people can pervert this one if they try hard enough. This simple set of rules has been used to expel people from their worship communities because they don’t agree with those who are in power and won’t capitulate, regardless of how many times they’re asked to do so. But there is a safeguard for that as well, Paul’s call to the Romans to “love one another.” For, Paul says, “the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet’; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.”
Love here does not mean wet, sloppy kisses, nor does it mean hearts and flowers. This kind of love is about care for the other person’s well being. Wanting what is best for the other person, even when he or she has made you angry. If we have that sort of love for each other, we will always want to be reconciled and will always accept each other’s apologies – because that’s what people who love each other do. That’s what Christ did – and does – with us every day.
If there is someone who you know holds a grudge against you for something you did, or were perceived to have done, either recently or ages ago, apologize and sincerely ask forgiveness. Likewise, if there is someone who comes to you and asks forgiveness for something that has caused you to hold a grudge against them, grant them forgiveness. To ask forgiveness is not weakness. And to grant forgiveness is not to condone what someone has done. They are merely steps toward reconciliation – the thing that Jesus did when he reconciled the whole world to God by hanging on a cross. If He can do that for us, surely we can do this for each other, and for Him.
Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.
Copyright 2009, John Bedingfield. Used by permission.