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Speaking Hard Words to Each Other

Matthew 18:15-20 (CEB)

“If your brother or sister sins against you, go and correct them when you are alone together. If they listen to you, then you’ve won over your brother or sister. But if they won’t listen, take with you one or two others so that every word may be established by the mouth of two or three witnesses.

But if they still won’t pay attention, report it to the church. If they won’t pay attention even to the church, treat them as you would a Gentile and tax collector. I assure you that whatever you fasten on earth will be fastened in heaven. And whatever you loosen on earth will be loosened in heaven.

Again I assure you that if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, then God who is in heaven will do it for you. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I’m there with them.”

A word of God for the people of God…Thanks be to God.

September 9-10, 2017
Matthew 18:15-20
“Speaking Hard Words to Each Other”

During the month of September, we are focusing on the theme of words…what words we use and how we use our words in communicating. We began last weekend by thinking together about the word ‘Love.’ This weekend, we will think about how we speak words to one another, especially when we need to have hard or difficult conversations.

Words are powerful…whether spoken or written. We all know the many different ways there are to share our words and today we will follow the guidance of Jesus from the 18th chapter of the Gospel of Matthew.

Our scripture passage today is one of those more personal sounding Scriptures; but not in the sense of being about any one person or group of people. But, rather, this scripture passage is really about all of us…all of us have experienced what Jesus is addressing in this passage.

(Read Matthew 18:15-20)

In this 18th chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus addresses the fact that his followers are going to have conflicts and so he gives a formula for conflict resolution. Jesus gives specific, practical guidelines for dealing with difficult relational situations that can be damaging to community life.

Our passage begins to make more sense when we can think of the church like the Apostle Paul thought of the church; as a body, where one part of the body cannot say to another part of the body, “I have no need of you.” For Paul, the church is a place of interdependence, where each member is incomplete without the other.

Staying together as a community is tough…it’s hard work. Our passage today starts off by saying, “If your brother or sister sins against you, go and correct them when you are alone together. If they listen to you, then you’ve won over your brother or sister.”

If we listen carefully to this part of the passage, it says YOU GO…you go and talk about it…YOU, the one who has been wronged or hurt by another’s words or actions…YOU take the initiative…YOU try to mend the rift. And that is counter to how we usually deal with things and what most of us would do anything to avoid. When we are the ones wronged, we react before we listen, we ignore the hurt, we stop talking to the one who wronged us; we avoid seeing them, we wait to see if they are going to come to us; we hold a grudge, we talk and e-mail and Facebook other people about what the person has done, and we refuse to forgive.
But Jesus is saying something different. Jesus is saying YOU go to the person who has wronged you. But, what if both parties feel that they have been wronged? Who should make the first move? Who goes to the other first? In that case, my guess is Jesus would say, “Just Do It!” Just go and try to gain the relationship back. Jesus seems less interested in who is right and who is wrong than he is in getting the community back together again.

Of course, it is a different situation if there is abuse or violence. Scripture is not encouraging us to be in an unsafe or threating environment.

But, Jesus does go on to say, “If they won’t listen, take with you one or two others so that every word may be established by the mouth of two or three witnesses.”

This is not to bully, but to have two or three others that can witness that you tried to have the conversation; that you tried to listen so there could be a change of understanding, so there could be repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation.

The next verse says, “If they still won’t pay attention, report it to the church. If they won’t pay attention even to the church, treat them as you would a Gentile and tax collector.”

We usually hear this as license to broadcast the hurt publicly; to shun the individual, or undermine and talk badly to others about them; or write them off when things reach a certain point. This is usually our first response if another person will not listen or engage in trying to make things better.

So this is another hard part of our Scripture because we know that Gentiles and tax collectors were despised in the first century. They were the target of hate groups. They were shut out and had the door closed in their face. The phrase, “…treat them as you would a Gentile and tax collector;” seems to affirm that behavior.

But what we need to remember is that Jesus was not about shutting people out. He was about welcoming people in. He was about never giving up on people; never stopping his reaching out in love to people; and always using grace to restore what had been broken.

Remember Zaccheaus, the tax collector? Remember how Jesus related to him…Jesus said “Zaccheaus, I need to come to your house.” And he went to his house, had dinner and conversation; talked and listened and the Scripture says, “That day salvation came to Zaccheaus and his entire household.” Jesus offered grace and the result was others were grabbed by grace and came to see and know God’s presence.

Now, we all know that many times our relational conflicts do not get resolved as quickly or as neatly as the Scripture makes it sound. Speaking hard words to one another and resolving conflicts is hard work that Jesus seems to make sound so easy…it is not easy.

Just think of your past week…what conversations did you have that were difficult or hard? If we had to initiate one of those hard conversations, we probably did not say, “Oh, yea, I get to go have a hard conversation with,” so and so…
We probably worried, stewed, stalled, had the conversation a dozen or more times in our head or spoke the words to our dog or cat—or engaged other people in a triangle before we went directly to the person we needed to talk with.

If we can read between the lines of our scripture passage and take the essence of what Jesus is saying, and remember that the life, teaching and witness of Jesus was always about a message of grace; then we see that the point is to stay at it for the purpose of loving reconciliation. Sometimes we might have to give conflict some space, but then we try again because we value relationships and the restoration of community. We need to do more than simply ignore the conflict and hope the problem just goes away.

The most important part of our scripture passage is hearing the truth that real community in Christ is hard. True community requires us to go to one another in love; to speak the truth to one another in love; and be willing to be with each other through difficulty and disagreements…all in love. All of us struggle with showing love in times of disagreement. We are surrounded by a culture that so quickly rushes to judgment, polarizing positions, blame and accusations. It is hard work to be counter-cultural and demonstrate a Gospel-centered way of speaking the truth in love.

The early believers of the first century struggled with relationships and conflict just as we do. Personal conflict and Church conflict are nothing new…it has marred Christian community from the time of Jesus. But the difference according to Jesus, is how we go about addressing and resolving the conflicts, the disagreements, and the hurts.

You may know of or have experience with what is called “Restorative Justice.” It is justice that focuses on reconciliation instead of punishment and seeks in new ways to look at the needs of victims and the responsibility of offenders. In restorative justice, the victim or victims…the ones who have been wronged, go to the offender with a “circle” of witnesses and together wholeness and reconciliation are pursued. This is usually done in a formalized way with a facilitator and ground rules for the time together and the conversation.

The core value of a “circle process” is that relationships are worth restoring. In a circle process each person has a chance to speak and is asked to speak from the heart, to be specific, to speak in a way that encourages dialogue, to listen with respect in order to understand, and to stay in the circle to find resolution. When an offense involves criminal behavior, this type of restorative justice does not negate jail time, but it’s important to remember that time in jail also does not negate reconciliation.

The kind of reconciliation we see in Jesus and that is being outlined in our Scripture, transforms peoples’ lives.

A story of reconciliation is told about two members of the same church, who also lived on adjoining farms. The two had a falling out, which drove them into conflict. It began with a small misunderstanding, and grew into a major difference, and finally exploded into an exchange of bitter words followed by weeks of silence.

One morning, there was a knock on Jeff’s door. He opened it to find a man with a carpenter’s toolbox. “I’m looking for a few days’ work,” he said. “Perhaps you would have a few small jobs here and there that I could help with? “Yes,” Jeff said, “I do have a job for you. Look across the creek at that farm. Last week, there was a meadow between us, but he took his bulldozer and dug a creek between us. Well I’m going to do him one better. See that pile of old lumber?

I want you to build an 8-foot-high fence between us. Then I won’t need to see his place or his face anymore.”

The carpenter said, “Show me the nails and the tools, and I’ll do a good job for you.” Jeff had to go to town, so he left for the day. At sunset, when he returned, his eyes opened wide, and his jaw dropped. There was no fence there at all. The carpenter had built a bridge that stretched from one side of the creek to the other, with handrails and all! Now his neighbor was coming toward them with two other people from the church. The neighbor stopped in the middle of the bridge, extended his hand and said, “You’re quite the guy, after all I’ve said and done.” Then the two shook each other’s hand. They turned to see the carpenter leaving. “No, wait! Stay a few days. I have a lot of other projects for you,” Jeff said. “I’d love to,” the carpenter said, “but I have many more bridges to build.”

Most of us do not want to be divided from one another. We want the reconciliation that we believe God intends, but we know that bridge-building is hard work. If we believe relationships are worth restoring and that community is worth having, it is going to take some hard work.

What might it mean for us to be a Matthew 18 church? What might it mean for you and I to be people in our day to day lives that witness to a Matthew 18 way of living? My guess is, speaking hard words to one another would not get any easier, but we will become more like Jesus when we listen and when we speak our words in love and truth.

May it be so for each of us.
Thanks be to God.