God’s grace and peace be with all of you.
The scripture readings we hear in church every week come from a calendar known as the “Revised Common Lectionary.” In brief, the lectionary is a three-year schedule of scripture readings used by many churches—not just Lutheran churches, but Episcopal, Roman Catholic, and more.
What this means is that the same Sunday readings come back every three years. So today’s gospel reading, about how to handle conflict within the church, last appeared in our worship in September of 2020.
The last time I preached on this text was in September of 2020. Think about that for a moment. We were still in the throes of pandemic lockdown. The COVID vaccines weren’t available yet, and wouldn’t be for another three months.
In September of 2020, we had just come out of the summer of Black Lives Matter protests, fueled by the death of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others. And we were staring down the 2020 presidential election, knowing it would be contentious but scarcely imagining the consequences that would follow its outcome.
That was September of 2020, when the Holy Spirit moved through something as mundane as a calendar of Bible readings—and the Spirit said, “Pastors all over the United States should preach about conflict.”
The last time I preached on this text, I was preaching alone in my guest room, to a camera on a tripod, recording a sermon several days ahead of time that would be incorporated into an online worship service. Today, I’m preaching live and in-person, in a different space and to a different congregation than I was three years ago.
Obviously, a lot has changed in the past three years. For good or ill, we have settled into a “new normal” when it comes to COVID. Racial injustice persists, though the protests have died down for the time being. Political and social divisions are still rampant, though the battle lines and ideological tests are constantly shifting.
And once again, the Holy Spirit says, “Pastors, you should preach about conflict.” Isn’t it remarkable how these millennia-old texts continue to be relevant, century after century, lectionary cycle after lectionary cycle?
So let’s talk about conflict. Let’s not talk about conflict in our nation—though there’s certainly plenty there to cover—let’s talk about conflict in the church.
In theory, Christian communities ought to be little utopias of love and generosity. After all, we have the teachings and example of Jesus! We have the wisdom of Paul, who in our second reading today says, “Owe no one anything, except to love one another… Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.”
Christians are supposed to be defined by the fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. A community filled with those attributes should have no problem with conflict, right?
Obviously, reality contradicts this theory. Christian communities aren’t perfect little enclaves, filled with love and kindness and peace. Most Christian communities are just as full of conflict as any other group. Sometimes, Christian communities seem to have an extra helping of conflict compared to non-Christian spaces.
As Christians, we’re meant to follow the example of Jesus. We’re supposed to love one another. We should be better at this, shouldn’t we?
In this gospel reading, from Matthew 18, Jesus is telling his followers how they should treat one another—how they should live in community. Jesus won’t be leading them like this forever. He’s going to Jerusalem to die, and as he gets closer to that fate, he is leaving his disciples with instructions for how to keep going after he’s gone.
There’s a similar passage in the gospel of John, known as the “farewell discourse.” In that gospel, while Jesus eats his last meal with his disciples, he tells them, “Love one another as I have loved you.”
And while Jesus in other parts of Matthew’s gospel has given similar instructions, here in today’s reading, he is much more pragmatic. “If another member of the church sins against you…” Jesus is assuming that harm and conflict will arise within the Christian church. In fact, it might be better to translate these words, “When another member of the church sins against you…” It’s going to happen sooner or later. It’s only a matter of time.
So Jesus gives these instructions: first, point out the fault in private; then, if necessary, get some trusted members of the community to bear witness; then tell it to the whole community; and lastly, “If the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”
Writer and theologian Debie Thomas has a wonderful commentary on this passage. She writes, “The first thing to notice about Jesus’ teaching in this passage is its utter realism… Jesus takes it for granted that we will disagree and hurt each other. He starts with the baseline assumption that conflict within the beloved community is normal and natural. The question is not whether we’ll wound each other with our words and actions, but how we should proceed when we do.”
Then she breaks down the passage, highlighting the values that undergird this model of conflict resolution.
Jesus is telling us to preserve dignity. “Even as Jesus stresses the importance of honest engagement, he calls for discretion, kindness, and care… Do not use the conflict as an opportunity to gossip-monger, one-up your opponent, or split the wider community. Do whatever is possible to affirm the dignity and humanity of the person you confront.”
Jesus is telling us to guard the truth. “When we feel injured, it’s easy to resort to exaggeration to press our own advantage. When we wound someone else, it’s easy to deflect, minimize, and pivot away from what really happened in order to defend ourselves. But as Christians, we have an obligation to guard the truth, and sometimes, we need others to come alongside us in our efforts to do so. This is especially the case in our current moment, when the very concept of “truth” is being attacked and desecrated on every side. As if it doesn’t matter. As if it’s up for grabs. But in fact, truth does matter, and it is not up for grabs. Jesus, who is himself the Truth, insists that we guard against falsehoods in our dealings with each other.”
Jesus is telling us that we are a body. Debie Thomas writes, “Here in the West, … we tend to think of the church as a voluntary association of autonomous individuals… In contrast, the Scriptures describe the church as a body, each part wholly interdependent on every other. When conflicts arise in our midst, what’s at stake is not my personal feelings or your personal liberty; what’s at stake is the health and well-being of the entire body.”
The church is a body. We are, together, the body of Christ. We are members of one organism—that means we can’t block one another, we can’t unfriend one another. We can’t cancel one another. If I get food poisoning, I can’t “cancel” my digestive system, even if I might like to. Being a body means we have to work out our conflicts together.
Notice even the last part of Jesus’ instructions: if someone refuses to listen to the whole church, the whole body, then “let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” This is the basis for the church concept of excommunication. But think about it for a moment. Who, to the church, are Gentiles and tax collectors? They’re not people who have been excluded from the Christian way. In fact, Gentiles and tax collectors are the mission field of the church. They are the very people the church is supposed to reach with the message of good news.
Jesus is telling his followers, telling us, how to handle conflict in the church. It requires having hard conversations. It requires being honest when we have been harmed or when we have done harm. It requires that we remember we are all parts of the same body. And if all else fails, if relationships are broken, then we are still called to proclaim the good news of God’s kingdom to the Gentiles and the tax collectors and the people with whom we’ve been in conflict.
We will always have conflict in the church. Jesus knew that. But Jesus is calling us to a better way—to a model of honesty, dignity, and mutual respect. These words of Jesus are just as relevant now as they were three years ago, and I’m sure they will be relevant three years from now, when we next hear this passage in worship. But don’t wait three years to think about how Jesus is teaching you to handle conflict. Take these words to heart. We are the body of Christ, and he is here with us. Amen.