[Jesus said:] “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But 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 the member refuses to listen to them, 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 and a tax-collector. Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” —Matthew 18:15-20 (NRSV)
The Reverend Malcolm Boyd—who died in 2015 at the age of 91—was an Episcopal priest, lecturer, and author. Some of you who are of my vintage may recognize his name.
Back in the 1960s, he was active in the Civil Rights Movement, alongside Dr. Martin Luther King. In fact, Boyd was one of the “Freedom Riders” who challenged racial segregation laws in the American South.
He was also a pastor. In one of his books, he related an incident from his own experience in pastoral ministry. He also mentioned it in an address he gave, and he prefaced it by saying: “This really happened; I’m not making it up.”
In a nutshell, the story goes like this. In a congregation Boyd once pastored, a controversy arose. A fierce one, bitterly contested. It wasn’t about some great issue like the “nature” of Christ or the reality of the Virgin Birth or the Trinity or anything like that.
No. It was about the colour of the church doors.
Yeah. That’s right. The time had come to repaint the front doors of the church building, and this became an occasion for conflict. Why? Because some of Boyd’s parishioners wanted to paint the doors red … and others thought red was a scandalous colour for the doors of a church!
To make a long story short … in the end, the doors were painted red, and—as Malcolm Boyd tells it—“there were some who never passed through them again.”
You may chuckle at that, but … The sad truth is that the world knows far too many stories like that one about the church.
Over two decades of pastoral ministry, I have heard story after story from people who have been hurt by others in their congregations. I have also heard many stories about those who hurt others and never understood what they did. Or—even worse—who did understand and did not care.
“Where two or three are gathered in my name,” Jesus said, “I am there.”
And yet … I know pastors who dread the “gathered two or three” in the church parking lot. I’ve listened to teenagers tell of their fear of the “gathered two or three” in their youth group.
Such stories can be found and heard whenever … two or three Christians gather.
Oh, I know, I know … you want to tell me that there are lots of good things that happen in congregations large and small—and you’re right. I hope you realize I see the good things, too. I try to make a point of celebrating that stuff—like the genuine caring folks show to one another in times of trouble. I do see those good things.
But one good thing that would be most visible to the world is the way that we treat each other, or the ways in which we handle disagreement.
Church conflict is nothing new. Some people think there should be no conflict in church, as though we can and should gloss over disagreements with some kind of forced niceness.
The Lord, however, is more realistic. In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus takes it for granted that conflict in Christian community is normal and natural, and he says we should deal with it honestly and with compassion.
Trouble is, honesty and compassion rarely characterize church fights. Often, hurt feelings and lack of clear communication drive us to sweep everything under the rug to keep the peace.
Other times, entrenched positions lead to major blow-ups that cause people to leave the church permanently.
The result is either a Body of Christ that is pristine on the outside but riddled with the disease and rot of resentment on the inside (what Jesus called a “whitewashed tomb”), or else an obviously wounded and bleeding Body hemorrhaging members and vitality.
Like I said, Jesus takes it for granted that conflict will arise in Christian community. We know he assumes that it will, because he outlines a method for working it through.
First of all, he tells us to use direct and respectful communication.
If we are struggling with something another church member has said or done, we are not supposed to talk behind his or her back. Nor are we to stage a dramatic public confrontation at coffee hour. No.
Instead, we are to take time—after the initial rush of emotion has subsided—to engage in civil dialogue with that person, one-on-one.
But what if that conversation goes nowhere? Jesus’ advice is to create a small group of all parties involved to reflect and pray together.
If that bears no fruit, then we are to let transparency be our guiding principle and search for a solution as a whole church community, bearing one another’s burdens and seeking reconciliation.
Reconciliation. In all the steps, reconciliation is the goal. And Jesus assumes that reconciliation is possible because of the depth and intensity of the relationship. The other party is not merely a “member on the rolls” or an “adherent.” No. Jesus wants you to wake up to the fact that “the other party” is your brother or sister—not an adversary, but someone who is kin to you. Someone who is every bit as much a child of our Heavenly Father as you are.
More than that, Jesus tells us that the way we treat each other has eternal consequences. He says, “Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (Matt. 18:18).
A cryptic statement, to be sure. “Binding and loosing.” It’s been taken to mean many different things by many different commentators. I’m not going to try to nail down a precise definition here. However, I think what Jesus means is in one way crystal-clear: the way we treat one another has everlasting implications. If in this life you refuse to deal with a broken relationship …
Well, do you really want to show up in the next life with unfinished business? If heaven is a realm of forgiveness and grace, you’d best prepare for it by extending forgiveness and grace … right here, and right now.
I think this is simply the logical consequence of being forgiven. Because we have received so great a gift from God, we ought to expand upon that loving act by forgiving others in turn. In fact, we need to expand upon it. In a sermon written from a jail cell, Dr. Martin Luther King explained it like this:
Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend. We never get rid of an enemy by meeting hate with hate; we get rid of an enemy by getting rid of enmity. By its very nature, hate destroys and tears down; by its very nature, love creates and builds up. Love transforms with redemptive power.*
“By its very nature, love creates and builds up.” At the core of Jesus’ call to love one another as kin is this admonition: we are supposed to build one another up. Our actions here should mirror the status quo of heaven. Not the status quo of earth, but the status quo of heaven.
Jesus calls us to love the way God loves—and God’s love reconciles all things. The Christian community is meant to be a place where love is practiced and forgiveness is experienced. Why? Because it is in those moments of forgiveness—given or received—that we share in the great work God is doing.
“Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”
How we choose to treat one another here and now has consequences that far outlast the disagreements and displeasures of the present day. We have the power to bind and to loose.
Through the choices we make, we can bind each other even tighter into our separate camps and polarized positions. We can loose people out into a world without the benefit of Christian fellowship, driving them from the church with wounds that bleed for years to come.
Or we can loose ourselves from our pride and from our overarching need to always be right. We can loose one another from assumptions and stereotypes, from grudges and bitterness. We can loose our faith community from the fear of church conflict. And then we can bind ourselves together with the unbreakable love of Christ.
In a Communion liturgy that’s commonly used in some quarters, the presider calls upon God to bless the fruits of field and vine, saying: “Let them be for us the body and blood of your Son, that we may be for the world the body of Christ, redeemed by his blood.”
Friends, we are the Body of Christ—a body tested, refined, healed, and flourishing with new life. Let’s all try to live like we really believe that. Amen.
* Martin Luther King, Jr., Strength to Love (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1981) p. 54.