“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.”
To be human is to have conflict, within ourselves and with others, and while this is obvious, probably, it is hard to accept, because it requires admitting that things don’t always go as well as we’d like; not all our relationships are going well; not all of our growth has happened peacefully. I was reading a piece about the poet Christian Wiman this week, who writes about faith and experience, and he says that if you believe the same thing at fifty that you believe at fifteen, you haven’t lived, and so to live is to have conflict, conflict between what you once learned and what you now experience, between who you are and who you want to be, between how you act and how others act.
This may sound weird for me to say, but I count it as one of the main reasons that I believe in Jesus, that I take him seriously, that the Bible, the primary revelation of truth about who God is and who we are . . . the Bible does not tell us to avoid conflict. So much of what passes for popular religion these days is all about avoiding conflict. Just go search the religion section in a bookstore and you’ll find all sorts of nonsense about avoiding conflict, and I think that comes from this feeling deep within us that while we all have conflict, we wish we didn’t. That’s not to say that we wish we were more wishy-washy, that we don’t want to believe things very deeply. It’s to say that we wish everybody else would be more wishy-washy and willing to change their very experience and understanding of the world to bend to what I believe, who I am, what I have experienced to be true.
We do not like conflict because it reminds us that the world does not revolve around me. When I have conflict, I am reminded that my beliefs about the ways that the world works, understandings which I hold to be deeply true and important, are not the only beliefs and—this might shock you—they might not be the only true beliefs.
The church deals with this kind of thing just as much as anybody, maybe even more so. We’re not immune from conflict, because while it is true that we are the body of Christ, we’re also fundamentally human. And I have discovered that when it happens, when conflict happens, humans respond in one of three ways, only one of which is at all holy, at all faithful.
The first way is to say, “I don’t have a problem with conflict; I just disagree,” and leave it at that, as if simply disagreeing with someone and leaving it there does anything but make conflict worse. It is true, of course, that everyone is entitled to his or her opinion, but it is decidedly not true that saying to someone, “I disagree” without making the effort to understand what it feels like to wear their skin and walk in their shoes, does anything to diffuse conflict. It just makes it worse. And all that sort of thing does for you, spiritually, if you’re interested in growing spiritually, is that it builds a wall between you and everybody else. It keeps you from being in authentic relationship, of course, but worse than that, it worsens conflict, makes it cut more deeply, without any possibility of resolution because, well, you just disagree and that’s all there is to it. That’s not faithful, because it isn’t the kind of thing that can be worked out, not that you wanted it worked out. I’m not saying you need to give up your beliefs. I’m just saying that if you hold so fast to your understandings of what it means to be a person of faith, a follower of Jesus, that your own stubbornness gets in the way of the Holy Spirit, you’ve created an idol out of your own beliefs that keeps God from working in your life. It isn’t righteous to live that way, because it’s all about you and your beliefs, not about anybody else, and if you haven’t caught on yet, let me very clear that one of the central messages of the Christian Gospel is that it’s not all about you.
Now, the second way some of us react in the face of conflict is to say, oh, it’s fine, everything is just as right as everything else, nothing is more important than anything else, all viewpoints, no matter how destructive or graceless or embittered are equal, and this is a particularly insidious response, because it disguises our intolerance in something that looks like tolerance, clothes our unwillingness to admit that we might be wrong in the false idea that what you believe doesn’t matter as long as I am allowed to believe what I want. Do you see the problem? By refusing to have conflict under the guise of living and letting live, I don’t have to change. I don’t have to be challenged. And then when I am called on it I get to act like Captain Tolerance, and while tolerance is good, and true, and virtuous, it is not the same thing as running away from conflict so that I don’t have to be challenged, myself. That’s cowardice, not tolerance. And it’s not what Jesus calls us to, either.
What these two ways of being have in common, of course, is that they protect me from having to change, from having to reconsider anything, and it’s not long before you’re fifty and you realize you believe the same things you did when you were fifteen. There’s no growth there, and the life of faith is about growth. Shoot, life in general is about growth. If you’re not growing, you’re dying. And yet growth is so difficult that we build these walls around us to keep us from having to change, to reevaluate, to acknowledge that even difficult people may have something to teach us. Sometimes, the reason we find people to be difficult is that they have a word for us that we don’t want to hear, but know that we should. Every time I am in one of these situations with difficult people I remind myself that Jesus was a difficult person, so maybe I ought to get past my own stuff and try to listen. It’s not easy.
And so the third way, like most third ways, is the hardest, but it is the most faithful, and the most productive, and it happens to be exactly what Jesus lays out for us in this morning’s scripture lesson. If someone sins against you, Jesus says, go and work it out when the two of you are alone. If the other person listens, you’ve preserved a relationship. If not, take someone with you to work it out. And if the person with whom you have a conflict still doesn’t listen, get the church involved, and if even that doesn’t help, let that person be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Shake the dust off your feet, brush your shoulders off, and move on.
Now, this is all very hard for a number of reasons. Mostly it’s hard because there’s no provision here for gossip. You don’t get to say, listen to what Dalton did to me the other day, even if all you are trying to do is blow off some steam. The line we so often use is “I just need to vent,” and venting is ok, but when you’re talking about somebody specific, you don’t get to spread that around like a virus. You go directly to the person. Some days I wish it weren’t so, because I don’t like dealing with this stuff head on either, but my experience is that when you do it, when you follow Jesus’s words here, healing can be born. It doesn’t happen every time, and it doesn’t happen right away, but you’re certainly not going to save a relationship by gossiping about it, whether the sin is legitimate or not.
Which brings me to the next thing, which is that you don’t get to do any of this anonymously. Jesus doesn’t say, write it all down and leave your name off. It doesn’t matter how mad you are, or how embarrassed, you don’t get to do this anonymously. You are not going to find Jesus offering a provision for sending a nasty, anonymous email. That’s not how we are to behave. Now, I recognize that putting your name to criticism takes guts, but I want you to know that as a professional Christian and a semi-professional receiver of complaints, I have a very strict policy about this stuff, and it’s been born out of experience. When I receive a letter, the first thing I do is to see who signed it. If the answer is “nobody,” I throw it away unread. I do this every single time I open a piece of mail. Maybe this seems harsh, but if we are to act as Jesus calls us to act, we have to be willing to go to the person with who we have a conflict and deal with it right there, face to face, name to name, and that’s all there is. Yes it takes guts to sign your name, but nobody ever said the Christian life was easy.
I’ll end with this. I realize it seems like what Jesus is telling us is to do one of the hardest things we can imagine, which is to face someone who has caused you heartache, pain, hurt. But none of what I’ve already mentioned is the hardest thing, however. You want to know the hardest thing? Jesus says that if you go through all these steps, you go to the person, you bring somebody with you, you use the church for its intended purpose of reconciliation and you still can’t get resolution, you are to treat someone as you would treat tax collectors and Gentiles. I’ll be honest, that sounds like great fun, like if you go through all these steps you finally get to treat the person who has sinned against you like they ought to be treated, like a wretched, crooked tax collector, like an outsider, and that’s all well and good until you remember who Jesus was, how he ate with sinners, how he counted tax collectors and prostitutes among his friends. You don’t go through the steps of conflict so that you can get to the fun part. You go through the steps because in the final analysis, unless you are open to learning from others, unless you are open to acknowledging that there may be some areas in which you need to do some growing, you aren’t really living. And if it is true that resentment is allowing somebody to live in your head, rent-free, maybe we all ought to take a page from Jesus’s playbook and find ways to love, at all times, in all places. It’s not easy, but it’s a whole lot cheaper than having to keep up maintenance for a renter who will never, never get caught up on his rent.
In the name of the father, the son, and the holy spirit. Amen.