We have a blue print for dealing with conflict.
During the past five months we have all, to some extent, been under stress and enforced family isolation. I wonder how many arguments have exploded and then been resolved, or not. Sometimes the smallest slight can escalate and cause deep wounds. Churches are not immune from misunderstandings and careless hurtful remarks. And that is a model absolutely unacceptable to Jesus.
This morning’s Gospel reading gives us some real, concrete, step-by-step instructions from Jesus about how we should deal with conflict. Many people complain that the Bible is often hard to understand in its instructions to us. In this passage from Matthew, Jesus lays out a step-by-step guide for how one Christian should handle a disagreement with another.
In most churches today – and I don’t think St. Mary’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 sympathy for a message that the other person has caused hurt feelings. Soon there is a large and growing group who know of the disagreement and they all begin to remember when the person wronged them as well. Meanwhile, the person who is now being talked about has no idea that he or she has done anything wrong.
Jesus lays out how these things are to be handled. 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, in hopes of having the issues worked out. Jesus says that we should speak with each other, not in anger, but also not hiding hurt that has been done. 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 put on the armor of light, and walk properly, as in the day; …not in strife and jealousy.” What Jesus really wants is for us to engage in forgiveness, so that we are no longer bound by anger and resentment that breed’s bitterness and can extinguish the flame of Christian love.
The great Anglican writer, C.S. Lewis in his book, The Great Divorce, described 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 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 talking 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. It means that we are commanded by Jesus to forgive our brothers and sisters who ask for forgiveness.
Of course, like every other, seemingly easy to follow, commandment, people can distort this one if they try hard enough. This simple set of rules has been used in the past to expel people from their church communities because they don’t agree with those who are in power and won’t surrender, 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.” 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 neighbour; 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 believed to have done, either recently or ages ago, apologise 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 him or her grant 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 it for each other, and for Him. Amen
The Rt. Rev'd Maureen Lunn, St Mary Magdalene, Enfield, 06/09/2020