*This reflection is excerpted from a sermon based on Matthew 18:15-20 that I preached about three years ago. (Funny how the lectionary works like that!)
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The Greek word that gets translated as “church”–ekklesia–shows up on only two occasions in the Gospels. Both in Matthew. The first is: “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church . . . and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it.” The second and final use of ekklesia is in this morning’s Gospel reading. Again, Jesus is speaking. This time, rather than focusing on the strength and power of the church, Jesus anticipates church conflict.
“If a brother or sister sins against you . . .” “If.”
If somebody in the church says something that offends you; if he does something that you believe harms you in body or spirit; if she presents a barrier between you and God in some way. These things happen within the church; Jesus knew they would.
The gates of hell shall not prevail against the church; but conflicting theologies, combative personalities, different aesthetic sensibilities–these things can do a lot of damage to Christian communities.
Jesus knew there would be conflict within the church, likely because he was living with the conflicts among his followers every day. We can imagine some of the squabbles that broke out as they walked along the road together.
“Peter took my walking stick.”
“It’s my turn to walk next to Jesus.”
“But we had bread and fish for lunch yesterday.”
“Forgive us our sins.” “Debts.” “Sins.” “Debts.”
“Cessarea is this way.” “No, it’s this way.” “Well, if somebody would have just stopped to ask directions . . . “
Anticipating conflicts to come, Jesus gives his followers some pretty clear instructions: You speak to the offending person one-on-one. You speak to the person with a few witnesses. If the offending party still does not listen, only then do you take the conflict before the church body. The church community hears both sides of the conflict in light of Christ’s teachings; the church presents its collective wisdom in an attempt to reconcile all people to the body.
Only after these faithful attempts at reconciliation does the church let someone go. “Let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” There is a point at which fellowship is broken.
This point of separation, however, is not a point we come to quickly or easily. And it seems to me there is some irony here: “Let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” On the surface, for a first-century Jewish audience, this would mean to treat them as outsiders. Yet in the context of Jesus’ ministry, and considering that the writer of the Gospel of Matthew may well have been a tax collector himself, we have to wonder what Jesus really has in mind here.
There may be times when a person chooses to leave the church community. There may even be times–in extreme situations of abuse–when a church community needs to ask someone to leave. Yet even to the tax collectors and the Gentiles, the door is never shut. The grace of God can extend.
So that’s Jesus little Conflict Management 101 lecture for the disciples. And we know that the followers of Christ in every century will need this lesson. The church will face conflict after conflict after conflict. Sometimes, you have to wonder if the church is worth all of that effort. This church that is stronger than Hell yet somehow so vulnerable to the egos of those of us who make it up.
It is the church community–all of us together trying to follow Jesus–that makes the journey frustrating and painful and hard. And it is the community that makes the journey worthwhile and joyful and possible.
We, together, are the church. We are prone to sin, mistakes, messiness. Conflict is inevitable.
We, together, are the church. Because where two or three are gathered in the name of Jesus, he is here among us. And nothing, nothing, shall prevail against us.
Thanks be to God.