One of Marshall’s recent posts reminded me of a lectionary reflection I did some time ago on conflict. Yesterday’s Gospel reading where Jesus says “I have not come to bring peace but division” also brought it to mind. So even though it’s a bit out of turn in the lectionary cycle, I thought I would post it here.
Text: Matthew 18: 15-17
Dealing with conflict is never easy, especially within the Church. The Church is meant to be viewed as a bastion of peace and hope, a place where we can forget the troubles and cares of the world, even for just a little while, and rejoice in our worship of God and the fellowship we have with each other. But, the Church is something beyond the four walls and the beautiful architecture. It is made up of every person who comes to worship, it is the community of believers gathering, and even God is in the midst of us as we come together. There is a song we used to sing in Vacation Bible School with words that went something like, “The Church is not a building, the Church is not a steeple, the Church is not a resting place, the Church is the people. I am the Church, you are the Church, we are the Church together.” Because the Body of Christ is made up of human beings, and human beings, no matter their intentions, are quite fallible, it is inevitable that we will quarrel with each other or suffer disagreements, or even worse, one of us may be engaged in behaviour that is not in line with how Jesus taught us to live. And here, we come to a passage where Jesus explains a way that we may deal with conflict.
Before we jump in and take this passage or we start to apply it to anything that may be going on in our own lives, it is important to know where Jesus is coming from and how he got to this topic. Immediately before this, Jesus tells the parable of the lost sheep, where the shepherd leaves the flock that is well-tended and safe to find the one that is lost. The lost sheep never ceases to be a sheep, and in no way does Jesus imply that it is more or less a sheep than the others. In other words, it is still a sheep that is very much a part of the shepherd’s flock. To look at it another way, the Church is given the title, “The Body of Christ.” For the body to function in a normal and healthy manner, everything must be working smoothly and without a hitch. Everything has a place and everything is in its place, but the body is also an interdependent organism, just like the Church. The sometimes disparate parts of our bodies must work in communion and in concert with each other. So, what happens when something is not working properly? We go tot he doctor. If something is wrong with one part of the body, it will soon begin to affect other parts. Take a cold for example. Our muscles ache, we have a fever, we cannot breathe quite as well because we are congested …. the list goes on. Or a small cut, left unattended can get infected and become a festering sore. So, when something is wrong with us, do we cut off the part that is not working right in the hopes that the body will suddenly start working properly again? No. We seek healing through doctors and medications and continue to seek healing until the sickness goes away. When the Church is ailing or one part is not working right, we go to Christ, who through the Holy Spirit helps us to speak the truth in love to our neighbor so we may be whole again.
So what should we do then when one part of the Church is not working properly or if one of our flock becomes “lost?” Jesus, the Great Physician, gives us a three part prescription: 1) speak to one another directly, 2) gather two or three to confront the issue, and 3) treat the one who is causing the problem like a Gentile and a tax collector. Parts one and two sound very reasonable and are done easily enough, but notice part three: Jesus says that as a last resort, we should treat such offending members as we would a Gentile or a tax collector, who were very much unwelcome in the Jewish world of 1st century Palestine. So, does this mean that we just write each other off, walk away, tell them we’re not welcome in each others’ lives any more? We should always try and emulate what Jesus says and does, shouldn’t we? Of course we should! And how did Jesus treat such despicable and unclean and unorthodox members of society?