Have you had a fight with anyone in the last week or two? An argument, or a disagreement that was more than momentary? In particular, I’d like you to think of a time when you had a dispute with someone close to you that left you feeling hurt, angry, upset. What was that like? How did it go? And what did you do to get to reconciliation with one another…if you have been able to do that?
This is one of the questions I always ask of couples with whom I am doing pre-marital counselling. It is important, of course, to understand what a fight is about, what are the likely red flags and flashpoints that each individual brings to the relationship. But it is even more important to understand what it takes for them to be able to get to reconciliation. Untold relationships – marriages, friendships, sibling bonds – have crashed on the rocks of simmering resentment, misunderstanding, entrenched anger, and cold-hearted score keeping. The same is true for organizations, communities, and churches, as well, sadly.
Learning the ways of reconciliation are Jesus’ theme in the Gospel today; and they are vital to the Church and to the world if we are not to fall into estrangement and alienation from those we love and those we live among.
In this teaching to the disciples, Jesus paints a very plausible picture. Two disciples have some sort of strenuous difference with one another that leaves the first person hurt and angry. The translation we are using (NRSV) refers to “a member of the church”, but a better translation would be “a disciple”, or “a follower of Jesus.” We need to have in mind that “the Church” meant other believers with whom they were deeply and intimately connected on both a spiritual and a community level, and not just thinking of "a member of the Church" like a dues-paying member of a club.
When this kind of hurt or injustice happens, which Jesus refers to as “sin”, the first thing he says to do is for the injured party to go to the other – one on one - and explain how he or she is feeling, and what it was about the other person’s action that caused the hurt. (That is, as long as it is safe for you to do so.) Show up in person, be honest and direct about the hurt without embellishing or embroidering the pain. The person who is on the receiving end of the complaint is to listen; really listen – not just to the words, but to the hurt and pain that underlie them.
This is really hard to do; most of us use the time the other person is talking to plan out what kind of snappy or cutting or defensive answer we are going to make.
But Jesus says that if the person who has caused hurt and offense listens, and if the two of them are able to work it through, then the relationship will be restored, renewed, “you will have gained a brother or sister.” Reconciliation can often create a stronger, truer relationship than there was before the fight.
Jesus takes the process a few steps further. If the offender won’t listen, and won’t respond to the one they have hurt, then the injured person should try again, this time asking one or two others to come to the meeting as witnesses. This is in keeping with the Old Testament practice of giving evidence. The idea here is not for one side to gang up on the other side, but for there to be mature, impartial, and wise people who can witness the conversation and offer some form of observation and mediation. Listening is important here, also – listening to the wisdom of the observers.
If that doesn’t work, Jesus says, than the person who has been injured is to bring the hurt and the rupture to the notice of the whole Body, the Church, the assembly. In the earliest days this would have meant talking it all through with the assembled believers – several dozen people at most. What’s being described is a community rupture that the entire community would need to be advised about and given an opportunity to weigh in on – after listening to the concerns with prayerfulness and humility. This is not about engaging in gossip or a whisper campaign, nor giving someone a public platform to air grievances during a service. Think of a family meeting rather than a public pillory.
Finally, if the breach has still not been repaired, if reconciliation seems not to be possible (at least at this present moment), then it is best to face up to the fact that the person who has caused the harm has put themselves beyond the bonds of fellowship and community, and so is no longer really a part of the Church’s life.
This is really strong stuff, and it probably makes most of us uncomfortable, because so often our image of Church is a place where we want to smooth over differences in an effort to “all just get along.” And indeed, congregational fights can damage a Church in serious and long-lasting ways.
But what is more important to Jesus is for the community of believers to learn how to be reconciled with one another, to be in a place of trust and honesty and just behavior with one another – as a reflection of our reconciliation with God. The Catechism in the Prayer Book defines the mission of the Church this way: “The mission of the Church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.”
Reconciliation with God is at the heart of our faith and discipleship. Reconciliation with one another should be a hallmark of the Church. And we are to exercise our ministry as Jesus-followers in doing our part to bring reconciliation to our family, friends, and neighbors as best as we can so that the Peace of Christ may take root and flourish in society.
This ministry of reconciliation begins with listening, with paying attention. We listen to our own inner experience; we listen with openness and humility to the experience of others. We pay attention to whatever ways the grace of God may be at work in the situation. We offer our willingness to be vulnerable, to have real conversation, to listen (once again) to the wisdom of the Holy Spirit – even if that wisdom comes through the mouth of the one who has hurt us.
Jesus describes this ministry to the disciples –not as a recipe to follow – but so that they will be equipped and skilled and strengthened to be agents of reconciliation in the world, having learned how in the family of faith and the household of the Church. And the world surely needs this ministry now.
Let us pray.
Lord Christ, you have given us to each other as brothers and sisters in the household of faith; help us to listen to your love, truth, and justice in each other’s lives so that we may be equipped to be your ministers of reconciliation in the places you call us to act. We ask this in you holy Name, Amen.
Victoria Geer McGrath
All Saints’ Church, Millington, NJ
Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 6, 2020