There are many important choices we face in life and on the path to becoming a mature follower of Jesus and one of those choices is choosing to address and resolve conflict. In Matthew 18:15-20, Jesus outlines a process for the church to follow to resolve conflict.
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We’re in This Together
There are some passages in the Bible in which the difference in the historical or cultural context from our own time, doesn’t seem that vast – for example, people still get angry and have difficulty speaking to other people appropriately, just like they did 2,000 years ago. Not much difference there.
However, there are passages where the difference in context or culture is significant, and we need to acknowledge and seek to understand it.
The passage I’m going to share today from Matthew’s Gospel is one such scripture for us as Christians, most of whom also happen to be Americans. Americans have long valued individualism. We like to highlight the rugged individual who does what he or she wants regardless of what anyone else thinks or how it impacts other people. This approach is often expressed in statements like, “It’s my life, I can do what I want, no one can tell me what to do.”
The individualistic image of a cowboy on a horse is such a part of American culture that even though we’re almost a quarter of the way into the 21st century with electric vehicles and Artificial Intelligence, I’ve already seen an ad for someone running for President who thinks the best way to present himself in our highly technological age is by showing himself riding a horse in the country.
This emphasis on individualism is also reflected in much of American Christianity in people who think being a follower of Christ is just about “me and my Jesus,” nobody else and nothing else matters.
I don’t mean to hurt anyone’s feelings, but that idea, which is not difficult to find, would be totally foreign and incomprehensible to a first century Jewish disciple like Matthew. Matthew’s perspective which is reflected in his Gospel, is not individualistic, instead, it’s very community oriented.
If someone were to say to Matthew, “It’s my life, I can do what I want, no one can tell me what to do.” Matthew’s reply would have been something like, “Don’t be ridiculous, of course we can, because what you do as a member of the church impacts the whole community. We’re all in this together. Your sin doesn’t just impact you, or you and another person, it impacts the whole church. We’re bound to each other and what each person does shapes our life together as a community of faith.”
Listen to Matthew 18:15-20 and we’ll explore this some more.
15 “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. 16 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. 17 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. 18 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. 19 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. 20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”
Looking at this passage in its context, Matthew 18 begins with Jesus answering a question from the disciples about “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” They probably want to know what they can do to be at the top of the list. Jesus replies by saying members of the community are to be as humble and teachable as children (Matthew 18:1-5).
Jesus then says his followers must attend to matters of personal morality so that they don’t become “stumbling blocks” in the paths of others (18:6-9).
Third, faithful disciples cultivate care for one another (18:10-14) especially the little ones, the lost, and the vulnerable.
Then Jesus says in our passage for today to be persistent in resolving situations involving conflict, which is immediately followed by an exhortation to be prepared to offer forgiveness to one another, “seventy times seven” if necessary (18:21-35).
The verses for today are surrounded by others that are designed to shape conduct within the community of believers which is the church and that importantly includes how to deal with and resolve conflict.
There are many important choices we face in life and on the path to becoming a mature follower of Jesus and one of those choices is choosing to address and resolve conflict. Conflict is never easy to address.
If there’s one thing we can be sure of in an era of rapid social changes that affect church life, it’s that conflicts will arise. Anyone who has been in a large group of people, including the church, for any length of time, knows conflict is simply a part of life together with other humans.
The question is: how will we deal with it?
Our son Greg is interviewing with churches as he seeks to discern where he and Marci will begin their full-time ministry next year after they graduate from seminary in May. One of the questions that often comes up in a pastoral search process is: “How do you handle conflict?” A wise pastoral candidate will also ask a Pastoral Search Team: “How have you handled conflicts in the past?”
In Matthew 18, Jesus outlines a process for the church to follow to resolve conflict.
Step One: privately take your grievance to the one who has “sinned against you.”
This is the gracious and mature thing to do, to meet with someone one on one so as not to cause unnecessary embarrassment or to cause unhelpful attention to the person or the conflict. If the member listens to you, great, that’s the end of it, move on.
If you’re not listened to (and note the fourfold repetition of “listened to” in verses 15-17) go to Step Two.
Take a couple of folks with you that both of you can trust. If you’re listened to, fine. All is well. If you’re not listened to, take the matter before the local body of believers.
If the offender still doesn’t listen, then, tragically, a bond is broken, and the offender must be treated as an “outsider.”
I think it’s interesting that Matthew’s Gospel, has Jesus saying, “Let that person be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector,” when that was the profession Matthew left to follow Jesus.
Treating the unrepentant offender like an outsider doesn’t mean he or she is outside of God’s care and concern. It doesn’t mean the offender is to be treated with contempt. It does mean the offender is to be treated with compassion and hope that fellowship can be restored.
With 34 years of pastoral experience, I can testify that this is an idealized process.
Seeking to resolve conflict doesn’t always end with good listening, forgiveness, grace, and reconciliation, however, every church needs a road map for hoped for reconciliation and that’s what Jesus gives us in Matthew 18.
Too often these steps don’t happen. Rather than a grievance being handled in private between two persons, when we’re sinned against, we may complain to any number of other people about what the offender did or said to us, without ever going to that person to address it.
It’s easy to vent to people who will sympathize with us. It takes vulnerability and courage to have a difficult conversation that we fear might alter, damage, or even end a relationship.
I want to be clear that if the sin against a person is violent or sexual in nature or if it involves a great difference in power, then I believe it’s important to move to Step Two without engaging in Step One because meeting alone with someone like that might be risky, potentially harmful or even dangerous, and I don’t think Jesus would want you to do that.
Another reason why this process isn’t followed that often is because people get mad and just leave a church without ever trying to address their issue with another person.
People sometimes leave a church without even talking with a pastor before they go. One of the downsides of there being so many churches is people can just leave when life in community gets difficult rather than following the process and principles that Jesus provides for us when conflict inevitably happens.
Earlier in Matthew’s Gospel in 5:23-24 Jesus says,
“So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.” In Matthew 18:15 Jesus says, “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.”
So, the principle is the same whether someone sins against you, or you know someone has something against you, seek to be reconciled.
As important as processes are, the principles that guide them are even more important.
The principles in Matthew 18:15-20 go to the heart of what it means to be the Body of Christ in our world. The Apostle Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 12:12-26, “one part of the body can’t say to another part of the body: I have no need of you!”
These are strange words to hear in our culture of individualism. More familiar words are independence, self-reliance, and “I’m my own person.” “I don’t need you. I don’t need anyone”
It can be hard for a cluster of well-meaning but self-sufficient individuals to think of themselves as a mystical “Body” when they come together for worship. It’s often in worship, though, when we begin to feel more like a Body and more like a church than a loose collection of individuals.
Someone who watched last week’s worship service online from her home shared that when she saw all the people coming forward to receive communion she suddenly felt connected to the larger body of Christ which is the church. When conflict goes unaddressed, hearts begin to harden and the experience of being the Body of Christ fades into memory.
When we do address conflict believing that we’re a place where “two or three can gather together” in the presence of Christ, we’re freed to be what we were created to be—God’s agents of reconciliation.
Consider the need in our culture for communities where simple virtues are practiced: respect for the dignity of each individual, humble servant leadership that strives to make a positive impact for the common good, understanding and exploring racial and cultural differences with curiosity rather than fear, taking responsibility for wrongdoing and offering and accepting forgiveness, truly listening to, and empathizing with the pain and isolation of another.
In verses 18-20, Jesus makes it clear that it’s not just in working through conflict that we’re in community together, it’s through praying together to bind the powers, forces, spirits, and behavior that hinder or oppose the work of the kingdom of heaven.
It’s praying to loose the power of the Holy Spirit and the power of love, grace, mercy, justice, and faith in our midst.
It’s praying our way to unity and agreement about who God is calling us to be and what the Lord wants us to do.
It’s believing that where two or three gathered in the name of Jesus, that Christ is with us in our midst.
Pleasing God, following Christ, and serving others we become agents of reconciliation to each other and to the world that God loves.
I want to close on a note of hope. People through the years have asked me questions about our church and I used to say that we have three congregations: our year-round folks, our snowbirds who are here about half of the year, and our second homeowners who come when they’re on Cape. Now I say we have four congregations because we’ve added all of you who are watching online. I hope you’ll be encouraged to know that the last four Sundays we’ve had 242, 217, 190, and 204 views of our two services on YouTube which is an average of 213 views a week, last Sunday we had 350 people in person, so our online views last week were 60% of what we had in person, and that’s if each view is only one person and we know that’s not the case. Isn’t that amazing?
All of you online are part of the church. Because we have so many of you watching online we’re buying new streaming software and a new computer to run it. We didn’t budget for that, and it costs $5,000 but knowing BBC, I’m confident some of you will want to help us provide as fine an online experience as we can for the hundreds of people watching, many of whom are among our most senior members, because we’re in this together.
This past Wednesday I visited Miriam and Carl Lindahl. Most of you don’t know them and they haven’t been here in person to worship for several years, but they’ve been a part of BBC for a long time. They’re both 101 years old and celebrated their 75th Wedding Anniversary this year and they still live in their home in Orleans. It was delightful to be with them and their daughter Nancy and her husband Cliff.
On Thursday afternoon Jill and I and other folks from BBC went to Jeannette Louth’s home in Harwich to join her family in celebrating her 99th Birthday.
Friday night I had the joy of uniting Angie Howes and Tom Costello in Christian marriage.
Two weeks ago on August 26th, BBC member Rich Muto married his wife Mara at her home church in Hyannis and they’re here today for the first time as husband and wife.
On Saturday morning, I met with Jason Holm and his son Chase to plan the celebration of life service for Jason’s dear wife Amanda who passed away on August 15th at the too young age of 48 after an eight-year battle with cancer. Jason shared with me how grateful his family is for the support of the church. I asked his permission to share the following: “in addition to the women’s group support, Tina Callahan was a great friend to Amanda and took her to many doctor appointments and shopping trips. Steve Chapman made a promise to Amanda to look after us and he has been in contact every week since. I know you already know what a special congregation you have but I wanted to bring to your attention the other support that you may not even have known about. Great people and we are so appreciative of all of them.”
In all these circumstances, we’re a community doing what the church is supposed to do, we rejoice with those who rejoice, we weep with those who weep, we’re present for each other with love, care, and support.
As children returned to school this week, we want to recognize and thank our teachers and all who serve students in any capacity, including any parents who are homeschooling their children. Would you please stand? Gwyneth Preu and Sharon Kautz have a gift for you from BBC to encourage you as another school year begins.
From our most senior members to our youngest children, we’re a community of faith, not a collection of individuals.
We’re brothers and sisters in Christ, we need each other to be whole and to demonstrate to the world what a community formed by love and grace looks like.
We’re all in this together and it’s exciting to be on this journey with one another, and I hope we all will be inviting more and more people to be a part of what God is doing in and through us.
Blessing: “Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven;” Luke 6:37
Questions for Discussion or Reflection
- Have you ever had a member of a church you were a part of sin against you? If you’re comfortable talking about it, can you share what happened and how you responded? If you’re alone, consider journaling about what took place.
- Did you take the initiative and go to the person who sinned against you and, in private, point out the fault that was committed? How did that go if you did? If you didn’t, other than reasons related to physical safety, why didn’t you?
- Have you ever had a church member sin against you and rather than having a gracious if difficult conversation in private with that person, you vented and complained to other people you thought would be sympathetic? Why does it sometimes feel easier to complain to supporters than to have a conversation with the person directly responsible?
- Why is it important for the state of your soul, for your relationships, and for the church to have conversations that may be difficult and require deep listening, a desire to understand, vulnerability, courage, and a willingness to extend or ask for forgiveness? What happens to your soul, relationships, and the church when you fail to have these conversations?
- In Matthew 18:18-19, what do we learn about the power of unity, of praying and working together? Why do you think Jesus says this after sharing about confronting the sin of a church member? Do you think church members tend to talk more about the sins of those outside the church or inside the church? Why do you think that?
- What does Jesus promise when we gather in his name? What difference does this make?