Passage: Matthew 18:15-20
Antagonism is that spirit of opposition that seems so prevalent in society today. The world runs on antagonism, says David Fitch. Do any of us really disagree? Us vs. them seems to be the default worldview in our culture; indeed in most cultures. This is of course a direct result of the Fall. It started with the very first family, when, as result of sin (not as part of the Divine Plan) God says to Eve that her desire will be for her husband but he will rule over her (Gen. 3:16).
It continued with many heartbreaking examples from the Old Testament. The estrangement between Joseph and his brothers, the relational and power struggle between David and Saul, even the bickering among the disciples all stand out as examples of an antagonistic world view continuing even into the New Testament.
If you want to see antagonism in the present time, check the news. Log on to Facebook. Maybe just go to your next family get-together. You’ll find plenty of antagonism between individuals. You’ll also see it between political parties, Christian denominations, and along racial lines. There’s a lot of disagreement, a lot of tension, a lot of hurt out there, and while it’s often out in the open, it also sometimes hides under a thin veneer of sugary sweet niceness.
Antagonism says I know best, I should be in control, you’re probably wrong, you don’t deserve to be forgiven, and that’s that. If you don’t like how I do things, maybe you should leave…My way or highway.
We don’t have to look far to discern a spirit of antagonism.
And we don’t have to use a lot of our imagination to see where antagonism leads us. Antagonism necessarily leads to broken relationships, divided societies, emotional and physical violence, and–ultimately–death. This stands in direct opposition to Christ’s mission to bring life, and life abundant, and by submitting to death reconcile all things whether on heaven or on earth to himself (Col 1:20) So Jesus gives us a better way. He gives us a worldview, a spirit, a discipline and a mission of reconciliation.
Remember the three circles we talked about last week?
In the close circle, we discern Christ’s presence beginning at the table among the faithful. In the dotted circle, we express and discern Christ in our homes, inviting both Christians and unbelievers to join us in fellowship. In the half-circle, we discern Christ’s presence as we take the posture of a guest in the world. Each of these must be approached with discernment and intention—as disciplines and over time—in order to be effective.
Jesus begins his teaching on reconciliation in the close circle. Did you note how he says, “if your brother sins against you” (emphasis added) in Matthew 18:15? He is assuming close intimate relationships in community of faith. And just in case we are tempted to think this is only talking about our nuclear family relationships, we see the church mentioned explicitly in verse 17. So there’s no doubt that Jesus intends this disciplined process to be normative in the church.
If only this process was normative in the church!
In the close circle, there are four simple steps to practice the discipline of reconciliation when antagonism rears its ugly head and it seems like someone has sinned against you personally.
First, Jesus says you go the person directly. Not email. Not text. Not Facebook message. Not through their spouse or their best friend. You go to them in person. If you are not willing to take this step, you need to be willing to let the offense go. If you do this, and the person you think sinned listens to you, the problem is solved, no one’s reputation has been damaged, and you’ve preserved the relationship.
Second, Jesus says come back with one or two others. If the person you think has sinned doesn’t listen, that is, you’re unable to make headway toward reconciliation, you come back, this time with one or two others that can help mediate and witness to the truth of what is being said on both sides.
Third, Jesus says tell it to the church. If you proceed to this step, you need to be absolutely sure that you have been sinned against and that the person in question is refusing to repent. If the person you think has sinned still doesn’t listen, even with one or two added witnesses and mediators, then the rest of the community needs to know, because a division between any of us has an effect on all of us. Now, this doesn’t necessarily mean you stand up on Sunday morning and make a public accusation. Ideally this step should be carried out in consultation with church leadership, perhaps even including the bishop.
Fourth, Jesus says excommunicate the person. If the church through its authorized representatives agrees that repentance is called for and is continually being rejected, the offending person is to be treated as “a tax collector and sinner” which means they would not be considered communicant members of the church. There has been a break in the close table fellowship. And although this may seem harsh, we must temper it with Jesus’ own attitude toward tax collectors and sinners. He loved them. He ate with them in their homes. He gently brought them to repentance by remaining faithfully present.
This process seems so simple, and yet it’s so rare in our churches today! Actually, it’s always been rare in churches. Even very old commentaries lament the fact that so few congregations even try to live out Jesus’ instructions on this point. Why does it seem so difficult?
I believe it seems so difficult because most of us wish to avoid conflict, and of course we wish to avoid conflict for a variety of reasons that all boil down to fear. Sometimes we are too prideful to consider that we may wrong. We have this pride because we think if we are wrong, that means we are somehow less valuable, powerful, or loved. Sometimes we’re afraid of damaging the relationship by moving into confrontation. The irony is that more often than not avoiding the confrontation actually does more damage. Sometimes, we think we’re being divisive by being open about being hurt, frustrated, or confused regarding someone else’s actions. Yet the fact is that the relational division is already there—ignoring it does nothing to move us toward healing, but frank, open, and kind confrontation does.
Of course, we don’t do any of this alone. It’s in this very specific context of confrontation, forgiveness, and reconciliations that Jesus promises that wherever two are three are gathered in his name, he too will be faithfully present.
Part of the Good News of Jesus is that you don’t have to be afraid of confrontation anymore, because you yourself are secure in Jesus, and he is with you in the Spirit!
You don’t have to be afraid because your own reconciliation to God through his death on the cross has already been accomplished! Because he was raised from the dead, you can have confidence that you too will be raised from the dead. If there’s no reason to fear death, there’s no reason to fear anything—even a little confrontation.
2 Corinthians 5:14-16 says,
For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised. From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh…
This means now, because Christ died for everyone, no one is our enemy. Not really.
Because we have been reconciled to God, we don’t have to respond to any offense or antagonism in kind. We can offer a message of reconciliation as ambassadors for Christ (2 Cor. 5:20).
I believe the discipline of reconciliation starts with each one of us personally submitting to Christ and being reconciled to God.
This happens as we examine ourselves and repent of our sins. Neither Jesus nor the Apostles ever consider the idea of a “lone Christian.” All the writers of the New Testament assume Christians live, work, and worship together in extraordinarily intimate ways. So it follows that as Christians, we neither sin nor are forgiven in isolation. If this is true it also means our sins can never be wholly personal and private. They always have an impact on the community, and it is often helpful, even for sins that seem to be very private, to receive a pronouncement of forgiveness from an authorized representative of the church. Throughout the New Testament we are urged to confess our sins to one another. This is why we offer the sacramental rite of reconciliation with a priest for anyone that wants to take advantage of it. This is why I make my own confession regularly to a priest as well. We can start reconciliation in the close circle by making a habit of confessing our sins, receiving forgiveness, and following through with the process Jesus has given us in the Bible when we have personal conflict in the Church.
What about reconciliation in the dotted circle, in our homes with guests and non-Christians present? We can’t neglect the discipline there as we meet for table fellowship, because reconciliation is essential for table fellowship. In 1 Corinthians 6, Paul urges Christians to settle their every day disputes in the church, and not in the courts of the world. He is talking about situations where nonbelievers will witness what is going on…and how we settle disputes among ourselves is a witness to how we are discerning and tending to the presence of Christ among us.
David Fitch says, “The discipline of reconciliation extends into everyday life. But it is always preceded by presence.” We have to be willing to be with the people we have wronged and have wronged us. We have to be willing to stick it out, to engage in the process of reconciliation in our every day lives by continuing to meet together faithfully throughout the week and in doing that, our neighbors see Christ. They see a Kingdom where differences are handled differently than in the rest of the world.
Let’s talk about the half circle. This is hard and challenging, but simple. I think we all know there’s brokenness everywhere…at our work places, in our neighborhoods, in various social situations. What we do in the half circle is prayerfully consider where God is calling us to simply be with the broken. We don’t go to fix their problems, their marriages, their conflict. We can’t fix those things. We simply go as a guest, listening with compassion and looking for a simple opportunity to offer the gift of reconciliation that we have been given in Jesus. This can be as simple as saying, “I hear you, and my heart breaks for you. I believe Jesus loves you and has forgiven every wrong done by every person. What would it look like to receive or extend forgiveness? How can I pray for you or support you in this?”
I believe Christians have special responsibility to be present wherever there is antagonism, injustice, and brokenness. I believe Christians have a responsibility to be present in prisons, among the homeless and with the mentally ill. I think Christians can and should be present at protests—sometimes as participants being faithfully present advocates for justice, sometimes as chaplains, offering and modeling a better way. Christians should be present wherever there is an opportunity to offer healing, wholeness, and reconciliation in Jesus.
Imagine the church faithfully and fearlessly present, humbly offering a message of forgiveness, reconciliation, and grace, all because of what Jesus has done…
Image the church doing this in our homes. Imagine the church doing this when racial tensions flare. When someone needs to show up for the last the lost, and the left out. When (not if, but when) conflict comes up in the church.
Imagine what God might do.
This is how the world will change, and this is how we’re to be a part of it.
God is reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ… (2 Cor 5:19-20)