Today we continue our series “An Invitation to the Kingdom” and I am teaching on Matthew 18:10-35. These 25 verses focus specifically on handling conflict and sin between believers and a call to radical forgiveness.
For Calvary, conflict is not a hypothetical topic; we have and are experiencing conflict between fellow believers. Cherished friends, brothers and sisters in Christ, have chosen to leave our community as a result of this.
Unfortunately, we are not unique at Calvary. Everyone who belongs to a church long enough will be wronged, and the pain and havoc it creates is all the more devastating because we expect our church to be a place of sanctuary.
For some of you, this has been a journey of months and months already, whereas for others of you an awareness of the brokenness at Calvary is more recent and perhaps still more raw. So today, I acknowledge that many of you are exhausted, angry, or disappointed by life in the church; it has become a source of pain instead of comfort and you are losing hope that reconciliation is possible.
But I believe that God does not despair for Calvary and God is not giving up on Calvary, and that in Matthew 18 you, as an individual, and our church, as a community, can find hope for forgiveness and reconciliation. Even if you haven’t been personally impacted in Calvary’s community, Christ’s words still hold truth for each one of you in other areas of your life where forgiveness and reconciliation is needed.
Today I am going to offer you three things:
- A practical approach for handling conflict with a fellow believer
- A promise that God will help us when we commit to healing broken relationships in our church
- A challenge to respond to Jesus’ invitation to seek reconciliation through radical forgiveness
What is your dream for our fellowship of believers? What do you do when your dreams and expectations for a life of fellowship and community are unravelling?
We find very little mention of “ekklesia” (church) in the Gospels, but what we do find are Jesus’ teachings on a new way of living as citizens in his Kingdom. In Matthew 18 we find a set of principles and values on how to interact and treat each other.
In verses 15-17 you find a practical approach for handling conflict with a fellow believer. Jesus starts off by saying, “If another member of the church sins against you[…]”. Right off the bat this is a difficult verse to deal with because we live in a post-Christian culture characterised by an ideology of individualism and a deconstruction of authority.
The ideology of individualism could be described as “be true to yourself”, “find yourself”, or “don’t mess with my rights”. We prioritize and are motivated by personal fulfillment and individual freedom. Deconstruction of authority has of course challenged many oppressive systems and ways of thinking, but it has also undermined our culture’s belief that there is such a thing as right and wrong or good and evil.
These are really complex and fascinating influences on how we experience church community today but simply put, one consequence is that it has become harder for us to talk to each other about sin, let alone sin that happens between us. Today, I want you to keep in mind that this passage is not about when someone at church annoys you or there is a misunderstanding. The word sin here means there has been an offence or some kind of moral violation between believers. Sometimes it might be more obvious—like gossip, slander, false teaching, or abuse—or it might be less visible—like hostility, resentfulness, divisiveness, or dishonesty.
What happens inside you when someone you care about sins against you? Well first of all, you will experience uncomfortable emotional reactions like anger, sadness, or grief. Those feelings should not be labelled as negative as they are completely understandable and normal in a situation when someone that we care about does something that causes a break in our relationship. But these emotions are very uncomfortable and distressing.
Given Jesus’ instruction to go to the person requires considerable courage, there are so many other ways we typically respond instead: speaking to everyone else except that person, minimizing or pretending it didn’t happen, or waiting for the person to come to you.
But Jesus teaches that it doesn’t matter “who started it”. In Matthew 5 he tells us we should go to someone if we know they have something against us; now in Matthew 18 Jesus says we should go to someone if we have something against them. Basically, if the relationship has been broken it is always your move.
The instruction to “go” has been understood for centuries to mean a face-to-face discussion. While I appreciate that COVID has made that reality much more difficult, I can tell you that in my 20 years as a social worker and now a manager, handling interpersonal conflict through emails or texts never has the same effect or result as speaking face-to-face. In fact, it often makes the situation worse. Luckily, we now all have video-call technology that could be used even if we can’t physically be in the same place safely.
Next Jesus says to “point out the fault”. The Greek word used here is “elenchō”, which carries with it a sense of investigation and inquiry. In other words, you don’t go to the person and point your finger in their face to condemn them. Rather, you go and ask questions, you are vulnerable and share how they hurt you, you humbly share your own perspective and seek to understand what has happened from their perspective.
This first step is to be done in private. The fact that Jesus includes this detail shows us just how well he knows our human nature. We are much more prone to talk to our friends first—or what I like to call, “we build our camp”. Under the guise of seeking guidance, we will talk to our supporters. Often this only affirms our own interpretation of the experience, further entrenching us in those uncomfortable feelings, and making the eventual discussion with the person who offended us all the more difficult.
The purpose of all this is not to be confrontational, to prove yourself right or even to gain an apology. Jesus is very clear that the purpose is to “win them back” or, in other words, to rescue the relationship. If this private conversation does not lead to reconciliation, Jesus instructs you to try again with two or three others, Jesus calls them witnesses, which builds on a practice found in Deuteronomy 17, in which two or three witnesses were required to objectively testify in court. This doesn’t mean you bring along people who are “on your side”, this means you bring along those who will listen, observe the interaction, and carefully consider each word that is spoken. Then, if there is still no repentance and reconciliation, Jesus instructs you to bring the matter to the full assembly of believers. This is not meant to be a public shaming and is still driven by a desire for reconciliation.
If you get to the final step and there is still no repentance, we are to “let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector”. How did Jesus treat Gentiles and tax collectors?
This final step in verse 17 has often been used to essentially excommunicate those who do not repent. But this is contrary to Jesus’ intended spirit of this approach. Listen to it again in the Message translation.
If a fellow believer hurts you, go and tell him—work it out between the two of you. If he listens, you’ve made a friend. If he won’t listen, take one or two others along so that the presence of witnesses will keep things honest, and try again. If he still won’t listen, tell the church. If he won’t listen to the church, you’ll have to start over from scratch, confront him with the need for repentance, and offer again God’s forgiving love.
Just before Jesus gives these instructions he shares the parable of the lost sheep, which in the book of Matthew is specifically focused on the Shepherd’s desire to not lose a single sheep. This sets the context for Jesus’ instructions for handling conflict between believers; we must expend every effort to reconcile, or, as Timothy Keller says, “Christians in community are to never give up on one another, never give up on a relationship, and never write off another believer. We must never tire of forgiving (and repenting!) and seeking to repair our relationships.”
The Holy Spirit might be speaking to you right now, bringing to mind someone that has wronged you or even someone you have wronged, and you may not have handled it this way. Some of you might also be thinking to yourself, I just can’t handle it that way, it’s gone too far or it hurts too much. Don’t despair!
Matthew 18 holds a promise that God will help you when you commit to healing broken relationships in our church. You will find this in verses 19 and 20. I am going to be perfectly honest and admit that until I began preparing this sermon, I did not realize the context of this very famous verse “truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.” I’ve used this verse to broadly cover all manner of requests in many a prayer gathering. But it is actually directly connected to Jesus’ instructions about handling conflict and sin between believers. We must always do this in the context of prayer.
One author I read said it something like this, “When you have conflict and division in your church, you are better off holding a prayer meeting than a board meeting.”
So here’s the promise to us Calvary, as we humbly commit to listen to each other and pray for reconciliation it will not be easy, but God is with us and for us.
At this point in the passage Peter, the disciple who typically says out loud what the rest of us are thinking, questions Jesus. “Master, how many times do I forgive a brother or sister who hurts me? Seven?” It’s like Peter is saying “Ok Jesus, I understand you are asking me to make an effort when someone hurts me, and I understand this process you have laid out, but surely there’s a reasonable limit to what I am required to do?”
In fact, Peter was being quite generous in suggesting seven times, as Jewish teaching at the time required only 3 attempts at reconciliation. Some translations of Jesus’ response read seventy times and some read seven times seven times but all scholars and commentaries agree that Jesus meant an unlimited amount. Of course, this immediately seems impossible. Unlimited forgiveness? So Jesus tells a story to help us understand how this is actually made possible.
Let me give you the Coles notes. A servant owes the king a gazillion dollars. Literally, this is no exaggeration. Ten thousand talents was equivalent to about 150,000 years worth of wages. This is a debt that is impossible to pay. While the king would have been fully in his right to sell the man, his family, and all possessions he actually responds with compassion and forgives the debt.
This same servant then goes out into the street and sees a colleague who owes him 100 denarii, or about 4 months worth of wages. Despite this colleague making the same plea—”Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything”—the servant, who had just been forgiven the most insurmountable debt, grabs him and drags him into prison.
When the king hears about this, he provides us the thesis statement of the parable: “Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?”
What Jesus is saying here is that we are to model our own forgiving behaviour on the forgiveness God has offered us. But that is often easier said than done. Why is forgiveness so difficult? I believe it is because of a basic misunderstanding of what forgiveness is. Forgiveness is seen as letting someone off the hook, it is seen as condoning, or allowing injustice to prevail. Forgiveness is seen as a passive response or even a non-response. And so, forgiveness doesn’t seem fair. Someone has wronged you and they owe you something to make that debt right. It’s incredibly hard to forgive. It’s hard to say, “You owe me, but I will release you of that debt. I have a right to hold this offense against you, but I choose not to.”
If we are honest with ourselves, we are often more like the servant in the parable than we are like the king. We are people who struggle to forgive, but we are also people who desperately need forgiveness ourselves. So there is more to this parable than just a radical example of forgiveness that seems impossible to live up to – there is a reminder. A reminder that each of us is the unforgiving servant in the parable, owing an impossible debt to God, but each of us have received compassion and mercy and forgiveness from the King.
So how do you forgive when you feel so deeply wounded?
I love what Christian Dawson from Bridgetown Church in Portland teaches. He says, “We need faith to forgive.” In order to forgive, you need to trust that Jesus has paid the debt. He has paid the debt for each of your sins—past, present, and future. He has also paid the debt for that person who sinned against you.
That’s the kicker right there, isn’t it? It’s one thing to trust that God has forgiven my own sins, but quite another to trust that God has forgiven the sins of the hypocrite, the slanderer, the betrayer, or the abuser. Sinful acts cannot be undone, but they are not the end of anyone’s story.
There is no sin that God cannot redeem. That is the heart of the gospel and we live it out in the Kingdom every time we respond to our fellow believers through forgiveness. When we choose, in obedience, to pursue the one who has offended us and to forgive from our hearts we become a channel through which the Holy Spirit brings the love of God into a deeply broken world, into a deeply broken community.
Earlier I asked what is your dream for our fellowship of believers and what you do when your dreams and expectations for fellowship and community are not matching reality, when it seems they are unravelling? Those questions were in a sense rhetorical, meant to peak your interest and jumpstart your thoughts. But now I ask you in a straightforward and loving way. What will you do?
In a podcast I listened to recently, Sandra Maria Van Opstal said that true worship is not about intellect and intention. True worship is about embodiment and action. I recognize the risk in preaching about the Kingdom and forgiveness and reconciliation in this distanced video format way of doing church. It means that everything I have said could quite easily just become more intellect and intention.
When this video finishes, what you do next is embodiment and action in and for Jesus’ Kingdom. So what has the Holy Spirit said to you today, and what will you do now to respond to Jesus’ invitation to seek reconciliation through courageous conversations and unlimited forgiveness?