In this morning’s gospel reading, Jesus has a lot to say about the way we fight.
He starts with the phrase “If another member of the church sins against you” but I think it also would have been fair if Jesus had said, “When another member of the church sins against you” because anyone who has been part of a particular church community longer than a few months can verify that the following statement is true: conflict is inevitable.
We are going to disagree; we are going to fight. It’s not a question of if but when. Why? Because the Church is made up of selfish, immature sinners: loved sinners, redeemed sinners, sinners called by Christ & empowered by the Spirit to become saints, but sinners nonetheless. And what is true of the parts, in this case, is also true of the whole. The “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church” of Jesus Christ is prone to the same kind of divisive, petty, and selfish conflict that disturbs the rest of the human race. We can’t get away from it.
With that fact in mind, Jesus concerns himself with in this passage is not whether we fight but rather how we fight. When we fight, we are called to fight in a way that demonstrates who Christ is and what Christ means to us as Christians.
Jesus said, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” Do we dare think that this commandment only applies to those moments when we are all getting along and everyone likes each other as much as they love one another? On the contrary, I think Jesus’ commandment that we love one another as he loves us matters even more when we are fighting and we don’t like each other. As G.K. Chesterton once said, “The Bible tells us to love our neighbors, and also to love our enemies; probably because generally they are the same people.”
Moments of conflict are the moments when loving your neighbor matters most, because these are the moments when we, as Christians, have the biggest opportunity to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ, not only with our lips, but in our lives. As the Church of Christ, we cannot afford to let these opportunities pass us by.
So then, how shall we fight, as Christians?
The first thing Jesus says about fighting as a Christian has to do with our goal in fighting. Why do we fight? What is the purpose? Do we fight in order to win? That certainly seems to be the world’s goal in the way it fights.
Is the fight over when the enemy lies defeated, when we’ve crushed our opponent, and we’ve proved our arguments to be right beyond any shadow of a doubt? Is that why we fight? Jesus would say no.
If winning was just about winning the fight, then the gospel, the central Christian message, would probably sound something like this:
God made the earth and called it good, but humankind came along and sinned, breaking God’s just laws;
God tried to correct us, giving us the law and the prophets to guide us back toward doing right, but when we still refused to listen and went on sinning, God sent his only begotten Son Jesus Christ, conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary, to make us suffer and die as punishment for our sins; thus, the righteous wrath of God was satisfied and moral order was restored to the universe;
then Jesus sat down at the right hand of his Father in heaven while the angels of God rejoiced and sang God’s praises over the smoldering ashes of the earth, which was now cleansed by fire from the filth of sinful humanity.
Doesn’t sound like much of a gospel, does it? The word “gospel” means “good news” but that message is neither good nor news. In fact, it’s the same old destructive story that people and nations have been playing out between themselves for millennia. The gospel, the good news of Jesus, is something entirely different.
The Nicene Creed says that it was “for us and for our salvation” (not for our punishment) that Jesus came down from heaven. “For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate.” The creed also says that Jesus “suffered death” instead of dealing it out.
The Bible tells us that “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son” and “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and while we were yet sinners, sent his only Son to die for us.” This is the Christian gospel: the good news that saves us.
If all that mattered was winning the fight and being right, then God never would have gone through the trouble of saving the world. God could have won the argument any time and silenced us forever with the fire of divine wrath, but that wasn’t enough for God.
It wasn’t enough for God to simply win the fight; God wanted to win us. God wants us to live in an intimate relationship with him and with our neighbors. When we sin against God and one another, those relationships are broken and fights happen. God’s goal is not to win the fight, but to heal those broken relationships. That’s the deepest longing of God’s heart and God will not rest until it is accomplished. As St. Augustine of Hippo said, way back in the 5th century: “God will not allow us to go to hell in peace.”
If restoring relationship is God’s ultimate goal in working through conflict, then it should be ours as well.
There is a particular turn of phrase that Jesus uses at the beginning of our gospel reading this morning: “If the member listens to you, you have regained that one.” Some other translations (NASB) say, “if he listens to you, you have won your brother.” Notice that Jesus doesn’t say “you have won the argument”; he says, “you have won your brother (or sister).” In other words: it’s not about winning the fight; it’s about winning each other.
Jesus takes these relationships so seriously, he calls upon us to enlist all of our personal and collective resources in the task of restoring them when they are broken. Christ calls us to apply the healing power of ever-widening circles fellowship where people speak the truth in love.
And if those gentle efforts appear to be finally fruitless before a hard hearted person who will not listen, Jesus says, “let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”
Many people have interpreted these words of Jesus to mean excommunication from the church. After all, Gentiles and tax collectors were outsiders to the religious community of Jesus’ day, right?
Well… not exactly.
Here’s the thing: Jesus kind of had a reputation when it came to Gentiles and tax collectors. There was the Roman centurion, who Jesus said had greater faith than any of his Israelite compatriots. He healed the man’s sick servant. He did the same thing for a Canaanite woman whose daughter was afflicted by demons. I guess that’s what it means for Jesus to treat someone “like a Gentile.”
Then there were Matthew Levi and Zaccheaus: both tax collectors with whom Jesus broke bread. Jesus made a pretty regular habit of eating with notorious tax collectors, sinners, and other religious outsiders – a gesture that said, “There is a place for you at my table; I accept you as you are; you are family to me.” That’s what being a “tax collector” means to Jesus.
When it comes to dealing with conflict in the church, Jesus’ bottom line is this: If what you’re doing isn’t working, LOVE MORE. When you have a problem with somebody, go talk to them yourself. If that doesn’t work, expand the circle of care to include a select few others. If that doesn’t work, enlist the loving attention of the entire church. And if all else fails, open the floodgates of heaven and unleash the full torrent of grace: the grace that compelled the father of the prodigal son to run out and meet him “while he was still a long way off”; the grace that blinded Paul on the road to Damascus as he hunted and killed Christians, transforming him into a preacher of the faith he once persecuted; the grace that inspired Zacchaeus the tax collector to sell all his possessions and repay fourfold what he had gained by theft and extortion.
In the eyes of the world, grace seems weak and pointless. People cannot fathom the idea of strength without force. Most people haven’t contemplated the patient power of water, which slowly wears jagged rocks down into smooth pebbles after millions of years of and gently and faithfully flowing across the surface of stone. The river of grace wins in the end, eroding even the hardest hearts.
Jesus is able to accomplish this miracle in people because he faithfully keeps his river of grace flowing in the same direction: toward the restoration of broken relationships. Jesus is interested in winning hearts, not fights and we, as his disciples, need to be about that same business.
If, for whatever reason, we cannot find that same grace in ourselves, then perhaps we need to repent: to seek God’s forgiveness, so that the river of grace might smooth over the jagged edges of our hard hearts and flow through us to our contentious neighbors who need to feel love’s gentle power just as much as we do.