A sermon preached on 6th September 2020
Imagine two friends in a church far away. Let’s call them Andrea and Louise.
Andrea and Louise used to spend a lot of time together.
They came to church together, had meals at each other’s houses, went on days out, talked and laughed.
Sometimes they had an argument or a misunderstanding, but they always made it up quickly.
Now though, they don’t talk at all.
They won’t even look at each other.
Worse, they talk about each other in unkind ways.
This is making life difficult for others in the church because they’re causing an atmosphere of tension and distrust.
Andrea and Louise, though, can’t let go of this falling-out.
Instead of talking to each other like they used to do they make accusations and snide remarks to others, hoping to get people on their side.
This is leading to divisions and drawing others into their argument.
Some in the church want to ignore it in the hope that it’ll blow over, but instead the problem is just festering.
Others want to boot one or both out of the door until they come to their senses, but this seems harsh.
No-one is prepared to talk openly about what’s going on.
If only Andrea and Louise, or someone else in the church, could apply the words we’ve heard from Jesus today.
Conflict management – step 1
Jesus teaches us that when we have a problem with another person the answer is not complaining to everyone else, ignoring it or trying to shove the problem elsewhere.
Rather, the answer is the much more difficult but also much more rewarding task of sitting down with that person and talking through the issues.
This takes honesty, and a willingness to listen and not be defensive, but it’s the best path to reconciliation.
It might turn out that this great issue was a misunderstanding, or something said in a moment of stress without really meaning it.
I’ve had at least one experience where a small misunderstanding led to a huge rift when it could’ve been sorted out with a proper conversation.
In contrast, I’ve also had an experience where talking through a misunderstanding strengthened a relationship.
Sometimes, though, hurts go deep, and we need help from someone else to sort through it all.
So, Jesus suggests a sort of mediation process, where wise and understanding people join in with the discussion to give another perspective.
They may be able to find a way through that those directly involved can’t see.
An issue came up in a place I used to work between two people that would have benefitted from mediation.
Sadly, those in charge, for unknown reasons, blocked it, causing one of the people involved to resign.
If mediation had happened those two might still be working together now.
But what if even that doesn’t work?
Well then the wider church community needs to be called in.
This issue between Andrea and Louise is hurting everyone.
It’s upsetting the life and witness of the church, and if they and a few good friends can’t resolve it then more help is needed.
I don’t know how the whole church being involved might look but it would be important to avoid turning it into a trial.
Any church trying to heal a serious division needs the humility to recognise that we’re all capable of making mistakes and falling into sin, and that this is not a process of fault-finding but of healing.
Then, as a last resort, people are to be removed from the church’s fellowship.
I’ve found this a hard thing to read before because it sounded like Jesus was suggesting rejecting people and treating them like lost causes.
And in fact, these words have been used to justify throwing people out of churches with no hope of return.
Recently, though, I’ve come across another perspective.
Jesus talks about treating people like Gentiles and tax collectors, the social outcasts of his day.
But these were also the people that Jesus came to look for and save.
These are the people that God doesn’t give up on and calls to come back to him.
So, maybe all hope isn’t lost for Andrea and Louise, even if the church can’t resolve their problem.
Maybe they aren’t to be rejected altogether but just distanced for a bit to allow wounds to heal, while the church continues to care about them and tries to draw them back in.
It takes courage to talk openly about our differences with our brothers and sisters in Christ.
I know it’s something I struggle with and I’m sure many others do too.
It takes humility and self-awareness to recognise that there may be fault on our side as well as the other person’s.
And it takes bravery to hold our hands up and say, ‘I was wrong, I’m sorry’.
But when we do try to follow Jesus’s path of reconciliation, we have his promise that he will be with us.
And because we’re working to carry on God’s work of reconciliation in our own lives, we can be sure that he will hear our prayers and help us.
Those are the promises of Jesus whose work for reconciliation took him to the cross.
On his promises we can depend.