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09.07.14 Loving Confrontations Mathew 18:15-20 Sermon Summary

by on September 8, 2014

church-fights

Some churches are just too nice. We’re conflict avoidant, choosing instead a thinly veiled bitterness and resentment—all because we don’t know when or how to confront sin.

Summary Points

  • What Matthew has to teach us when someone in the church sins against us
  • The crucial discipline Ezekiel exemplifies when confronting sin in others
  • How Psalm 119 prepares us to confront sin in others
  • The simple test Paul gives us to use in these situations
  • Questions for discussion and reflection

Pastors find themselves in conflictual situations quite often. Sometimes it’s trying to discern with someone or a couple of people some kind of resolution. It might be receiving an unkind and unconstructive criticism or we learn that someone has taken exception to our work or words. We can ignore, avoid, or gloss over these situations. Or we can look for guidance on how to proceed. Each of the texts from this week’s lectionary readings gives us such guidance.

What do we learn from the Gospel of Matthew? Matthew is sometimes called the “Jewish Gospel” because it presents Jesus and his followers as kind of “super Jews.” Form its Jewish roots, Mathew’s Christian community maintained a strong sense of covenant community, which means they believed God had called them to they belong to one another. The Jewish identity shows up, for example, when Jesus endorses the standard of “two or three witnesses”—it’s straight from the Old Testament.

Matthew offers us very helpful advice when dealing with conflict in the church. Jesus refers to a situation when someone “sins AGAINST YOU” (some early manuscripts don’t have “against you,” but I agree with those translators who retain it). It’s important for church health for two reasons. First, it’s unhealthy for us to take on someone else’s offenses. We can and should caringly listen when someone sins against another in the church. We can even facilitate a conversation between those two. But then we have to release it. I think this is the wisdom behind Jesus’ words that what we “loose” on earth is also loosed in heaven. “Trust God, let it go,” Jesus is saying.

We also shouldn’t take on God’s offenses. God has the Spirit to do the convicting work for him—God isn’t relying upon us to do it. Beyond the Spirt, Jesus himself, in the passage before this one, depicts himself as the Shepherd who goes to get the 1 lost sheep of the 99.  It isn’t our job.

What IS our job is to recognize that when someone sins AGAINST US, they are ALREADY lost, because they have broken the unity of the Body of Christ. Our motivation in confronting sin should be “regaining” what is lost (vs 15)—out of love for Christ and the church. We should not confront sin out of our own sense of satisfaction or justice.

Another bit of guidance from Matthew is to be sure what you’re taking offense at is actually sin. We have to make sure it’s not just a slight, or a difference of opinion, or an abrasive personality. Not everything that bothers us about someone else is a sin.

To help us discern whether something is in fact sin, we get some guidance from Ezekiel. Ezekiel was a prophet to the Exiles, a community experiencing the consequences of their sin. They had begun to have some conviction about this—their awareness was dawning. They needed a prophet to come speak the truth.

It is instructive that God has to encourage, even threaten, Ezekiel to speak into this situation. God says, “If I call to the wicked and you do not warn them, they will die but their blood will be on your hands.” (vs. 8) It’s important because it suggests Ezekiel’s reticence to speak up, and this suggests a need for deep discernment. Before we speak, we must have prayerful certainty that our motivation is right and that our understanding of the situation is accurate.

To help us with our motivation and accuracy, we gain guidance from the Psalm. Each of the 176 verses in Psalm 119 praises God’s Law, commands, ordinances, instructions, precepts, etc., and offers prayers to learn and follow them. For example, “I have longed for your precepts; in your righteousness give me life” (vs 40)

Before we judge someone else’s sins, we are wise to judge our own. Jesus taught that we can’t presume to remove the speck from our brother’s eye when we have a log in our own. (Matthew 7:3-5) Pursuing personal holiness with the same diligence and devotion as Psalm 119 helps us to discriminate between the minor irritants people are to us and their real sins against us. And it will help us to be compassionate when we do have to address sin. We won’t judge and condescend because we’ll realize we’re both in the same boat.

Paul gives us a simpler test. Remember that he was proudly righteous according to the Law, but that in his encounter with Christ he realized that righteousness is actually determined according to love. He wrote “All the commandments are summed up in this, ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Romans 13:9) So the real question to ask is less “Is this a documentable sin?” and more “Is this the most loving way?” And the passage from Romans 12 from last week is among the best places to go to answer that question.

So some conclusions about conflict in the church from these passages from the lectionary. First, we sin against one another, even in the church, and it needs to be dealt with. Second, not everything we think is sin, is sin. So third, we have to practice discernment, check our own motivations and then act or not act accordingly. But when we do act, fourth, we must always and only do so out of love. If we follow these guidelines, we’ll be more faithful disciples of Christ, and we’ll be a healthier church.

Questions for Discussion and Reflection

  • Do you have a high standard for regulating your feelings about others’ “sins” against you, or do you sometimes confuse ordinary discomfort in human relations with sin?
  • How often do you find yourself emotionally upset about something that isn’t really your business? How many “offenses of others” do you unnecessarily carry?
  • Before talking to someone, or even investing emotionally in the relational dynamic between you and someone else, do you practice discernment like Ezekiel? Do you agonize over possibly having to call someone to account for actual sin, or do you rush headlong into the conversation knowing you are right?
  • How often do you delight in God’s righteousness? When’s the last time you submitted to an examination by self, Spirit, or someone in the church regarding how you fail to live up God’s calling? What impact might such discipline have on your feelings towards others who bother you?
  • What if you governed your life and your interpersonal interactions by Paul’s distillation of the Jewish and Christian faiths, namely that it all depends on what is loving, rather than conformity to the Law?
  • Is there a relationship in the church that needs your attention along the lines of this message? How can you begin to mend that relationship?

 

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