This musing has been a long time coming. Usually I write something about every three weeks. I do not find writing easy, it is exacting and restricting at the same time, or so it seems to me, not that I am trying to avoid the discipline involved! There are so many things to say, when you try to write on a subject one thought leads to another and it could almost become a book. Then there is the matter of those times when the flow seems to stop and you dry up. ‘Writers block,’ I believe it is called. Well, I am no expert penman, but I have some experience of such a block! Thankfully I do have encouragement from some who take time to read these rather poor expressions of some of my ponderings around spiritual themes and they say that they are instructed in the Lord’s ways a little more and edified. What I want to write about a little on this occasion is the words of Jesus found in Matthew chapter eighteen and in particular verses fifteen through twenty. Simply stated it is the beautiful and wise commanding counsel of Jesus as to what to do when tensions and differences occur between people. These are not the suggestions of Jesus advising us as to how to react when trouble brews between persons but His COMMANDING counsel.
He is Lord of His church and this is one of only two occasions He specifically mentions the word ‘church,’ the other being the famous one found in Matthew chapter sixteen (Matthew 16:18). With wise words He commands His people as to how to conduct themselves when peaceful harmony of relationship is threatened. Should we expect anything else from Him? He is the Word, the expression of the mind of God, Who in some versions is called, “the only Wise God”(1 Timothy 1:17). Perhaps the idea that these words of Jesus are beautiful may seem strange but His counsels if followed courageously come with a symmetry and order, they are filled with understanding of the real issues of life that elude the argumentative and reactive hearts of human beings when they are caught in a period of quarreling and disagreement. These words contain richness of proportion and gentleness, just as James tells us in His epistle, “the wisdom from above is pure, gentle, open to reason” (James 3:17-18). And we ought to note the context of that description. Tension, division, quarrels and wars! His beautiful words of spiritual understanding are surrounded by the negative and shine like jewels in the midst of dirt and smell like the lily in the midst of thorns (James 3:13-16 & 4:1-6). Going back to Matthew eighteen and what Jesus has to say, read the parable He prefaces His commands with. The chapter begins with the fact that entrance to the realm in which God in Three Persons dwells is closed to those who refuse to be childlike in heart and in particular Jesus specifies the humility of children (Matthew 18:1-4). He continues by saying that we must receive ‘little ones’ and that stumbling blocks are sure to occur when hearts rise up in a way that smacks of pride and arrogance (Matthew 18:5-9). We all run the risk of becoming an occasion of offending one another by our tendencies toward putting everyone else straight and observing their apparent failures, so He tells us clearly. “It is necessary that offences come.” Following on from these words Jesus speaks of the reconciliation of a ‘lost sheep’ to the flock and its shepherd. He calls these sheep the ‘little ones’ again and most certainly has in mind those members of the society of His day that were overlooked and even rejected by the more correct minded religious members of the community.
Those who were good upright Jews, or at least, thought they were, upbraided Jesus because of the way He honored little children and those who were the off scouring of society because of their sinful behavior. But, His heart is to bring them back, to accomplish reconciliation so that all wars and quarreling, fighting and dissention should cease in His flock. Looking again at Matthew eighteen we find three steps of counsel should dissentions occur and this provokes a heart felt question from Peter (probably a spokesman for the whole apostolic band). “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times”(Matthew 18:21)? Peter’s interrogation really indicates that they recognized that Jesus was speaking of a matter so crucial it needed to be clarified even more. Rabbinic teaching instructed those sinned against to forgive only three times so Peter was being pretty generous here. The reply of Jesus commences with seventy times seven making four hundred and ninety and they would have taken that to mean that no limits were to be set on forgiveness! He then told them another parable, filled with wisdom that penetrates through to the marrow of everything. I am no longer a young man, I guess I have been through plenty of ‘stuff,’ as the colloquial term of our day puts it and I am utterly convinced that the most powerful thing in the world is forgiving love. Let none of us be in the dark about this because this is what the incarnation and Calvary is all about.
The power of the forgiveness of the God of Holy Love, Jesus and His death according to the purposes of God His Father is forgiveness in the ultimate degree, more than enough to scare us and woo us into loving obedience to Him. If He has forgiven me thus, how can I entertain an unforgiving attitude toward another? Isn’t this what this parable is all about, and, doubtless much more. We shall never plumb the depths of these life transforming things but we shall find the truth of them threatened in our human relationships, husbands with wives, wives with husbands, parents with children and children with parents, brothers and sisters in the church and with those who smite us on the one cheek who have little or no knowledge of the forgiving heart of God. Not to mention the massive disagreements that erupt when church leaders act like tyrants and abuse their position and the welter of hurts and retaliatory actions taken against those members of the offended flock who take up the cudgels to fight back. Some will say “c’est la vie,” the French phrase” that has tended to carry the meaning “so what, that’s life.” Jesus is talking to the church. She is to be that place on earth that is a window to the world through which they see the wonder of the Divine Trinitarian Life being lived out. We must not be casual about these things, there must be no “c’est la vie” about it, no adopting of a kind of ‘so what’ attitude. The word must become flesh among us. Forgiving love must triumph in the church in the interpersonal relationships. Reconciliation between offended parties is foundational to her life. Schism and divisions will occur, so the apostle Paul tells us (1 Corinthians 11:19), however, he adds that the bottom line in the whole matter is what manner of spirit people are of is being made manifest and those who are Christ like in humility are seen and approved. That Christ like spirit shining forth in the attitudes of those involved is what we long to see and must judge. We must not permit the hardness of heart that is a constant and dangerous presence waiting to corrupt everything where divisions and disagreements occur win the day.
All this leads us to the words of Jesus. What should we then do when difficulties arise between persons? He speaks of three steps. They issue forth from the very life of Father and Son. The first one (Matthew 18:15) involves just the two parties. They must see one another face to face. The fault, or sin that is the offending matter must not be talked about to others, but, first, face-to-face. If things are not resolved and the division is not settled in a godly way, then, step two involves one or two others being taken along as witnesses and counselors. There is no mention of leaders and elders, simply “take one or two others with you, that every charge be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses”(Matthew 18:16). No gossip sessions must be indulged, instead, serious and prayerful discussion over the matter in private. If we connect these words with the wise counsel of Paul we would say that the ‘witnesses’ should be those who are spiritual who seek to restore the one at fault in a spirit of gentleness watching their own states of heart with great diligence lest they be themselves tempted into wrong attitudes and behavior (Galatians 6:1). Apparently, involvement with those at odds with each other puts us at risk ourselves! Then Jesus mentions a third step. Let all be brought to the church, the whole matter spread out before them and thus judgment be given. These last two steps are only taken because there is not change of heart, no reunion of love between the offender and the offended and the offender evidences no change at all. All this suggests the processes of time. How often we have seen unwise haste corrupt the process. But, before we think of that, just consider how frequently these three steps are reversed.
The third one becomes the first. Someone in the assembly is offended by another and their behavior and immediately goes and discusses it with some other ‘friends’ in the church, they speak of it to others, and before you know it the gossip has spread around the whole company of believers. Now, there are reasons that people avoid the first step, perhaps the main one being a lack of courage. To front up to someone, to see their faces, bring things out into the open alone with someone who has offended you requires that the offended examines their own spirit with care and having done so before the Lord then finds boldness to confront in that spirit of meekness the offender. Cowardice is more common in this regard than you might at first think. Always remember that God is a face-to-face God. We have offended Him with our sin, He came in the Person of His Son, He ‘fronted up” to Israel, telling them their fault, some received Him, many did not and thus Calvary unfolded and all that flowed from there. How often we are cowards, instead of face to face nowadays the Internet is a quick answer. Type out a quick email, or post something on face book or twitter and in the heat of feeling press ‘send.’ Not only that many seem intent on broadcasting things so that others are ‘in the know’ and so the ‘cc’ (send a copy) to others. We have seen it so often in situations we have been involved in and tried to help, the easy option, and the path of the coward heart.
The Internet is not a good place to conduct the personal and church affairs that require discretion, gentleness and kindness. Before you know it everybody knows about the difficulties that are going on between a mother and daughter for instance. How sad, how heartbreaking these things are. We must face these things, you tube, face book, emails; twitter is not the place for conducting church matters. If you can, go face to face. Second best is probably phone, at least then the tone of voice can be heard. However, let me add a caveat, we must not make heat of the moment reactive phone calls. Give yourself time for reflection and prayer and if needs be only then make the call. When I mention time for prayerful pondering and not just taking “three deep breaths,” let us mention good old-fashioned snail mail. You have to sit down, put pen to paper, think about sentences and what you want to say. You then address the envelope having found the right address then make your pilgrimage to the post office for a stamp and so the post box, thinking all the while, “should I send this?” “Must I send this now or should I wait?” “Did I word it wisely and with understanding?” Much pain and hurt would be saved us all and harmony restored much earlier if these steps were taken. Alas, leaders of churches are utilizing email in this unhelpful and ungodly way. Yes, we can say that the internet has its good uses too and we agree, but, let us be far more circumspect about the negative aspects and remember, in the light of the words of Jesus about ‘face to face’ they are fundamentally unspiritual ways to get things sorted out between persons and contain an incipient element of dishonor both to God and to those involved.
The Internet is the place where people get ‘hits’, perhaps not a misnomer! Take another look at the second step Jesus commands. We can see immediately that time has elapsed, during that waiting period the offender may have undergone a profound change of heart, repentance is working deeply in them, what kind of spirit is he or she manifesting now? This is what must be examined and considered by the witnesses Jesus recommends and the offended person. There is no thought of hurry over this; counsel is to be given, everything with a view to restoration. Instead people go over repeatedly the rigmarole of “you did this and you did that”, wanting to exhume every detail as though that will sort everything out. But will it? Then, what of the final step? It is only taken when the offender manifests no change of heart. No reunion of heart seems possible; the offender is adamant in their wrong behavior and refuses to change. The terrible third step is excommunication. No longer welcome at the table of the Lord as a brother but to be regarded as a ‘heathen,’ “a gentile or a tax collector” (Matthew 18:17), in other words, an outsider. Perhaps this extreme step will provoke repentance as it did in the person mentioned in both Corinthian letters. Without doubt such a severe step is taken not only to purify the church but also to bring about repentance in the offender (1 Corinthians 5:1-5 and 2 Corinthians 2:5-11). Restoration and reconciliation, took place in that church. Someone who had sinned grievously was brought back into the fold as the church, encouraged by Paul had the courage to walk the Christ-way. That the particular thing in view in Corinth in those days was extreme we acknowledge, but that is all the more reason we should rejoice that to walk in the commands of Jesus would bring about great victory and joy in those things that are of far less seriousness.
Now, although I am sure, much more could be said and I personally feel a great inadequacy as I have sought to write about these most serious of matters, we must finally note what Jesus says about the link between what is done in heaven and done in earth and the effectiveness and failure of prayer in church life (Matthew 18:18-20). When divisions between brothers and sisters simmer under the surface for weeks and months and years, when they remain unresolved the intercourse between heaven and earth is most surely impeded. The blessing of the Lord is limited and that which festers just below the surface is sure to burst out sometime, right into the open and the poison that depletes the energies of the church will have to be removed. One last thought to reflect upon. Always begin with God in your thinking; does He not come face to face with each of us, without a pointing finger? Does He not come bringing a profound sense that He only wants to do us good? Reconciliation, and end of all enmity is His intention. We, every one of us, must endeavor with all our power to have an open face to Him and towards every other person with whom we have a relationship. Nothing between each of us and God and ourselves with others, make sure of it, others may choose to erect an obstacle to fellowship with you and with clouded face turn away from you, but, make sure your face is bright with the forgiving love of God because your heart is walking in the meekness and humility of the path of a repentant soul.