Sermon for 15 Pentecost, Year A
Based on Matt. 18: 15-18
By Pastor Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson
Our gospel for today is one in which, I must confess, find problematic. It presents problems for me because I find it unsettles me and makes me feel uncomfortable. It's also a message I have problems hearing and accepting.
However, it's also a gospel that is very realistic: because it acknowledges the fact that in any Christian community/congregation, there are going to be conflicts, fights and even divisions. Our gospel is also very realistic: because it takes into account the necessity of confrontation, reconciliation and forgiveness. Confrontation, reconciliation and forgiveness are necessary if a Christian community/congregation is going to promote the cause of health, wholeness, healing and salvation. After all, the Latin "salus" means health and wholeness.
It would be wonderful if there were no conflicts, fights and divisions in the Christian Church. However, that is definitely not the case! The tragic irony and paradox at work in the Christian Church today is that it's supposed to be the greatest example of unity, cooperation and love. But, sad to say, more often than not, the Church is plagued by divisions, conflicts and unloving, destructive attitudes and practices toward other brothers and sisters in Christ and in Christ's name! Instead of being the ONE, HOLY Church, it is often the DIVIDED, UNHOLY Church!
The reality of the matter is: we are all sinners! We are, it's true, also saints! However, the sinner in us is constantly at work. Even though the Bible tells us we must be perfect, we are far from perfect. Our selfish, narrow-minded, stubbornness and pride lead us into conflicts, fights and divisions. If you think that the Church is only filled with peace, harmony, unity and goodwill ~ think again! For the Church may very well be embroiled in conflicts, fights and divisions even more so than any "secular" institution. Truth claims ~ especially absolute ones ~ often involve extreme passions and convictions, resulting in little, if any, room for the fine art of compromise, dialogue and toleration of differences. Too often, it leads to the: "I'm right, you're wrong" approach to life.
The first step towards solving or healing such conflicts, fights and divisions is to be honest and admit that they exist. We cannot bury our heads in the sand, hoping that they will go away. Quite often, by avoiding or running away from conflict we run right into it in a far worse form at a later date. When something serious hurts our physical bodies, if we don't admit it, the problem may very well worsen and cause serious illnesses or even death. The same is also true for the Body of Christ ~ unless conflicts, fights and divisions are faced and dealt with in their early stages; unless they are "nipped in the bud," they have a way of snowballing into serious illnesses, which have the potential of leading to the death of a particular community/congregation.
Someone tells the following story to underscore this reality: "In a small church, the custodian was found to be dishonest. He had managed to steal several thousand dollars from the congregation by submitting fraudulent bills. Rather than confronting the crime, the church council chose to be "merciful." They agreed not to call in police or insist upon repayment if the custodian would resign quietly. He did, and the council members felt they had acted mercifully."
"Six months later, the council was confronted by members of a neighboring church where the custodian had gotten into even more serious trouble. Why had they not been warned? members of the neighboring church council asked. The so-called mercy of the church members was really their unwillingness to deal properly with the custodian. As a result of their unwillingness to confront a serious problem, no life was changed. Jesus says, if a sister or brother sins against us, we are to go and tell them their fault."
This story points out that once there is a problem, once the problem is admitted, it's then necessary to confront the persons involved in the problem. Confrontation is certainly not easy ~ we Canadians seem to have a special contempt for "in your face" kind of people. Confrontation is and can be difficult, embarrassing, stressful and even dangerous. All the more reason for us Christians to be mature in Christ.
When we confront a brother or sister who has offended us or hurt us, we must always, I repeat, ALWAYS confront one another in prayer, humility, honesty, with the utmost of gentleness and love. ALWAYS remember that the offender AND the offended are BOTH SINNERS, EQUALLY IN NEED OF CHRIST'S FORGIVENESS!
This story also points out that unless confrontation is done in prayer, humility, honesty, with the utmost of gentleness and love; it will be unsuccessful in bringing about reconciliation and forgiveness. The purpose of confrontation, according to our gospel, is to bring healing and reconciliation, health and salvation. The purpose of confrontation is never revenge or alienating others or to glory in our self-righteousness.
A doctor, if given the proper circumstances and opportunity, may be able to heal a patient of a serious illness. The same is true of Christians, if they confront a person or persons in the maturity of Christ, they can bring healing, reconciliation and forgiveness. Christ has called us to bring healing, health, salvation, reconciliation and forgiveness to a hurting, broken world. Yet, before we can do this, we must mend and heal the broken and hurt relationships in our midst; in our families; in our neighbourhood; in our congregation. If we fail to do this, then the brokenness and hurt will only worsen. In addition to this; if we fail to heal, reconcile and forgive one another as Christian brothers and sisters, then we are setting a very poor example for those people outside the Church who are not Christians.
That is why many Christians in South Africa took their hurt and brokenness to the third stage of the process of reconciliation, which is outlined in our gospel for today. For example, at a Lutheran World Federation Assembly, it was pointed out that racism and apartheid were sinful ~ and were tearing and dividing the Church of Jesus Christ in South Africa apart.
Therefore, many South African Christians called other Christians of that nation to repent of their racist beliefs and practices. They believed that racism and apartheid had to end in the Church BEFORE it could come to an end in the secular realm of the nation. Once there was healing and forgiveness in the Church, then there could be forgiveness and healing in the world.
Our Lord realizes that we are constantly plagued by the sickness of sin ~ and that there will be conflicts, fights and even divisions in the Church. That is why he has provided his Church with the means of reconciliation as we have learned in our gospel today. Jesus knows, Jesus feels: the pain, the suffering, hurt and brokenness that each one of us experiences because of sin. That's why he has already reconciled us with God.
That word "reconciliation" means, literally, making enemies into friends. That's what Jesus has done and continues to do for us. He makes us friends with God by forgiving us and healing the sickness of our sin. He is our Greatest and Best Doctor who offers us healing, wholeness, health and salvation beyond measure.
That's why, if we are really going to call ourselves Christians, we too shall want to be reconciled with one another as brothers and sisters in Christ Jesus. Only then will we be able to experience what we are already promised: healing, peace of mind and heart, wholeness, health, unity, goodwill, and holiness in our Reconciler Jesus Christ.
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