Conflict Resolution, Jesus-Style

Sermon delivered on Trinity 13A, Sunday, September 10, 2017, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH. There has never been a better day to consider how you handle your conflicts as a Christian.

If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of today’s sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.

Lectionary texts: Exodus 12.1-14; Psalm 149; Romans 13.8-14; Matthew 18.15-20.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Have you ever stopped to consider what an awesome privilege it is to be called to be one of God’s people in Christ? While the Church is many things, above all else it is a living organism composed of redeemed followers of Jesus, you and me. As such, we are called to do business in ways that are fundamentally different from the way the world does business. In our gospel lesson this morning our Lord tells us how we should resolve conflicts between each other and this is what I want us to look at this morning.

Before we look at the model for conflict resolution Jesus commanded us to use, it is necessary for us to lay some groundwork so that we approach this subject with our minds right and in the proper Spirit. Some Christians believe that there should never be any conflict between Christians. You know, love your neighbor and all that. But this viewpoint simply does not take into account the human condition. We are all badly broken and prone to self-righteousness, some more than others, and so conflict is bound to erupt, even among Christians who have been redeemed by the blood of Christ. Not only that, but there are times when perfectly legitimate and unsullied viewpoints will clash. Even a superficial reading of Scripture bears this out. Proverbs 27.17 tells us that, “As iron sharpens iron, so a friend sharpens a friend (NLT),” and sometimes conflicting opinions will actually bring much-needed clarity and wisdom about an issue. For example, Barnabas and Paul got into a sharp disagreement over whether to take Mark (the gospel writer) with them on their next missionary journey. Apparently the young Mark had lost heart and deserted Barnabas and Paul during their previous (and dangerous) mission work and that landed him in St. Paul’s doghouse. The disagreement between St. Barnabas and St. Paul became so sharp that the two parted ways and we have no record of them ever seeing or speaking to each other again, a sad ending, considering they had survived many perilous situations together during their missionary journeys (Acts 15.36-41). Surely Barnabas and Paul had legitimate reasons for wanting to take or leave Mark with them and in this particular instance they couldn’t work it out. But this doesn’t make their conflict illegitimate or immoral. Sometimes things like this happen because we live in a broken world and there can be more than one correct perspective regarding a situation. As a happier postscript to this story, we know that St. Paul and St. Mark were eventually reconciled and that St. Paul counted on St. Mark’s companionship and faithfulness as the former languished alone and abandoned in prison awaiting his execution (2 Timothy 4.9-18). This gives us a hint as to what Jesus was driving at when he gave us this model to resolve conflict and to the fact that St. Paul was faithful to it because he was eventually reconciled with St. Mark. So as Christians, we need not fear conflict with other faithful Christians and should accept that legitimate conflict is inevitable. If that is true, then the question before us is how to resolve conflicts faithfully when they arise.

Before we answer that question, we must first look at some assumptions behind Jesus’ model for conflict resolution. For us to follow Jesus’ command about how to resolve conflicts with other believers within his body, the Church, we must approach conflict resolution with a clear understanding of the human condition and a profound sense of humility, leaving behind our built-in sense of self-righteousness. We can only do this if we first share the radical view St. Paul had about the leveling of human distinctions that has occurred in Christ. What does that mean you ask? It means that St. Paul believed and taught that every one of us stands under the just and holy judgment of God, that there is no one who is good. All of us are sin-sick to death and in desperate need of the Lord’s healing that is available to each of us in the shedding of his blood for us on the cross and in the power of the Holy Spirit who lives in us. Without the saving death of Jesus who loved us and died for us while we were still his enemies, none of us has a hope or a future. None of us. Therefore none of us enjoys an inherent advantage or high ground when it comes to disputes. To be sure, there are some instances where one party is clearly in the right and the other clearly in the wrong, but that does not have blanket application because in the next instance the tables might just as well be turned because we are all profoundly broken and enslaved to the power of Sin without help from the Lord. When we understand this about ourselves and the love God has for us as demonstrated supremely in the death and resurrection of his Son, we enter conflicts with the required sense of humility about ourselves and with the understanding that the person with whom we are in conflict is also a greatly-beloved and rescued sinner by God’s grace, and only by God’s grace, just like we are. When we forget who we are and our status before the Almighty and Holy God without the blood of Christ shed to reconcile us to God, our inherent sense of self-righteousness will kick in and we will immediately see our needs and our views as superior to those of the person with whom we are in conflict. And if reconciliation is the goal of Jesus’ conflict resolution model, we all know that bringing a haughty sense of self-righteousness to an argument is surely the kiss of death in terms of being reconciled with one’s opponent.

This is why St. Paul spent so much time telling his churches to love one another and to bear each other’s burdens, even when some people are like fingernails on a chalkboard to us. None of us is superior to the other in God’s eyes. We are all guilty sinners deserving of nothing but God’s righteous condemnation and death. But because God loves us more than God hates our sins, God as acted to redeem us in and through the cross of Christ and to raise us to new life with our risen Lord and Savior. That’s why we must always enter a conflict with a fellow Christian with a baptismal mindset where we acknowledge that we have died with Christ and are raised with him. That is what makes us right, nothing else. If you enter a conflict with this in mind, you will be amazed at the difference it makes in how you see and treat your opponent.

We see this dynamic clearly at work in St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. Hear him as he chastises that little congregation for taking each other to court over various disputes:

When any of you has a grievance against another, do you dare to take it to court before the unrighteous, instead of taking it before the saints [fellow members]? In fact, to have lawsuits at all with one another is already a defeat for you. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be defrauded? But you yourselves wrong and defraud—and believers at that (1 Corinthians 6.1,7-8).

If we do not understand that Paul always operates from the perspective of Jesus Christ, we are likely to conclude that Paul is a lunatic in admonishing the Corinthians as he does here. But when we see that behind Paul’s admonishment there is a firm belief that because all Christians are rescued by the blood of Christ—being rescued while we were still his enemies, no less—why should we not imitate our Lord’s love for his enemies and bear their wrongs instead of insisting on our rights? I cannot tell you how many times my, um, “interesting” sense of humor has gotten me in trouble with others because I inadvertently offend them at times. Now if I were to bring my natural sense of self-righteousness to bear against the offended, I might snort and say something like they are too sensitive and need to get over themselves. But there is no humility in that. There is no recognition that the one I offended is as beloved in Christ’s eyes as I am and that I might actually be in the wrong. So instead of getting all huffy, which will surely escalate the argument and perhaps damage our relationship long-term, why not swallow my pride for the sake of the other? Doing so imitates our Lord’s self-giving love for the sake of us both and in the process, goes a long way in reestablishing holy Christian fellowship between two redeemed believers of Christ’s body. If all of us had this mindset consistently, think of how much stronger and blessed we would all be because our relationships would be nourished and strengthened. Nobody wants to feel the sting of rejection. Nobody. So behind our Lord’s command is the command to be humble and faithful, just like he was and is.

Turning now to the actual model itself, our Lord commands us to gently confront the one who offends us. Again it is important for us to remember that this is how we are to treat fellow believers inside the Church. We are to confront each other because we are commanded to love each other enough not to let our relationships deteriorate. Jesus always has in mind reconciliation where possible. This should make sense to us. After all, Christ died to reconcile the world to God. So why wouldn’t he want us to be reconciled to each other after our disputes?

But many of us do not want to confront those who offend us because then we open ourselves up to criticism. When we confront another, we must be prepared to hear their perspective about us and about how we might have contributed to a dispute or conflict. It’s easier for us to get all self-righteous. So instead of confronting the person who offends us, we try to run down that person to others. We engage in gossip and backbiting. Did you hear about Maney? He’s at it again. He’s always so critical and standoffish. You just can’t talk to him. And he’s quick to spend our hard-earned pledges on stupid stuff. This is not conflict resolution, my beloved. This is backbiting and evil speaking and is called triangulation, drawing a third party into our conflict. These are wicked behaviors that dishonor our Lord and his love for us because they foment ill will and actually escalate conflict. They do not serve to promote reconciliation.

Or sometimes when we are offended about something that goes on in the church, we might decide to withhold our pledges as a way to voice our disapproval. Does Maney think we really need a new church building? What’s wrong with this one? I’ll show him. No more giving until he comes off his mark. Do you see how this kind of thinking and behavior does not help anyone? The problem still exists and persists, festering until it explodes. This kind of thinking is born out of self-righteousness that makes us think only we can be right, and the offending person never has the chance to defend his position. To be sure, there may be times when withholding our money might be necessary, but not until all the facts are laid out for all to see and consider. Better for us to confront our offender and lay out our case to him first so that we can listen to his perspective as well. But we are to do so in private so as not to publicly embarrass the person. Again, keep in mind what we have said about the need to approach the person in humility and with the deep understanding that the offender is greatly beloved in Christ and stands redeemed in God’s eyes, just like we are loved and redeemed. And so we confront our offender, and we cut to the chase, not sugarcoating the issue or trying to rationalize the fact that we are offended. If we can work out our differences, then Jesus tells us we have gained a brother or sister and God’s approval, thanks be to God. A vast majority of arguments could be ended this way and the parties reconciled if we would only follow this model.

But there are some cases in which the offending person refuses to come off his mark and the person offended must then bring evidence and witnesses to bear against the offender, again not to humiliate her or “win” an argument, but to seek reconciliation with the offender. This should be done with extreme care, not to mention with much prayer, because it indicates that there has been a serious breach between two believers and one of them apparently is digging her feet in for a fight. Again, the emphasis is on confronting the offender, not speaking evilly about the person or engaging in backbiting about the person with others. There is no room for that among believers who all stand under God’s judgment and mercy. If after confronting our offender with witnesses and further evidence of her wrongdoing, the offender repents, we have won a sister and reconciliation is achieved, thanks be to God.

But our Lord was wise enough to know the human heart and how desperately sick it is. He knew that there would be some who would not repent of their offenses even when confronted by compelling evidence and witnesses. And so he commands us to take the issue before the entire parish. This is the nuclear option of conflict resolution and should be used sparingly and with great trepidation. We cringe when we hear this because we have become so private and individualistic. But if there is a cancer in the body, it must be excised for the health of the body. Doing so should never be done hastily and it should always be done in sorrow. But even here our Lord has in mind reconciliation. The person is not excommunicated to be punished but in the hope that the offender will come to his right mind, repent, and be reconciled to the rest of the body of Christ. We can see this played out again in St. Paul’s letters. At the church of Corinth there apparently was a man who was having sex with his stepmother. The congregation had done nothing about it, apparently in the name of grace. But Paul would have none of it. After all, he had asked the Romans how they who had been freed from their slavery to Sin and Death by the blood of Christ could go on living in a lifestyle that fostered their old death-producing slavery. So here Paul tells the Corinthians the same thing. Expel the man, he tells them, not to punish him but to perhaps help him come to his senses so that he will bear the fruit of repentance and be restored to fellowship with the Lord and within the body of Christ because his sins were damaging everyone, not just those immediately involved (1 Corinthians 5.1-5).

This is tough stuff, my beloved, and thankfully most of us won’t need to escalate our conflict resolution to this level. But if we love others enough, we must be willing and able to confront them for our sake as well as theirs and the body of Christ’s because we are called to live out our life and faith together. If we fail to confront those who offend us because we are uncomfortable in doing so, we are essentially declaring we really do not love them enough to be concerned about our mutual health and life together. Of course, we cannot force offenders to change, but we can and must love them enough in the power of the Spirit to confront them about the destructiveness of their behavior to themselves and to our relationship in the hope that they will. In doing so we realize that we could easily be in their position except by the grace of God. This Spirit-driven knowledge is essential in conflict resolution, Jesus-style. So we don’t gossip. We don’t triangulate (bring in another person to do our work), we don’t speak evilly about the offender to others, and we don’t remain silent and seethe. We are called to love the other enough to confront him or her because we know we are all greatly beloved by Christ and are all forgiven and redeemed sinners. This is the basis of conflict resolution for Christians within the Church, my beloved. It is based on the Good News we are to embrace and trust, now and for all eternity. For the sake and honor of our Redeemer’s holy name and for the health of his body here at St. Augustine’s, not to mention our own health, I implore us all to resolve our conflicts in the holy and faithful way our Lord commands. Doing so is a powerful testimony to the world that there are better ways of being human, and it starts by patterning our lives after Jesus our Lord, especially in how we handle conflict when it arises. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.