How do we resolve conflict?
Sermon by Revd Janet Bromley
Sunday 6th September 2020 St Mary’s 8.00am
Matthew 18: 15-20
This is a difficult passage from Matthew’s gospel this morning, probably because it is dealing with the topic of conflict and that is a complex issue. It always has been, in Jesus day and in our world of 2020. There are volumes written about the resolution of conflict, those concerning international relations, those in the business world and those personal conflicts which we encounter in our every day lives.
And what happens when we fail to resolve conflict: Acts of terror, oppression of peoples, family feuds and split churches.
Solution to conflict appears to depend on getting to the bottom of the issue by putting it fairly and squarely on the table. It doesn’t mean papering over the cracks, ignoring the elephant in the room or making out that it does not matter. In the wedding preparation sessions that we do here in the Monmouth Group of Parishes half the day is spent on conflict resolution and in one of the exercises we ask the participants to look at twenty meanings of forgiveness and to think about whether they are correct, incorrect or ambiguous…..it provokes a lively debate.
In this passage Matthew appears to be concerned with addressing personal and church community conflicts. Sometimes it is easy for us and for those who judge us, to be disappointed by a Christian Community’s behaviour. We ought to be able to do better in living out our Christian values and ideals. BUT, we are in a world and church in which we live our lives between the ‘already’ and the ‘not yet’.
And we should remember that: ‘we have this treasure in earthen vessels’.
Church is made up of very ordinary human beings and therefore conflict is probably inevitable. The issue is not the avoidance of conflict but conflict management. Here Matthew is struggling with the question of pastoral care and discipline. On the one hand he is setting out a procedure – and that is very necessary. But at another level he is trying to convey that conflict gives us the opportunity to learn ……. more about Christ’s way, his love and his courage.
If we look at the passage just before this we read the story of the Lost Sheep and in this parable Matthew’s focus is on pastoral care…. and life in our churches should be focussed on costly pastoral care of its members. And when there is conflict it gives us an opportunity to discover new ways of being church, community and human. It can lead us for the ‘already’ to the ‘not yet’ of God’s kingdom.
So, that is the idealistic side of this passage but it is also severely practical because it is not good practice to create reconciliation without confronting the evil, the hurt or the offence that has taken place.
That is why most organisations have grievance and disciplinary procedures to deal with conflict unacceptable behaviour. And we can see the problems that result when these procedures are inadequate or not adhered to if we look at the problems in the worlds of gymnastics, policing and politics today.
Jesus is outlining here a grievance and disciplinary procedure to his disciples.
Step one: you should go and see the person against whom you have a grievance one to one, face to face.
This actually needs a lot of courage and humility on the part of the complainant. He or she must go prepared to listen and to hear things about their own behaviour too.
But if successful this coming together can lead to the creation of an even better relationship than had existed previously.
Step two: take one or two others with you from your community to talk about the disagreement. This sometimes leads to a conversation in which both sides can listen more attentively and begin to understand the others point of view. What might seem very trivial to one person can cause a lot of distress to another. Those in attendance can tell both sides some uncomfortable truths and they can also act as witnesses.
Step three: this is the final and most formal stage of the procedure, because the grievance is put before the whole assembly. And after this a final judgement is reached. But the crunch is that if they refuse to be reconciled, they must leave the community. This seems very harsh, but if a person refuses to face up to a problem reconciliation is impossible.
The promise that Jesus gives his disciples is that we are not alone in this, God’s presence is with us in the whole procedure and if we bathe it in prayer we will know that presence.
The Gospels themselves are full of conflict between Jesus and Satan, Jesus and his opponents, Jesus and his disciples and between the disciples themselves.
Golgotha is the place of final conflict and of final revelation: it is through conflict that the nature of Jesus is revealed to us. And after the conflict comes the renewal of resurrection and new life.
we thank you that in Christ
you have offered us forgiveness
and a new way of living as your children.
Help us as we try to be more like him
full of courage, humility, love and kindness.
To be ready to give ourselves out of love
for our friends and communities.
Breathe your healing peace and reconciliation into all
our conflict and disagreement
sooth our hurting
heal our broken relationships
and call us to a new and deeper understanding
of the cost of discipleship.
Loving God, bind us together and make us one in love.