“Relationships Matter” Matthew 18:15-20

-Don’t shy away from conflict when it is needed, do it well, to the Glory of God. Because relationships are the most important things we have.

Relationships are important to God – the fact that you are here in this building to worship God this morning means you already know this to some degree. But God doesn’t only care about our relationship with Jesus, God cares about our relationships with each other. Because God cares so much about our relationships, Jesus teaches in today’s scripture passage that there are certain steps we should take when a brother or sister sins against us.

The words of Jesus brought to us in today’s scripture are not only a Godly method of conflict resolution. Jesus gives us a treasure box full of Gold nuggets of wisdom about how we should relate to one another as the people of God. In fact each verse of this passage is a gold nugget of relational goodness.

A good way to mine the gold out of this passage is to start at the end with verse 20 and work backwards. The last three verses of this passage can be confusing, and understanding them is key to understanding exactly what Jesus is telling us.

20: “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”

God is present with us when two or three of us are gathered in the name of Jesus. I believe that when we come together for purposes of worship, God’s Spirit is with us. I don’t just mean Sunday morning for church service. I mean anything that we do together as an act of worship. This could be coming to a semi-boring committee meeting at church. Worship could also be gathering together to meet people’s needs in the community. Any kind of missions, education, and evangelism, anything that we do where we gather in Christ’s name is worship. Even just meeting for fellowship. In fact worship probably can cover the bulk majority of things that we do together.

So when we gather in Jesus name, God is there with us. God’s relationships with us and our relationships with others are interconnected.

Next, Verse 19 reads: Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven.

If we agree, God will do what we ask. The word agree here implies a strong agreement, being likeminded and harmonious. But this doesn’t mean that if we all agree that we would like seven million dollars each that God will make money appear. It also doesn’t mean that if we all agree that a seriously ill friend should recover that they will. In chapter 15, verse 7 of John’s Gospel we read Jesus’ words, “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.”

What Jesus is getting at here is that when we have harmony in our relationships and we seek God’s will together, our prayers will line up with Jesus’ prayers and so they will be answered according to God’s will.

Now we go to Verse 18: Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.

This verse reminds me of the statement that Jesus makes to Peter earlier in Matthew’s Gospel.  Chapter 16 verse 19 reads, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

After some research into this binding and loosing statement, I discovered that what this means in effect is that the decisions made by the congregation on earth have the authority of heaven. Initially, I was turned off because I just thought “Oh here is something that church leadership could use to bully believers.” Upon further reading, I realized that, abusive power moves are not covered under this statement. In our scripture this morning, the heavenly authority of the congregation is established in reference to verse 17, which reads,

Verse 17: If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.

Verses 18, 19, and 20 firmly establish the authority of the congregation in solving conflicts. So we really should listen if the congregation confronts any of us about some sin issue, because the congregation has the authority of heaven when gathered in Jesus name. When the congregation prays for truth and clarity, if they are truly seeking God’s will, then God will give it. The Holy Spirit is present and involved and we all might want to take a second look at what the church is saying to us.

I wanted to step through the second half of this scripture passage very carefully so that we can all understand that this passage isn’t talking about authoritatively kicking people out of church and condemning them forever because they won’t listen to reason.

No, Jesus is telling us that sometimes, if people are proud or stubborn and can’t acknowledge sin in their life, we may have to adjust our expectations, because to deny sin or the possibility that you messed up puts you out of right relationship with the congregation already, without any fancy letters or harsh words from the Session.

This whole passage of scripture is NOT about shunning difficult, sinful people from the congregation. It is about how to bring back those sheep that have gone astray already. In one sense, the only person who has the ability to remove someone from Christian relationship is the person themselves!

This scripture passage establishes the necessity of confrontation and discipline as a loving act to maintain our relationships with our Christian brothers and sisters in this sinful, broken world. God cares about our relationships so much, that Jesus teaches us a three step process for conflict resolution.

The first step is given in verse 15. If your brother or sister sins against you, go and tell them in private. Don’t create a major drama by talking to everyone else BUT the person who crossed you. Sometimes people have simple misunderstandings. A direct talk in private may clear this up. If indeed the other person did or is doing something wrong, maybe they don’t see it. This isn’t always intentional. Denial is a powerful impulse that protects us from things that cause us emotional pain. But if you can directly, and lovingly reveal truth to them, then perhaps they will stop doing or make right whatever they did. In this case, you have regained that brother or sister! The word regained literally means that your investment in this relationship has paid off.

If you went straight to the gossip factory or the rumor mill instead of confronting the person directly, you might damage the relationship further.

So what if the person doesn’t believe you, or disagrees that they have sinned against you? The second step is given in verse 16. Bring two or three others with you to try to convince the person of their sin.

There is a long Jewish tradition recorded in Deuteronomy 19:15 that states that an accusation must be confirmed by evidence from at least two or three witnesses. This is true for us in the US. In a criminal trial we listen to evidence and must be sure of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt to convict. In civil matters, which is probably more applicable to our scripture today, the judge or jury must be at least 51% sure that someone wronged another.

If a person is reasonable and not too emotional, they may be convinced by multiple people telling them they have sinned. On the other hand, if you find that it is hard to recruit two or three witnesses to agree with you then maybe you should take a look at what you believe to be true. Perhaps the offense is all in your mind. If it surely isn’t, and others agree with your perspective, then go to the offender with two or three other people.

The main idea is to preserve relationships by limiting the number of people involved in conflict resolution. Discretion is important and respectful.

Now if the one who has sinned against you still does not believe they did or are doing wrong, there is a third thing you can do. Verse 17 revealed the last step we can take before adjusting our expectations is to bring the issue before the congregation.

Perhaps our brother or sister doesn’t believe you and thinks that the 2 or 3 people you brought to talk to them are on your side and partial to your view. Well bringing the issue up with the congregation may just convince them. If they are convinced, then you can reconcile. This is hopefully a last resort because I know I would be ashamed if I realized I was wrong in front of a whole bunch of people.

What would step 3 look like in this group of believers? Well, I think bringing this issue before an assembly of the congregation like the session or perhaps your small group (if you are in one) would be the way to faithfully follow this step in our Presbyterian model of church organization.

And now, if the assembly agrees that the offender is in the wrong but they will still not admit it, then they are to be treated like a gentile/tax collector. We must recognize that the offender is already outside of right relationships within the congregation. Which means we have to adjust our expectations because they are not playing by the same rules we are.

So to recap, if a brother or sister sins against you:

Step one, talk to them in private. Meet for coffee or lunch or talk on the phone. I don’t think email or texting qualifies as actually being present in any form so I would say email doesn’t satisfy step 1. Try face-to-face or phone if you have to.

Step two, take two or three people with you to talk to them. You could do this by meeting in a neutral place, or you could do this at someone’s house.

Step three, bring the offender before the assembly. If the offender persists, even when the congregation agrees that they committed a wrong, then they have taken themselves outside of right relationships with the congregation.

If you get to this point with someone who has sinned against you it might be tempting to think you done dealing with them. You may think it is time to wash your hands of this person, because you did your part. But is this really what you think Jesus is saying?

If that is really what Jesus is saying then, why is this text sandwiched right between two teachings about the infinite capacity of God’s love in relationships? First, Jesus teaches that God goes after even one lost sheep when he has 99 other sheep. Second, And Jesus tells Peter that our forgiveness for one another must be infinite.

Like we know from Mathew’s, Mark’s, and Luke’s gospel, Jesus comes for those who are sick not those who are well.[1]

Jesus specifically spends time with sinners, gentiles, and tax collectors. Jesus didn’t shun people who were out of right relationship with the congregation. Jesus purposely helped people recognize the right way to go. So in a sense, we need to put more effort into our relationship with the offender at this point. They become a special mission project. This is a HARD task and requires effort. But it is worth it. Relationships matter to God. Relationships will continue forever. That makes relationships one of the most important things we have in our lives. And this explains why we endure the painful mess and do tons of work, because it is important.

You might be thinking, wow this IS a lot of work. It seems like it would be a lot easier to stuff my hurt and not say anything. Maybe you are even thinking it would be easier to just go to a different church to avoid the issue. Some issues get really messy and emotional wounds are hard things to sort out. But if you really believe that relationships matter, I urge you to consider putting forth the effort. After all, the person who sinned against you might not even realize how they hurt people. Your effort might just be the thing that can avoid countless future hurts.

I know that I would want someone to confront me. Even though it may not feel good, I’d like to know when I sin against someone so I can ask for forgiveness and avoid doing it again to someone else.

Wherever you go, whatever church, family, or group of people you are with, sin will happen. As a result, there will be a need for reconciliation. Because relationships are so important to God, Jesus explains a very clear and practical way to deal with these conflicts. It will require effort and will most likely be uncomfortable. But all of these efforts can pay huge dividends if we can reconcile with one another. Conflict handled well can create strong bonds of fellowship, peace, and harmony in the congregation.

Relationships matter but they require a lot of effort to keep them healthy and good. When I need some extra motivation to do my part, I imagine what God would do in my situation. I know God will pursue us to the end of existence. God was even willing to give His Son Jesus over to be tortured and crucified to repair our broken relationship with God. Remembering what Jesus did gives me good motivation to put forth the effort to reconcile relationships in my life.

If we all do our best to follow Jesus’ teaching on confronting others in love when they sin against us, we will realize the fulfillment of Jesus promise in Matthew 18:20: “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am in the midst of them.[2]

[1] Mt 9:12-13, Mk 2:17, LK 5:31

[2] Raymond Brown, “An Introduction to the New Testament” p.193