(Matthew 18:15-22; Galatians 2:1-14)
Sun, June 26, 2016 – UBC Digby – J G White
Jesus’ words about “where two or three are gathered” are oft quoted. Where two or three are gathered, there am I, in the midst of them. But look at the context. It’s “how to have a church fight” as Reggie McNeil put it! Jesus’ words are in the midst of teaching about dealing with sins and offences among our brothers and sisters in Christ.
A Sunday school teacher was discussing the Ten Commandments with her five and six year olds. After explaining the commandment to ‘honour thy father and thy mother,’ she asked, ‘Is there a commandment that teaches us how to treat our brothers and sisters?’
Without missing a beat, one boy answered, ‘Thou shalt not kill.’
Forgiveness comes out of conflict, of course: disagreement, some offense committed. Or some offense taken. To take offense is what John Bevere called The Bait of Satan. His book of that title is subtitled: Living Free from the Deadly Trap of Offense. And it is the trap of staying offended by someone that closes the door to forgiveness, reconciliation, and many other good blessings. Yet in Christ there can be freedom from being offended forever.
I think we learn from the example of others. Our insides are moved by stories. So when Paul writes to the little churches in the region called Galatia, he tells a story, he gives an example. His own conflict with Peter, also called Simon, and here called Cephas. What we heard today from Galatians chapter 2 was likely hard to follow.
Conflicts are often complicated. More people get involved. People talk and talk. The story is confusing to tell when it’s all said and done.
Reading minutes of old deacon’s meetings and other Church meetings can be like reading Paul’s letter to the Galatians: run-on sentences and convoluted events that are hard to follow!
Here in Galatians 2, Paul tells the story of how some of those early Church leaders – apostles – dealt with the challenges of having Jews and non-Jews all become Christians. Did Gentiles – the non-Jews – have to become Jewish in order to follow Jesus and be saved? No. But some of those apostles second-guessed that wisdom, and sometimes acted as if believers had to follow Jewish ways. Peter, for one, is picked out here by Paul, for saying one thing but doing another. Peter, this disciple who had walked with Jesus for three years, was now a great leading light in the Way of Jesus. Now, so was Paul, a former Jewish Pharisee, converted quite dramatically. Here, in this letter, Paul describes the conflict between them. Paul writes: “he was clearly in the wrong.” He gives this anecdote to teach and inspire the Christians he was writing to.
So, like Paul, let me give an example. Something I read about in old minute books, and heard about from people who were there. Not from a church in Galatia or Antioch, but Nova Scotia.
There was this Baptist Church. They’d had a season that seemed prosperous and joyful – their pastor was well esteemed by just about everyone. But the most wonderful of pastors don’t stay forever. So, the page turned for the next chapter of their history, and there arose a conflict. They had a new, young, energetic, ambitious pastor. But, some were for him, and some were against him. Should he stay and lead the way? Should he move on? One group of church leaders and people were behind him to cheer and to follow. Another faction were behind him: to push him out! The Pastor did leave.
What a nasty time it was – especially for the deacons and others closely involved in ministry. The next Pastor for the church arrived. But the conflict among the people went on, and was taken out on the new man. As I read through the minutes of the Deacons meetings from that time, there were extra, special meetings called, there was clearly conflict and concern, the pastor clearly was getting stressed out, not to mention all the volunteers serving the Church.
I turned the pages of the Deacon’s minute book, and just as the conflict was coming to a head again, there was a blank space on the pages. The date of a meeting was there on the page, but no minutes, no notes were taken. Just a blank was left on the page.
That new pastor left, after being there less than two years.
Maybe you can guess where, if not when, this was. It was the Windsor Baptist Church, in the mid1980s. When I was their pastor, twenty years later, I discovered some pain that remained among people who had been those deacons and leaders twenty years before. No wonder one man – an excellent candidate – never ever agreed to be a deacon while I was there. He’d been through the ringer as a young deacon in the 1980s. No wonder two of my deacons got into a shouting match at a meeting when the title for our new youth pastor was being discussed – they had been involved in the conflict in 1984: a conflict over: should the Youth Pastor become the Senior Pastor?
The healing of people’s hearts in the Windsor Church was a long, slow process, and much of the healing journey was not planned or intentional. The hurtful effects lasted a long time, as they often do.
My heart went out to those wonderful folks who had been through many a hard time in the Windsor Church. I could tell you other tough stories from their past fifty years.
And my heart goes out to you, Digby Baptist. Some of you know just as well what church conflicts and ‘splits’ feel like. You experienced it here twenty years ago, or some other time. Or elsewhere – trouble at Trinity, or grumbling at Grace, problems at St. Pat’s, or woes at Wesleyan… wherever. Maybe you found Digby Baptist because you left some troubled congregation.
How does the trouble end? How does healing and reconciliation come about? What does the Holy Spirit do to transform hurt and sin into healing and strength? Sometimes the end of the story seems incomplete. Unfinished.
What Paul gives to the Galatians seems to me like an unfinished story. What happened between Paul and Peter, those two great leaders? Paul does not tell it here in this letter. He simply speaks of facing the issues head on. “I opposed him to his face,” says Paul of his meeting with Peter. And the last detail of the story Paul writes is what he said to Peter. Things like: “How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs?” These were the same issues faced by the little Churches in Galatia, to whom Paul was retelling this story.
It is so often face to face that conflicts reach their highest heat. And it can be face to face that the deepest forgiveness and reconciliation will come. It is hard work. Hard emotional work: a challenging spiritual journey. We need some courage in our hearts, and wisdom in our minds.
Those words of Jesus recorded in Matthew 18 make for a useful model, thought the same procedure does not apply exactly to every situation. All the steps – meet with the person in conflict with you, meet along with one or two others, then bring the church together – all are about face to face sharing. The best way is when those who have been at odds all want to share, and hear from the other side.
In my own reflections, I also keep going back to James 5:16 …confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. And to Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his book, Life Together.
Our brother stands before us as the sign of the truth and the grace of God. He has been given to us to help us. He hears the confession of our sins in Christ’s stead and he forgives our sins in Christ’s name. He keeps the secret of our confession as God keeps it. When I go to my brother [or sister] to confess, I am going to God.
So in the Christian community when the call to brotherly confession and forgiveness goes forth it is a call to the great grace of God in the Church. (pp. 111-112)
This face-to-face method is so personally powerful. And I’m sure that when I face someone with my own displeasure, I can see my own complaint more clearly. And feel my feelings. And put things in perspective. And hear from God about it!
Paul, you see, was very clear here about being in the right – and with good reason. But we, we have our moments of being so sure we are on the side of right, when we are overreacting, and sometimes in the wrong ourselves.
And this need for forgiveness and reconciliation arises not just in churches. We know this from families. And in clubs. And in workplaces. And so forth. It is challenging… but with Christ, so much is possible. Things possible with God that are impossible with us alone. There is great good news in the Bible where we read of the ministry of reconciliation, for example.
2 Corinthians 5:17-19 So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.
It takes us a while, walking with our Saviour, to join in this reconciling work. Forgiveness can take time, as we know. It takes more than time, more than mere waiting. It takes action of the heart and soul, over the course of time. And so it takes training too. We work at it, we learn from the Master, we become better at it in small ways, and then can forgive in bigger situations.
In his classic book, John Bevere starts one chapter with Acts 24:16 from the New King James version: And herein do I exercise myself, to have always a conscience void of offence toward God, and toward men. And Bevere tells this story about being less prone to injury when we regularly exercise…
While in Hawaii I climbed a wall to take a picture. When I did, I pulled a group of muscles in my knee and could not walk for four days.
“If you had been exercising regularly,” the physical therapist told me, “this would not have happened. Because your muscles are out of shape, you are prone to injury.”
And so it is with forgiving people, writes Bevere. When we have exercised our hearts they are conditioned to handle offenses. Small ones at least. Then, we can go on to handle greater injuries, by the grace of God, who is our trainer.
Can you see the training you have received in your lifetime, walking with others? Training under the Spirit’s guidance, to forgive and face the failings we have and that we find in others? How wonderful that Christ gives us the ministry of reconciliation!
Some folks are going to sit down today and/or Tuesday to talk about John Bunyan’s epic story of a Pilgrim named Christian, making his way to the Celestial City. At one point in the journey, Christian has a good traveling companion in a man named Hopeful. But at one point, they try a short-cut, through By-path Meadow, and are lost in a terrible storm that arises.
Hopeful groaned in himself, saying, Oh that I had kept on my way!
CHR. Who could have thought that this Path should have led us out of the way?
HOPE. I was afraid on’t at the very first, and therefore gave you that gentle caution. I would have spoken plainer, but that you are older than I.
CHR. Good Brother be not offended; I am sorry I have brought thee out of the way, and that I have put thee into such imminent danger; pray my Brother forgive me, I did not do it of an evil intent.
HOPE. Be comforted my Brother, for I forgive thee; and believe too that this shall be for our good.
Hopeful and Christian end up captured by a giant named Despair. They get thrown in his dungeon, offered no food, and are periodically beaten. Things have takes such a terrible turn that Christian becomes very depressed, and thinks it would be better to die than to keep living in the dungeon of Giant Despair.
Then Hopeful comforts him – persistently – and surely the forgiveness is proved in how he keeps up Christian’s spirits. My Brother, let’s be patient, and endure a while; the time may come that may give us happy release…
Forgiveness itself is ‘happy release.’ Face to face we can find forgiveness, by the grace of our God. Face to face with one another. Face to face with our Lord.