September 10, 2023


Rev. Scott Landis

Matthew 18:15-20

My initial sermon title for this week was simply “Church Conflict.” But the more I thought about it, the more it felt like that might be a bit of a downer and I didn’t want to focus solely on the problems facing churches today. Then again, I didn’t want to ignore this common phenomenon facing ALL institutions of our day – including the church. After all, it’s obvious that even Jesus recognized conflict as a problem within the newly forming groups that followed him – and they hadn’t yet fully organized. St. Paul witnessed firsthand a whole host of conflicts in the churches he had just planted and he tried every way possible to get people to embrace the LOVE they said they had for one another. Just read any one of his letters to the churches – it’s clear these new communities were riddled with conflict. 

But the more I read the words of Jesus as recorded in Matthew, the more I realized Jesus was calling for more than merely resolving conflicts. To be sure, there is a methodology outlined in his words which makes a lot of sense. It begins with early intervention when the problem is small and expanding only if necessary. If someone has offended or hurt you in some way – the initial attempt is to go and address it with the offender.  

We all know – this is much easier said than done. It’s hard to confront someone who has offended you. It takes a lot of maturity and some deep personal self-reflection. What may I have done to cause the conflict? What have I missed? And then – when you DO confront the other, the conversation may not go well. Depending on the other’s level of maturity and their ability to think reflectively as well, AND depending on the emotional stability of the other – raising the issue may result in an explosion rather than resolution. 

  Any yet, Jesus continues, “If that doesn’t work, take it up a notch. Try going to the other with one or two unbiased friends who can listen to your conversation.” The observers are present to offer prayer and reflection on what they hear as the discussion unfolds. Again, a tried-and-true principle, but that may not work either.  

The final attempt – and this is only done if the offense affects the entire church community – is to call a congregational meeting. Whether you engage in the principles of articulating, evaluating, and ideating, using white boards, and post-it notes, or whether you use the Quaker concept of a “Clearing Committee,” or you bring in a professional consultant, or engage in the principles of ho’oponopono – when the conflict reaches this level – it’s usually pretty nasty and rarely does anyone feel very good in the end. It’s the very reason why Jesus suggests nipping the problem in the bud. And that just may be the kernel on which Jesus is calling us to focus. 

If we go to very end of the passage, I believe, we find our grounding principle which, indeed, is our hope. It’s really where we ought to begin, and yet it is so often overlooked. I believe this phrase offers a key to what both Jesus and Paul were saying. The words are simply,  

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

Notice, this is not a technique for problem solving. Neither Paul nor Jesus was speaking solely about CONFLICT between partners, or parishioners, or factions inside the church. They wanted the newly forming communities of faith to think about what happens before we ever get to that point. What we often miss is something we too often take for granted – that being the presence of Jesus in everything we do AS the church.  

Our intentions are honorable, but we must think carefully about the importance of what we are doing when we meet in this context that we call church. One of the first things we MUST do whether we are entering into worship, or meeting as a board or committee, is to take the time to reaffirm our commitment of being a COMMUNITY of Christ. And that involves so much more than merely offering an opening prayer. It necessitates our constant consciousness of Jesus’ presence in everything – our thoughts, our words, and our deeds. It necessitates checking in with one another. Seeing how each one is doing. What burdens are they carrying? Or simply acknowledging that whenever we gather, there is a whole lot going on behind our smiling faces. As we attend to one another – before addressing any of the tasks at hand – we move from being separate as individuals to reaffirming our commitment to the whole.  

There is an important African concept that may help us to understand. It has its roots in humanist African philosophy but was embraced by the church as well. The concept is Ubuntu. Ubuntu is a part of the Zulu phrase “Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu,” which literally means that a person is a person through other people. The principle that underlies this concept is the belief that COMMUNITY is one of the primary building blocks of society. 

Archbishop Desmond Tutu became a major proponent of this philosophy during the anti-apartheid movement. In his book, No Future Without Forgiveness, he describes a person with ubuntu as "open and available to others, affirming of others ... one who has a proper self-assurance." The ubuntu this person possesses comes from being part of a greater whole. When asked about ubuntu Tutu would state simply, “No one can live in isolation – ubuntu simply means ‘I am because we are. We are because I am.’” What Tutu and Nelson Mandela taught and embodied was the idea that as the community is strengthened so are the individual component parts. It embraces the notion that ‘all ships rise when the community thrives.’ 

However, the building of community doesn’t just happen. We know that as a church – and we even see the divisive issues that have emerged as we witness the problems of working together following the disaster that struck our island. Building and strengthening the community involves work on the part of all – and especially the ability to listen carefully to others when differences arise.  

The church is a perfect place to begin. Jesus was not JUST talking about healing conflicts within the community, he was reminding them that building community is an ongoing effort. We are called to do more than merely treat the symptom (the conflict) – we are to build a structure (a community) that can quickly resolve problems – even when two or three are gathered. We must remind ourselves of that every time we gather and listen together – discern together – what God is calling forth for the common good. And that Jesus is in our midst.  

Now, there is an important caveat in all of this. Community building assumes that while we are all broken in one way or another – we all have the psychological maturity to participate in the work required in community building. This can only work if all players are seeking the common good and not looking out primarily for individual gain.  

There will be times – and we see this outlined in Jesus’ instruction, that if the offender refuses to participate in community building – we are to let that person be as a Gentile or tax-collector. They are, in essence, self-selecting themselves out of community. 

  That said, notice the words Jesus uses. He refers to the “offender” as a Gentile or tax-collector. Remember, who are the ones that Jesus tended to gravitate toward? Gentiles and tax-collectors. In other words, even if the community building process fails and one (or more than one) must part ways, that doesn’t mean we write the other off as evil – never to be spoken to again.  

Our hope is always in prayer for reconciliation and healing, moving toward the marginalized rather than demonizing and bad-mouthing in any way.   

Conflict within the church always makes us nervous. We fantasize and long for an ‘ohana that truly has love for one another. But every now and then things get off track. Tempers flare. Differences of opinion arise. And, more often than not, those issues go unaddressed and the problem festers until it’s too late.  

Jesus reminds us to do what we can to build and strengthen the “body” of Christ. To recognize his presence in all we do. To adhere to the idea of ubuntu, for “I can only be if we are. And we can only be if I am.” 


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