A few years ago I was tasked with planning and facilitating the worship at a large national gathering of my denomination. Because of the various languages (we have eleven official languages in South Africa, and our Connexion includes a couple of other countries with their languages as well!), the different cultures represented, and the varying age groups that were present, I worked with a diverse team to ensure that our worship was as inclusive and representative as possible. One of the team members was a colleague and friend with whom I had worked in such situations before. We respected and loved one another, and our children had often played together and slept over at each others’ homes.
On the final day of the event our relationship hit a rough moment, though. I won’t go into the details of all the stresses that had built up in me over the course of this event – a smorgasbord of things going wrong, from team members failing to fulfill their assigned tasks, to others falling ill suddenly just days before the start, to technical struggles – but, a change in the expected music for the day, about which I had not been informed, caused me to finally loose my cool. My anger then kicked into my friend’s history of racial conflict and abuse, and we found ourselves going into the worship gathering completely at odds with one another. When it was all over, though, we took the time, and put in the painful work of trying to reconnect. It took time, and there were moments when I wasn’t sure if we would ever find each other again, but finally, it seemed that we managed to resolve our differences, reconcile and make things right.
As it turned out, circumstances and denominational appointments meant that we had very little contact for a long time after that, and I began to wonder whether we had really managed to reconcile, or if we had just papered over the cracks. Then, not long ago, we had the opportunity to work together again on an inclusive, multi-lingual worship gathering. It was as if we had never been apart, and as if we had never had the conflict which I remember with such regret. When it was done, we were able to chat about the times we had shared, and how much we had missed working together. It was a moment of such joy for me to realise that we had really been able to make right what had gone wrong.
It is for this kind of situation that Jesus said the things he did in this week’s Gospel reading from the Revised Common Lectionary. His process of reconciliation (go alone to make things right, then take two or three others – following the Torah’s laws of evidence in court, then, if this doesn’t work, take it to the assembly) is really just common sense, and a very good way to bring about reconciliation between Christian sisters and brothers. But there are a few things that are easy to miss here that must be taken into account if we are to truly hear the power of Jesus’ words.
The first is that this discourse comes immediately after the parable of the shepherd who leaves his flock to go in search of one lost sheep. This story must have brought to mind all sorts of connections for his hearers, most notably, Ezekiel’s prophecy of the Shepherd who would come to rescue God’s people from their corrupt leaders (Ezekiel 34:1-16) and from those in their community who, in their greed and lack of compassion, bring hardship on others (Ezekiel 34:17-22). With this parable in mind, Jesus’ call to reconciliation is less about “setting the other person straight” and more about seeking and finding one who may become – or may already have become – lost. The call is to grace and compassion, to including and reaching out to anyone who has found a place in our community, no matter what they may do or become along the way.
While it appears that, at the end, Jesus finally concedes that reconciliation may, in some circumstances, be impossible, and excommunication may be necessary (see Matthew 18:17), William Barclay makes the point that for Jesus “Gentiles and tax-collectors” are exactly the people he was always seeking to include and embrace. So, even here, Jesus does not allow us to reject others. Rather, even when relationships appear to have broken down irrevocably, Jesus calls us to continue to strive to welcome, include and love even as he has done for the most outcast of all – the Gentiles and tax-collectors. There is, then, no end to our striving for peace and reconciliation.
Which brings us to the second important word that we must hear in this passage. As followers of Christ it is easy to view evil as that which is “out there” and which “threatens us”. When we begin to see the world in this way, we inevitably develop a “circle-the-wagons” way of being Church. We withdraw from the “evil” world, and point judging fingers at the “sinners out there”, all the while living in our Christian compound removed from the realities of this world. Even our eschatology ends up being defined by this “us and them” way of being. The end of the world becomes a moment of rescue for the “chosen” in which we are “raptured” out of this world, and the poor “sinners” left behind are abandoned to their evil and destruction, until God finally pulls the plug and destroys the whole thing.
I hope you are seeing how very far this is from the words we have just heard from Jesus’ mouth. In his call for reconciliation among his followers, Jesus makes it clear that the evil we wrestle with is not just “out there” but also “in here” – in our own communities and in our own hearts. As the other readings make clear this week, we are called to resist evil – to be watchmen and women warning people of the evil that seeks to destroy us and our world. But, we must recognise that we, too, sometimes find ourselves in service of evil and conflict, and we must do the tough work of seeking others who will speak the truth to us and help us to be found by God’s grace and forgiveness (and that of our brothers and sisters in Christ). If we are committed to resisting evil in the world, then, we do well to begin in our own communities, and our own hearts.
A third word follows on from Jesus’ call to resist evil in this way. In our quest for justice and peace, we must avoid the twin temptations that always accompany conflict – either turning to violence and aggression to defeat those with whom we disagree (which is pretty much how Moses and the Israelites, lacking the God’s self-revelation in Christ, approached the Egyptians), or pretending that everything is fine without ever really addressing the sin and evil (both within us and without) that causes our relationships and communities to break down. As followers of Christ we are called to peace and justice, but both require us to learn to do conflict well – refusing either to become violent or passive. As Stanley Hauerwas put it, “Christian discipleship requires confrontation because the peace that Jesus has established is not simply the absence of violence. The peace of Christ is nonviolent precisely because it is based on truth and truth-telling.” (Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible: Mark, Grand Rapids, Michigan, Brazos Press, 2006, p.165). Avoidance of conflict is not a Christian value. Doing conflict with concern for the other and in a peaceful, but active, attempt to turn our enemies into our friends – that is the way of Christ.
The power of this reconciliation is shown by the closing words of this week’s section. When we have succeeded in going through conflict to peace, we discover the magic of true community. We begin to experience God’s presence as never before, because we begin to recognise God’s image that is reflected even through those whom we once considered unworthy of our attention, or too threatening, or as enemies. Then we know that when two or three gather, Christ is there, because we have lived and suffered as Christ to create this community, and we have discovered Christ even in “the least”.
We also discover that what we ask for in prayer together has a new power, because we no longer seek only what satisfies our own personal agendas, or our own individual needs. No, once we have wrestled a true community into being, our prayers change and become a shared asking for what brings life and healing and peace and justice to the whole community, and the whole world (which any true Christian community must ultimately embrace). The answers to our prayers may not always be what we would expect or even desire, but the assurance of Jesus is, I believe, reliable – God always answers the prayers of a community that has learned the value of reconciliation and truth-telling, and God’s answers are always in the direction of greater peace, justice and shared wholeness.
If we are to follow Christ and share in God’s purpose of bringing justice and peace to creation, then we will inevitably find ourselves in conflict with evil – that within our own hearts and communities and that in the world. To seek to avoid such conflict is neither Christian nor able to bring peace and justice. But, if we will embrace Christ’s journey into confrontation and reconciliation, and if we will recognise that we are never released from the quest to seek and win the “lost” (which will at times include us), then we will find that we are active participants in bringing a new world of truth-telling, justice and peace into being.