As you begin to think about forgiving and receiving forgiveness, can you name three things people do or say that make forgiveness more difficult and three things people do or say that make forgiveness more likely?
Has a friend betrayed or disappointed you? Have you said or done something that offended someone close to you? Has there been conflict in your family, school, workplace, congregation or neighborhood?
If you answered “no” to all these questions, then you are not paying attention. For, disruptions in relationships (some minor, some major) are inevitable and frequent. Opportunities to forgive and be forgiven are within our reach on a daily basis. Yet, forgiveness remains one of the most difficult and elusive of human interactions.
Family members can go decades without speaking. Hurt feelings can end valued friendships. The inability to forgive oneself or accept God’s forgiveness can cause persistent guilt or shame which are root causes of anxiety, anger, and depression, all of which can lead to additional conflict with others. Cycles of violence between ethnic groups and nations seem never-ending, and millions have died in wars because the war before solved nothing. Think about the headlines: Gaza, Ukraine, ISIS, Afghanistan.
The stakes are high for ourselves, for those around us, and for the survival of humanity: it is urgent that we (as individuals, families, friends, colleagues, congregations, communities, and nations) get better at giving and receiving forgiveness.
(Text links are to Oremus Bible Browser. Oremus Bible Browser is not affiliated with or supported by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. You can find the calendar of readings for Year C at Lectionary Readings.)
For lectionary humor and insight, check the weekly comic Agnus Day.
To this day, the steps found in Matthew 18: 15 – 17 are the basis for resolving conflicts in Christian congregations. (For example, see the ELCA's Model Constitution for Congregations, Chapter 15: "Discipline of Members and Adjudication," http://www.elca.org/Resources/Office-of-the-Secretary.) While each step in the process provides the opportunity for resolution, if it does not occur, the final step is for the offending party to be removed from the congregation. Verse 17 indicates how deep such divisions become: "Let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector." These words reflect the feelings of a faction within the early church that despised Gentiles and tax collectors, and thought they should be avoided like the plague.
This is not what God wants. Jesus, the surest interpreter of God's will, does not avoid Gentiles. (Gentiles are non-Jews, like most of us reading this blog). Jesus' last words to his disciples, according to the Gospel of Matthew, are that they should "make disciples of all nations" (Jews and Gentiles). The Book of Acts records how Christianity grew beyond its Jewish roots to include Gentiles. (See especially Acts 9: 15 and 10: 34 – 48.)
And, Jesus befriended tax collectors, most notably Matthew and Zacchaeus. Jesus called Matthew to be part of his inner circle (Matthew 9: 9 – 13) and singles Zacchaeus out of a crowd, inviting himself to his house for dinner (Luke 19: 1- 10). Followers of Jesus will not want to treat anyone as verse 17 suggests. Instead, we will do our best to resolve conflict by giving and receiving forgiveness.
The key to forgiveness is found in verse 20. There Jesus says, "Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them."
In the Bible, names are very important, often revealing the connection of the name's bearer to God's work in the world. ("Jesus" literally means "God saves / delivers.") To gather in the name of Jesus means to be bound to Jesus in love, and committed to speak and act as Jesus the deliverer would speak and act.
"Where two or three are gathered in my name" is followed by "I am there among them." Jesus asserts that he is present when two or three (or more) are gathered in his name. If the accuser and accused in verse 15 gather in the name of Jesus, or the small group in verse 16, or the larger group in verse 17, then Jesus will be present and the gathering (with Jesus there to guide and inspire) will find a way into forgiveness, to deliver all from whatever has divided them.
The other three readings assigned today teach us how to gather in the name of Jesus. Ezekiel 33: trust that God wants us to reach out to sinners (i.e. to all at fault in conflicts). Psalm 119: strive to learn and follow God's commandments. Romans 13: love our neighbors as ourselves. Trusting our calling to resolve conflict, striving to follow God's will, and doing all we do in love bring us closer to unity with Christ, in whom and through whom we are empowered to give and receive forgiveness.
Matthew 18: 17 suggests that sometimes conflicts are impossible to resolve and the best possible outcome is for those in conflict to avoid one another. Matthew 18:21 -22 (look it up!) teaches that we should keep forgiving indefinitely. Which teaching is more compelling? Which is most practical? Which is consistent with what you know about Jesus?
What are the signs that a conflict has been truly resolved and forgiveness has been genuinely given and received?
If you have felt the presence of Jesus among you when gathered in his name to worship or serve, describe those feelings. If you have not felt Jesus’ presence, do you think it is possible that, in spite of your lack of awareness, Jesus might have been present anyway, as promised in Matthew 18: 20?
Role play resolving a conflict following the steps outlined in today’s gospel. One person can be the “offender.” Another can be the one offended who takes the first step toward reconciliation. Others can be brought in to help and each should be assigned a point of view based on a Bible passage. (Use the passages from Ezekiel, Psalm 119, and Romans 13, plus other texts from Matthew 18: verses 10 – 14; 21 – 22; and 23 - 35.) The role play should be done twice: once with forgiveness obtained, and once with the exclusion of the guilty party. After role playing, debrief. What advice would you give to someone who wants to intervene in a conflict and help move it toward resolution? Is your advice Biblically based or does it come from some other source of wisdom?
Lord, make us instruments of your peace. Where there is hatred, let us sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is discord, union; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy. Grant that we may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen.