If you have spent any time in what might, at least until the last five years, be called an “evangelical church,” you probably have not escaped situations and circumstances painfully marked by that dreaded shorthand Christianese—Matthew 18. It is the one passage of the Bible that is so uncomfortable to contemplate that it is rendered nearly impossible to do. Though it is so plain and clear—because it is so plain and clear—it is persistently misunderstood. And yet, when you peer at it closely, you discover it is yet another doorway into the kind of world Christians are supposed to inhabit, one ordered not by trouble and strife, but by the character and nature of Jesus himself.
You can be either person in this painful little vignette–take your pick. You know how it goes. You wake up one Monday morning and find that whatever it was that that person did or said the previous day, while you were all gathered together in one place enduring the desperate activity of “Church,” is still stuck in the back of your teeth. It wasn’t a big thing. In fact, it was monstrously small. But there it sits, vexing you. You know it’s ridiculous to feel irritated and so you try to make excuses both for yourself and the person who stepped on your spiritual toes. You shouldn’t be annoyed, you say to yourself. It was no big deal. She didn’t mean it. She wasn’t trying to be bad, or to hurt you. On Tuesday, you repeat the process. But this time you wonder more about her. What’s wrong with her? Maybe she did mean it. Why can’t she see how obtuse and unkind she has been? On Wednesday, you are busy and push it away, but it smolders in the background and you begin to carefully examine what sort of person you are, and what sort of person she is. You are kind, obedient, and insightful. She is mean, narrow-minded, and selfish. On Thursday you are busy again but the whole trouble makes more sense and you begin to feel better. She’s just not the kind of person who can understand things, and the most important thing to remember is that you shouldn’t bother with her. You can’t be friends because she’s just not the sort of person who would ever get you. Of course, because you go to church together, you are sisters in Christ, of course of course, but you won’t have to have much to do with her because you’ll be getting out of that ministry you’ve both been doing together. You’d been thinking you should quit anyway because you’re so busy. On Friday, you catch lunch with a friend—a true friend—at the last minute and, because it’s Friday, you down a crisp, cool glass of chardonnay. At the 45-minute mark, you unburden your soul about what a bad week you’ve had. But you don’t confess your sins, no, the thing that comes out of your mouth is your injury, your irritation, your sense of alienation, your grief at even having to see someone like that, who is so unkind and graceless. Your friend agrees with you and comforts you. You pay the bill and go home, mollified and happy for the first time since last Sunday. On Saturday you scrub your house and think about what to wear for church and go to bed where, as you scroll around your phone, you also make certain plans about where to sit and how long to stay after the service. You decide you don’t have time for coffee downstairs because there’s a sale at Wegmans for autumn mums. Two years later, when you finally, in bitter rage, explain to a whole dinner party how awful that person is who “sinned against you” and your pastor, whom you had thoughtlessly invited, forgetting he might have opinions about how you live your life, and all the people who have struggled along with you through the many months where you kept dropping out of things and being cagy and ill-tempered, beg you to go talk to the person, you explain that you can’t possibly because you don’t “do conflict well.” They commiserate but insist that Jesus himself would want you to go to that person, first because he literally told you to, right there on the page, and second because you will feel so much better, and third because what if your sister in Christ really did sin? If she so sinned, she should be told because then she might want to stop doing whatever it is. Maybe she doesn’t even know. You can’t, though, because you have rearranged your life around this thing, and so, a few months later, you find a new church. Five years later you aren’t even going anymore because Christians are all hypocrites and liars.
Perhaps I have the timeline wrong in this purely hypothetical and, indeed, mythical fairy story that never occurs anywhere because Christians are not the sort of people who refuse to do what the Bible says. Maybe it takes twenty years. Maybe the sin is real. Worse still, maybe you’re the person who is blindsided by someone else’s stubborn refusal to come tell you that she feels like you hurt her that one time and you find out about it from several other friends, and then, when she’s left the church, you are racked with guilt wondering what you could have or should have done.
In the second half of that book I’ve already talked about so much, about how so many people are leaving their churches and not coming back, the authors point to “relational” stuff. People leave their church because they end up having problems with other people that can’t—or I would imagine more likely—won’t be resolved, either by them or their persecutors. The authors give a lot of advice about how everyone needs to be better at listening and more humble, which is, of course, true. But I don’t think it’s a lack of listening that really breaks apart people in churches, whether they be Christian for real, or only larping it for a while. Rather, the shattering of communion is birthed by the well-worn excuses made by ordinary, well-meaning church-goers that they “don’t like conflict,” and “weren’t really sinned against so it’s not a big deal,” and “just don’t have the bandwidth,” or “can’t be friends with everybody.” In other words, Jesus means for other people to stagger through this awful process, but not them. They are too delicate and too wounded. And, by praying more, they will get over whatever it is, and everything will be fine. In this way, sin begets sin, thoughtlessness gives birth to bitterness, misunderstanding nurses alienation and finally despair.
Imagine how it ought to go. “If your brother,” says Jesus in the bright, Galilean sunshine, making direct eye contact with each member of his small community, and, down through the ages, you there who wants to try on being a “Christ-follower” for size and comfort—or sister, because Jesus is not exclusive in these particular matters—“sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone.” There is some debate, I believe, about the “against you” bit. Some think Jesus means the sort of general sins we observe others doing, which should be warned about so that they might stop doing them. If you see your sister in Christ drinking herself silly every Saturday afternoon, for example, go by yourself and tell her you love her and that she is hurting herself. It doesn’t have to be that you are personally injured by her addiction. I don’t think one has to choose, honestly, because if she is wrecking her own life, or wrecking yours, for reasons and by actions however small, the most loving thing for her and for everyone is to go to her by yourself and hash it out.
‘But Jesus,’ you complain, ‘that’s so embarrassing. And also, I am a forgiving kind of Christian and I will eventually get over my bad feelings by praying more. Also, it’s none of my business. Also, I can’t because she is so busy and so am I.’ At which point Jesus folds you in his loving arms and says, as everyone knows he does, ‘Oh, I didn’t realize you don’t like conflict. I didn’t know how hurt you felt. In that case, you don’t have to do this. This is actually for other people. Not you. Your sister is welcome to go to perdition, alienated and alone. I know the feelings of your heart are the most important thing in the world and not the real lives of other people I’ve joined to myself through my sacrificial work on the cross. You are my most precious treasure and I don’t want you to ever be embarrassed or uncomfortable or humiliated.’ Hashtag Things Jesus Is Never Going To Say.
What’s so ironic is that if you refuse to “do Matthew 18” because you’re embarrassed and sad, eventually the whole church ends up knowing about it, because your bitterness will win the day and you will gossip and shut other people out. In the real process of reconciliation, for that is what this is, very often the whole church doesn’t know anything, and yet, in a deep and palpable way, the whole church does “know.” That is, forgiveness becomes the beating heart, the sap flowing through the vine, the coins swept up out of the corners, the cool water and nourishing grass, the very bread and wine that each person tastes after bowing under the yoke of Christ’s mercy.
The kind of friendship in view is not about personality or affinity over shared interests. It isn’t about the kind of people you choose to hang out with. It isn’t about curation or comfort. No, it is about the way that God came all the way down into the dust, not because he “loved conflict” or had nothing else to do, but because the people whom he had made utterly rejected and reviled him, and he wasn’t going to let them ruin themselves for eternity. He came himself to reconcile them to himself. They couldn’t do it. They were too blind, too bitter, and too wicked. They persistently chose to die at every opportunity they could seize. And yet God would not walk away and let them do it.
When you refuse to go to your brother or sister, you are lying about what kind of friend and savior Jesus is. You are lying to yourself most of all, but you are also lying to all the people around you in the pew, and to the world. You are saying that the way that Jesus joins each member to his own Body is actually breakable, is conditional, is based on how those members behave at any given moment, is judged by your own inclinations and desires. That’s not true. Jesus comes to church every Sunday on purpose to feed and clothe you, to join you so irrevocably to himself that nothing can snatch you out of his grasp. He forgives you every time you cry to him, without recrimination. He withholds nothing of himself from you. And he does it for each person, not you alone. You cannot shut out the one whom God has joined to himself. Or rather, you can’t without grave consequences to your own spiritual condition.
As someone who is always “doing Matthew 18” and having it done unto me, I can promise you that it won’t kill you. On Monday—well, maybe not Monday because everyone needs a day to recover—on Tuesday, when the thing is still stuck in the back of your heart, text your sister and ask if you can get coffee on Wednesday. Though your heart is beating and you fear for your life, ask her if it would be alright if you talked about what happened on Sunday, there in the kitchen, or in Sunday school, or in the sacristy, or while you were both standing in the parking lot. Ask her if she meant to say or do whatever it was. Tell her how it made you feel. Repeat back to her in your own words what you think she is saying. Be quick to apologize for misunderstanding and taking offense where none was meant. If you find she says something really wicked, ask if you might meet again to talk about the issue. Examine the scriptures to make sure you really know what you’re talking about. Seek her out all the time and pray for her. Ninety-nine-point-nine times out of ten, or, as we will see next week, seventy-seven times out of seventy-seven, you and your sister will be restored to each other. And, as you do it again and again, you will discover that you aren’t just doing something painful and embarrassing, but that Jesus himself is making you live.
And now, if you will forgive me, I will go to church. Hope to see you there!
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