I expected that today, with it being the first Sunday in Advent, and Communion, we might have looked at what Christmas and Calvary show us about Jesus. However, I think we need to talk about something else.
Over the last few weeks, in one small corner of the church, there has been some tension that has worried some people and has come to a somewhat untidy end, which is, in itself, likely to alarm some people. I am not going to describe what has happened or name people. Rather, it is a question of what we can learn from it. What does God expect of us? What does the Bible say about how we behave in these situations?
So, let’s imagine we have two people: Person A and Person B. Person B becomes angry with Person A. There might be a valid reason for that. Or, there might not be; there might have been a misunderstanding or Person B might be acting maliciously against person A. At this point we don’t know if Person B’s anger is justified or not.
Person B rings Person C and complains about Person A. Person C says, “That is terrible” and also becomes angry with Person A. So, while Person B is ringing Person D, Person C is ringing Person E. And now Persons D and E are also upset by Person A and they ring others while Person B rings yet someone else. And so on. And, there is a fair chance that Person B is distorting the story so that he/she looks better and Person A looks worse. There might be all sorts of untruths being spread about Person A.
What is wrong with the way this has been handled so far?
What is right about the way it has been done?
Now, let’s imagine that Person A is also pretty angry and he/she rings Person Z and complains about person B. Person Z says, “That is terrible” and rings Person Y. Person A rings Persons X, W and V while Person Z rings Person U and Person Y rings Person T.
Now what have we got? Teams. We have quite a major division between aggrieved people. And they don’t even know whether the original complaint was valid or not.
But let’s imagine that Person A hasn’t rung others. Person A might not even know that all of these things are being said about him/her and has been given no opportunity to explain his/her side of the story. Or, maybe he/she does know that people are talking. That is a very lonely place to be.
So, what should happen? Let’s start from the beginning again. Person B is upset with Person A.
READ Matthew 18:15-17.
If someone has sinned against you (or even just sinned in general) go and talk to that person. Go and talk to the person just between the two of you. That is what Jesus says. Go and talk to that person.
It is very rare that someone has the courage to do that but that is what Jesus says to do. It is much easier talking about the person than talking to the person. It is much easier talking to those who are sympathetic and will be on your side, than actually facing the issue. It is much easier and so people do what is easy and what suits their side of the story rather than what is right. What is right is: go and talk to the other person. That is rare but we are a church and we do what is right.
If the two people talk, it might be that Person A says, “I am terribly sorry. I was completely wrong. Can you please forgive me?” Issue solved. Reconciliation. Finished. What a wonderful outcome.
Or maybe there had been a misunderstanding. Maybe something was misinterpreted or not expressed very clearly. Maybe not all of the information was available at the time and by talking they can sort it out. Great. Wonderful outcome. Sometimes it is as simple as Person B saying, “This is what I understood you to say and I found it quite hurtful. Did I pick that up the right way?” and Person A saying, “Oh my goodness! I am so sorry. No, that is not what I meant at all. What I mean was…” But without talking to each other, they don’t even know that there has been a misunderstanding.
If someone will not talk to the person they have been offended by and keeps spreading the negativity to other people, we have to say, “Sorry, but that is not the way we operate. Maybe you can do that in other organisations but we are a church. We expect people to talk to each other and try to sort things out.”
But, of course, talking face-to-face doesn’t always work. That visit might not lead to reconciliation and Jesus recognises that. If that doesn’t work, take two or three witnesses. The point here is that we need to be sure that the accusation is valid. This is based on the Old Testament law that one witness is not enough to convict anyone of any crime or offense they may have committed. A matter must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses (Deut 19:15). And in the New Testament, Paul tells Timothy…
1 Tim 5:19 Do not entertain an accusation against an elder unless it is brought by two or three witnesses.
If it is just one person saying something, take it no further. That is how important it is to know that you are dealing with facts, not just accusations. Was there actually something that was done wrong? Note that it doesn’t say, “Bring two or three of your friends whom you have persuaded”. They must be people who can independently verify the accusation.
If what is being spread around is untrue, we have to say, “Sorry, but that is not the way we operate. We are a church. We value honesty.”
If taking witnesses doesn’t work, Jesus’ third step is “take it to the church”. That probably doesn’t mean stand up in worship and make an accusation against someone. It means take it to the leaders. In other words, Jesus is saying, “There may well have been an injustice but you are one of the affected parties. You cannot be both accuser and judge. Take it to an independent body but one that has authority. If there has been an injustice, these people are able to take action.”
But, often people jump to Step 3 without going through steps 1 and 2. They will come to me with some complaint, expecting action. I don’t always remember, but I should say, “Have you talked to Person A?”
Jesus is talking in Matthew 18 about sin within the church. Obviously, if it is a criminal matter, it must be put into the hands of the police, or whoever does have the authority to deal with it.
If there has been an injustice, the leaders of the church are expected to take action. The person who has done the wrong and who has refused to acknowledge it all this time is to be treated like a pagan or a tax collector. How do we treat non-Christians and sinners? We love them. We recognise that they are not in full fellowship but we want them to repent and be in full fellowship.
In our situation, it didn’t get to that. When Person B told me one thing and then did the opposite, independently of the rest of the team, I queried it and she said she didn’t want to discuss it and wanted nothing more to do with the church and I was not to contact her in any way.
That is always unpleasant. I don’t like that but we need to be ready to say, “Sorry, but we don’t operate that way. We are a church. We expect people to work cooperatively and to communicate.” It is unpleasant but don’t feel sorry for me. I was not Person A. I was not the one others were criticising.
Of course, you might not feel sorry for me. You might feel angry with me. You might hear a different version of this story. You might conclude that I have acted badly. Maybe I have. If you do think that, what should you do? You should say to whomever is talking to you, “You know what? The right thing for you to do is not to talk to me but to go and talk to Peter.”
We need to raise the bar in terms of living biblically. Satan loves dividing churches. On the other hand, God puts a high value on unity. We need to make sure we are on God’s side, not Satan’s. God calls us to do everything we can to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of love (Eph 4:3).
God takes unity so seriously that this is how the church is to respond to the person who is causing disunity.
Titus 3:10 Warn divisive people once and then warn them a second time. After that, have nothing to do with them.
This is not namby-pamby church. This is a church that has standards, that wants to act biblically.
I have talked about this because it is an opportunity for us to ask, “What does God expect of us?”
And so we come to Communion! We are going to read another passage: 1 Cor 11:17-34.
The problem in Corinth was disunity but were they in open warfare? No. Some were following one teacher and others another. There was some rivalry about who was right (v.19). The wealthy could get to their fellowship meetings early and tended to eat all of the food before the poor arrived, so there as division on the basis of social standing. It wasn’t open warfare but even that sort of division is so abhorrent in God’s eyes that that he says their Communions (their Lord’s Suppers) were doing more harm than good. God said, “This is so far from what I intended that it cannot even be called the Lord’s Supper. You might think you are celebrating the Lord’s Supper.” Outwardly it was, but inwardly it wasn’t. There was no union in their Communion. That is so serious that God was judging them and some were sick and even dying as a result.
And so we come to Communion. Are we united? Have we had the courage to talk to people not about them? Are our words building up rather than tearing down? Have we worked on our relationships?
Maybe you have done it right and we all thank you. But, if not, the Cross is also the place of confession and forgiveness. God is eager to forgive as soon as we confess.
I am going to ask that we read some words together to remind ourselves that we are a church. But please join in only if you feel you can – only if you can say this before God. If you can join in, please stand.
- We are a church. We long to bring glory to Jesus in everything we do.
- We are a church. We are called to the highest standards, gladly following Jesus’ teaching and His example.
- We are a church. We are committed to unity and to loving one another.
- We are a church. When things go wrong we talk, wanting to sort it out. And we readily extend mercy and forgiveness.
- We are a church. When we do wrong, we hope that our brothers and sisters will lovingly correct us and help us to become more like Jesus. We want people to see Jesus in us.
- We are a church. We work together as a team. We use our spiritual gifts, recognising that others have gifts we don’t and it is only together that we make up the complete body.
- We are a church. In all our frailty, we know that God loves us. And we love Him.