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Resolving Conflict in Matthew 18

Sermon #319 St. Martin’s #75 (Riverway) 9/10/23

Jesus said, “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”

Matthew 18:15-20


When Megan and I were engaged we set aside a little bit of money every month to go toward our honeymoon. Now to be clear, Megan was working, and I was in seminary with an income of $0, so we were technically setting aside her money, but thankfully she didn’t pull that card when we were choosing our honeymoon destination.

I was convinced that she would want to go to Disney or some island with a beach, but much to my delight we agreed on a different kind of island getaway. And so, after our wedding, we packed our bags for the beautiful yet not-so-tropical island of Iceland. We were going for one of those trendy Nordic-themed honeymoons.

While in Iceland, we saw glaciers and black sand beaches, geysers, and unfortunately, a whole lot of other American tourists. But one of the strangest things we saw was the number of sheep that seemed to wander wherever they pleased. We’d be out in the middle of nowhere and there would be one or two random sheep, no shepherd in sight. This was a common sight wherever we went.

During my trips to Israel, I saw a lot of sheep there as well, but normally there was a lonely shepherd watching over them and leading them from one pasture to another. Around here, you may not have a shepherd at all times, but you definitely have them fenced in.

Lost Sheep

But why am I talking about sheep this morning when there is no mention of them in any of our readings? [I can see the puzzled look on all your faces]. Well, to understand our gospel lesson this morning we need to see our reading in the larger context of Matthew 18.

Our five verses today are actually in conversation with the rest of the chapter.

And so, we need to know that in the preceding passage, Jesus was telling his disciples a parable about a lost sheep. You likely know how the story goes, if one sheep leaves the flock, a good shepherd will go after the one and leave behind the other 99, and the shepherd will rejoice over the one who is regained.

At first glance, it seems odd that Jesus would go from talking about runaway sheep to conflicts in the church. They seem like two separate conversations that Matthew haphazardly put together without (at the very least) thinking of a transitional phrase.

But I do think there is an explanation of why these two passages are together. My theory is that a good shepherd knows that sheep have teeth.

Let’s think about this for a moment, the one sheep that was lost is now back in the flock, and things return to normal. They get back to their sheep routine of grazing, finding new pasture, grazing some more, sleeping, and then doing it all over again.

But sheep have teeth, and they use them not only to eat but also to occasionally nip at each other.

Jesus could have easily continued his sheep parable when talking about church conflict. He, as the Good Shepherd, knew that his flock, once he was gone, would begin to nip at one another.

Those little bites could be hard or soft, accidental or intentional. He knew his sheep, and he knew that those bites could turn into conflicts and conflicts turn into divisions within his flock, the church.

It’s unfortunate that our translation says, “If another member of the church sins against you.” In my humble opinion, it should say, “When another member sins against you.”

Human relationships are fraught with conflict, and sadly the church is not immune. Sheep will bite, it’s in their nature. In the same way, when people come together, there are bound to be disagreements and misunderstandings. We need to put a warning sign on the front doors of the church that states: “Beware! You may get bit by a fellow sheep.”

We should be utterly grateful that Jesus gave us some sound advice on how to deal with conflicts in the church. And so, I want to take a closer look at what Jesus said.

Ability vs. Authority

There is a hierarchy of solving interpersonal conflicts: If someone sins against you, start off by going to them one-on-one. If that doesn’t work, take a couple of others with you. If that doesn’t win them over then it’s not your problem anymore; you did what you could.

Jesus knows the person who has been wronged has some options; they can be silent about what has happened and slowly but surely become more and more bitter toward the person who wronged them. They can grow angry and begin to gossip about the person, which will only create more drama. Soon one sin will have metastasized into many.

But Jesus makes clear in his instructions that each person is valued within the flock. The person who has been wronged (and the wrongdoer) both have value; and because they have value, Jesus tells the one who has been wronged to go to the offender privately.

Do not even allow hatred and bitterness to creep into your heart; don’t start rumors, or go straight to social media to bash them. No, seek out the one who has wronged you for the sake of regaining them and restoring the flock to full health. In that way, you will be like the Good Shepherd by seeking out the one that was lost.

Jesus here understands the difference between ability and authority. When you have been wronged, you may have the ability to shame the person who has hurt you, but just because you have the ability does not give you the authority to do such a thing.

We, as members of this community, have been given the authority—by Jesus himself—to make every effort to restore a person back to the flock.

And Jesus is clear in his instructions, the responsibility doesn’t fall on the wrongdoer in this case, but the person who has been wronged. It is their obligation to address the problem.

Jesus knew when saying this, that conflicts within the family of faith would distract from his ultimate purpose for the church. The work of God in an unhealthy community is stalled by unresolved conflicts.

The church is never to be a stalled or stagnant community. Instead, we are called to always be moving in the direction of Jesus, serving the world in his name, and bringing more people into the flock.

Sadly, churches with a lot of unspoken wounds or painful memories inevitably split apart or die altogether.

Church Split

I can give you an example. I interned at a Presbyterian church in Columbus, Georgia one summer during college. It was a large, beautiful church right in the middle of the trendy downtown area. I hadn’t been there long when I was invited to sit in on their monthly elders’ meeting (the equivalent of our vestry).

Unbeknownst to me when I naively walked into the room, everyone was tense because of the last few meetings. Over the past few months, there had been rumblings from people who wanted to split from the church and start a new one that better fit their theological beliefs.

It didn’t take long for me to feel the tension from some of the elders. One lady, in particular, seemed to get more irritated as the meeting went on. She’d mess with her papers, cross her arms and legs, and huff when the pastor said anything.

And then finally…she went off. She was completely in favor of splitting with the church and was tired of this and that and annoyed with a number of groups in the church.

She had had enough, and she knew a lot of people who agreed with her (though she couldn’t recall any of them by name). And the icing on the cake was when she pointed her finger to the church next door and said, “We definitely don’t want to be like those Episcopalians!”

How does a meeting go forward after a performance like that? Well, it didn’t. A dark cloud was permanently stationed over that room. The pastor tried to close with a prayer about unity, and then the elders walked out two by two whispering to their neighbor all the way to the parking lot.

Later that night, while reflecting on everything I saw, I realized that the lady who had absolutely exploded during the meeting had been nipped a few too many times, and she had kept it all in until that very moment.

I hate to say but that church split within six months of that meeting. And I’m not saying it was this one elder’s fault, but if you get enough people who have been nipped, and who keep score of how many times they have been wronged, well then, the flock as a whole is not healthy and something bad will likely happen.

Jesus understands the vicious cycle that we all go through when we feel like we have been wronged. He knows how quickly one small offense can turn into bitterness and bitterness into resentment. And we all know how corrosive resentment can be in our lives.

But this lesson from Jesus isn’t just about relationships in the church. Who are you angry with, inside or outside of this place? Is there someone or something that you devote way too much mental energy to because of what they’ve done to you (whether they realize it or not)?

Do you keep replaying what they’ve done or said? Do you find yourself talking about that one thing in many of your conversations?

Be reminded of Jesus’ words today: the onus is on the offended to confront the offender. Just because we have the ability to hold a grudge—and run their name through the mud in our mind and in the conversations we have—Jesus has not given us the authority to do so.

Who might you need to release from your own personal prison today? We have a priest who is more than willing to pray with you during communion if you need to offer it up to the Lord.

We cannot dismiss this passage if it doesn't apply to us right now. We are called to be attentive to our own hearts and to recognize when the seeds of anger and resentment begin to take root.

Above all else, we cannot let it fester. Instead, we must live a life of reconciliation, and we are called to do the hard work of reconciliation for the sake of not only ourselves but for the health of the whole Christian community.

Because even if you don’t have a problem with someone in this room but with someone outside, you are still bringing that wound into this place. You see, this is the place to get that wound healed; and not to let it spread to others in this flock.

Toward My Name

There is one last reason that Jesus could’ve continued with the sheep metaphor in this passage.

As we now realize, a good shepherd knows that sheep have teeth, and they use them not only to eat grass but also to nip at each other. A good shepherd also knows where he leads, the sheep will follow. They will go toward him no matter where he goes.

At the very end of our passage when Jesus says, “For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.” The phrase “in my name” can also be translated “toward my name.” Jesus is present among those who are gathered and going toward him.

We aren’t supposed to be like Iceland sheep; isolated, going wherever we want by ourselves. To be a follower of Jesus assumes you are a part of his flock—one among many—together moving toward him.

And so, life is too precious, and our gospel work too serious, to be sidetracked by personal offenses that we’ve allowed to grow deep roots in our hearts and isolate us from others.

My sincere hope for you, and for us as a church, is that we can be a community that takes reconciliation seriously, no matter how hard it may be, and that together we may always be moving toward our Good Shepherd and the reconciling love he freely gives to all of us.

And so, I’m going to close by praying the words of the Psalm we just said together, but from the Message Version. It sums up perfectly our theme today of moving in the direction of our Good Shepherd.

“God, teach me lessons for living so I can stay the course. Give me insight so I can do what you tell me— my whole life one long, obedient response. Guide me down the road of your commandments; I love traveling this freeway! Give me an appetite for your words of wisdom, and not for piling up loot. Divert my eyes from toys and trinkets, invigorate me on the pilgrim way. Affirm your promises to me— promises made to all who fear you. Deflect the harsh words of my critics— but what you say is always so good. See how hungry I am for your counsel; preserve my life through your righteous ways!” (Psalm 119:33-40)

15th Sunday after Pentecost. Proper 18. Year A. Psalm 119:33-40. Mt 18:15-20. Bruner’s Matthew Vol. 2. Based on Sermon #198. Photo by Georgi Kalaydzhiev on Unsplash. Photo by Biegun Wschodni on Unsplash.

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