Sheep That Bite: Conflicts in the Church

Sermon #198 St. James the Less #105 8/16/20


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


Sheep

When Megan and I were engaged we set aside a little bit of money every month to go towards our honeymoon. Now to be clear Megan was working, and I was in seminary making no money, so we were technically setting aside only her money, but thankfully she didn’t pull that card when we were deciding 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 more sheep than we ever had in our lives. They wandered wherever they wanted to, it seemed. And I don’t think I ever saw a shepherd.

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.


This would have been a common sight in Jesus’ day too. Sheep were a kind of currency in the ancient world. The more sheep you owned, the richer you were. They had a lot of value, and so taking care of them was very important back then, and still is for many cultures around the world.


Lost Sheep

But why am I talking about sheep this morning when there is no mention of them in any of our readings? Well, to understand our gospel lesson this morning we need to have some context. We read one small paragraph in the larger setting of Matthew 18.


It is always dangerous to put a magnifying glass on a few sentences of the Bible without seeing the larger story that is being told.


And so, it’s important 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 the other 99 behind, 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 ideas that Matthew put together without 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 and restored 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 do it all over again.


But sheep have teeth and they use it not only to eat but also to nip at each other every once in a while.

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 each other. 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 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 is bound to be disagreements and misunderstandings—you may get nipped from a fellow sheep.


We should be utterly grateful to Jesus for giving us some sound advice on how to deal with conflicts in the church. There are some key things to point out within this passage.

Ability vs. Authority

First, 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 towards the person who wronged them. They can grow angry and begin to gossip about the person which will create only more drama. Soon one sin has 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 have value. Because both of them have value, Jesus tells the one who has been wronged to go to the wrongdoer privately.


Do not even allow hatred and bitterness to creep into your heart. 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 by a member, you may have the ability to shame the member who has hurt you, but just because you have the ability does not give you the authority to do such a thing. We, as a part of this community, have been given the authority to make every effort to restore each member to the flock.


And take note, 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 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, GA one summer during college. It was a large church with a lot of money, right in the middle of the trendy downtown area. At one of their elder’s meetings, things became tense. There had been rumblings of people wanting to split from the church and start a new one that better fit their theological beliefs.


One of the elders seemed to get more and more irritated as the meeting went on. 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.

And I soon realized that she had been nipped a few too many times, and she had kept it all in until this 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 keeping 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 a small offense can turn into bitterness and bitterness into resentment. And we all know how corrosive resentment can be in our lives.


With this in mind, it would be foolish to say that because there are no major conflicts now that there never will be one at this church or in our personal lives. We may or may not be in conflict with someone within this community at the present moment, but let this passage be a reminder and even a warning that just because we have the ability to hold a grudge and speak ill of our offender does not mean Jesus has given us the authority to do such a thing.


We cannot dismiss this passage if it doesn't apply to us right now. We are called to be attentive to our own heart, 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 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.


Toward My Name

There is one last reason that Jesus could have continued with the sheep metaphor in this passage, and this is where I’ll end.


As we now realize, a good shepherd knows that sheep have teeth, and they use it 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 are gathered in my name, I am there among them,” the phrase “in my name” can also be translated “toward my name.” Jesus is present among those who are gathered and going towards him.


Life is too precious and our work too serious to be sidetracked by small personal offenses that we’ve allowed to grow deep roots in our hearts.


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



14th Sunday after Pentecost. Proper 18. Year A. Mt 15:10-28. Bruner’s Matthew Vol. 2. Photo by Sam Carter on Unsplash

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