A Sunday School teacher had just concluded her session with the children and wanted to check that the group had understood her and so she asked:
‘So .. who can tell me what we must do before we can receive forgiveness of sin?” There was a short pause and then, from the back of the room a small boy spoke up. “Sin!” he said.
We don’t usually have a problem with sinning, do we? I wonder how many of us are upset or angry with someone right now? Left unresolved, unforgiveness has the power to destroy relationships and break up communities. Jesus is directing us towards a successful way of resolving conflict and dealing with offence and it’s a way that avoids self-righteous vindication.
Perhaps the first thing to understand is that forgiveness is not a feeling we have but a decision we must make. Our readings today all deal with the reality that God wants us to live in love and freedom and to experience the fullness of His life within us, but we cannot do this or experience this whilst holding onto a grievance. In Matthew’s Gospel, we read of the need for it to work in both directions. Matthew 5:23-24 directs what we should do when we realise we have upset someone, and here in chapter 18, what we should do when someone has upset us. The objective is the same; reconciliation and in both instances, we are directed to take the initiative.
At the time that this account was being written, the church was experiencing persecution from outside of its body and from within it. There is a concern for the well being of the individual, yes, but also for the survival of the Church itself. The Church must be seen to behave differently and to deal with conflict resolution differently. I often repeat a saying that I heard many years ago; that the Church must not have any ‘lumpy carpets’. Hiding a difficulty does not make it go away, it just creates a trip hazard for later.
God’s way of doing things is different to the world’s and we are meant to be different. The world tends to focus on encouraging our own personal rights and if followed through this can often result in relationships being broken far too easily as a response to a feeling of our individual freedom being restricted by someone else. I have known of many church congregations being blighted and broken by just such a response. The enemy seeks to divide us as what he can divide he can then begin to dominate and we must seek to never give him any such satisfaction. David reminds us in Psalm 133 how much God loves unity, for it is there that He commands a blessing.
The process Jesus directs us to, begins with the opportunity to retain personal integrity and avoid public embarrassment by speaking privately together. Not writing or sending a text or an email. These can always be misinterpreted. A face to face encounter is always the very best way forward. If this fails to resolve the situation then we are encouraged to gradually increase the level of response but always, as Paul writes in Romans and in Galatians 6, in love and in gentleness. The reference to the tax collectors can be seen as Jesus acknowledging that sometimes people are just not ready to live in peace and as a result they may become distant, but reminding us that no one is beyond hope.
If they will not listen, then pray for them and move on as you will have done all that can be done at present and, in effect, it is they who are removing themselves from you. But, in all things … work from a principle of Love. I encourage you, if you are aware of any unforgiven grievances to seek Christlike resolution and reconciliation for your own personal freedom and the life that Jesus has promised, but also for the sake of the Kingdom, that nothing shall divide us.
With the Lord’s Blessing
Rev Dave Clark
Vicar of the Benefice of Upper Wensleydale