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Matthew 18:15-20

Long before Paul wrote to the church in Corinth that God has “reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation” (2 Cor 5:18) reconciliation was a lived reality of the early church. Before reconciliation was a theological concept or social justice strategy, it was fruit in the lives of believers that gave evidence to God’s kingdom on earth.

Jesus gives his disciples very specific and practical guidance for handling division and conflict and participating in reconciliation. Many Christians have attempted to follow these guidelines over the centuries, for better or worse. David Fitch writes about reconciliation as one of the key disciplines of the church. In his book, Faithful Presence: Seven Disciplines That Shape The Church for Mission, he describes churches and Christians who practice the discipline of reconciliation as Jesus instructs his disciples in Matthew 18[1]. He tells stories of tenants reconciled with landlords and BLM protestors reconciled with police in Ferguson, MO. Fitch’s stories of Christian reconciliation require mutual submission and humility under the Lordship of Jesus in situations where all parties are seeking to listen to the other before demanding to be heard. His stories make me hopeful for the witness of the Kingdom here on earth. However, I know of tragic stories in which the reconciliation outlined in Matthew 18 has been used by groups of Christians who sit in judgment to harm and shame others and force them into submission. These latter stories are all too familiar; weaponizing the practices of Christian witness for self-righteous purposes. Damage has been done “in the name of Jesus” that is indescribable. So how do we handle this ministry that has been given to us without harming the very ones who we need to be reconciled in love?


Jesus is a good place to start any Christian practice. As Paul writes, we have only been given this ministry of reconciliation because we were reconciled to God through Christ. We begin by inviting Jesus to be our good and faithful judge who will give us eyes to see and ears to hear. When Christians sit in the judgement seat, where will Jesus sit? After all, he did promise that when two or more are gathered he will be there. When we go about this work of reconciliation, we ought to assume Jesus is good on his word and leave him the proper chair in the room. Reconciliation only happens in and through Jesus Christ, and if our arrogant discourse leaves no room for him to correct us and no room to hear his voice in our brother and sister, we are forfeiting what he has promised us: to give us what we ask when we humbly agree with one another.


Jesus instructs his followers to approach a brother or sister who has sinned against them only after teaching them to pray, “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” This prayer acknowledges that I am one sinner who is forgiven and is learning to forgive others. Indeed, The Lord’s Prayer seems to assume that the forgiveness we receive is bound up with the forgiveness that we offer. Likewise, in Matthew 18, Jesus tells his disciples that what they bind on earth will be bound in heaven and what they loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. This ministry of reconciliation is a signpost of the Kingdom of God here on earth. Our reconciliation with those we have wronged is bound up with our being reconciled with those who have wronged us. Before we imagine ourselves going to a brother or sister who has wronged us, we should imagine being approach by one whom we have wronged and desiring to be made right.


The ministry of reconciliation makes room for the justice of the Kingdom of Heaven. The world in which Jesus spoke knew of distributive justice and retributive justice. Distributive justice, practiced mainly by the Greeks, sought to distribute resources and wealth in such a way as to make right what was wrong. Retributive justice, practiced more by the Romans, sought to punish the offenders. If the offender has caused suffering, they must endure suffering in order to restore justice. Both forms of justice seek merely to maintain balance between good and evil. They are playing a zero sum game, trying to keep the scales tipped in the direction of good. But Jesus is describing a practice that is anticipating a Kingdom in which all things are reconciled in Christ. Approaching your brother or sister who has sinned against you is not aimed at getting back what was yours or to make them suffer as much as you have suffered. Reconciliation in Christ is not moving back to a zero sum of suffering. Reconciliation is moving us toward the Kingdom of God and inviting the very people who have wronged us to enter more fully into that Kingdom.


I invite my sister to be reconciled with me in hopes that when I am the one who has sinned, some brother will love me enough to do the same. This is the lived reality of the Christian community that makes us into a signpost of the Kingdom of God here on earth.

 

[1] Fitch, David. Faithful Presence: Seven Disciplines That Shape the Church for Mission. (Downers Grove: IL: Intervarsity Press. 2016)