There are four words that are capable of striking fear in many hearts. “We need to talk.” Whether spoken or texted, when we encounter these words our shoulders rise up to our ears, hearts race, palms sweat, anxiety increases, all as we anticipate conflict. I’ve learned through a long line of interviews that more often than not, churches despise conflict, finding it harmful to the community. What I’ve discovered to be more harmful than conflict, however, is the way conflict is handled. Conflict is an uncomfortable, but inevitable part of living in community. If the community, begnins with love at it’s center, healthy conflict resolution is capable of taking place that strengthens the body of Christ, rather than destroying it.
Our gospel reading this morning is the first half of a two-part conversation on conflict resolution that Jesus has with the disciples. Again, we hear Jesus tell his friends that what is bound on earth will be bound in heaven, and what is loosed on earth will be loosed in heaven. Jesus teaches that our relationships and how we interact with one another here on earth has a direct impact on relationships in God’s kin-dom come. Sin is the purposeful fracturing of relationship with God and with the beloved community and we have immense capability for both. How we respond makes a world of difference.
Conflict is a part of every community we are a part of. Whether we intend to or not we will inevitably say or do something whether intentionally or unintentionally that hurts another person. It’s a matter of when, not if conflict will arise. When it does, Jesus tells us to name it. Just like with the stone in our shoe we talked about last week, we need to acknowledge that the conflict exists because ignoring it because it’s uncomfortable actually does even more harm. When we are able to name the conflict and intentionally work to resolve it, we invest in nurturing the relationship through genuine, authentic healing rather than pretending that everything is okay while the relationship withers.
Once the conflict is identified, Jesus instructs us to first try to resolve the conflict privately between the individuals directly involved. Bringing additional individuals into the conflict is referred to as Triangulation, and both Bowen’s Family Systems Theory and Jesus in our Gospel today let us know that whenever possible Triangulation should be avoided, including indirect communication like gossip, passive aggression or anonymous complaints which only escalate conflict. The exception is in situations like abuse where one-on-one interactions are unsafe and should then be mediated by someone professionally trained to serve in that role in order to preserve safety. When conflict resolution is named between the people directly involved the dignity of each is preserved.
There are times when one-on-one conflict resolution isn’t enough, though. And so Jesus tells the disciples to bring a few more people with them, not to attack or dehumanize the other person, but to make sure that the truth of the matter is heard. And the truth matters. Scripture reminds us over and over again that we are the body of Christ, a beloved community, with God’s love at it’s center. Where two or three are gathered, Jesus says, there I am among them. Yes, even in the midst of conflict and uncomfortable conversations, God’s presence is there. When conflict is ignored or handled in an unhealthy way the whole community suffers as a result.
Sometimes, conflicts cannot be resolved and reconciliation fails. The community loses a member after repeated attempts to mediate the conflict. It has an impact on the body and the community needs to take time to grieve the loss, rather than celebrating a win or who was more “right” than the other. Finally Jesus says, if all else fails treat them as you would a gentile or a tax-collector. If we’re not careful it’s really easy to read these instructions as permission to exclude people with whom conflict is experienced, but if we look closely at how Jesus treats gentiles and tax-collectors we get a completely different story.
The Samaritan Woman at the well, the Canaanite woman who refused to take no for an answer when she cried out for her daughter to be healed, the Centurion’s servant and many more were all gentiles, outsiders, who were lifted up for their faith. Zaccheus and Matthew himself were tax-collectors before they encountered Jesus. Each and every one of these individuals was scorned by those in the “in-crowd,” yet Jesus treated all of them with love, the same way the Body of Christ should.
It’s not always possible for that love to extend from an individual, particularly in cases of abuse. Even when we are personally not in a place where we can love the other right now, there is enough love in Jesus that the person indeed loved. There is something to say for the expansiveness of Christ’s love and the ability, when needed, to commend another to the love of the greater community rather than relying on ourselves alone.
These instructions for conflict resolution echo with renewed importance every time we turn on the news. We are routinely bombarded with illustrations of hate, yet Jesus tells us in our Gospel reading that we are to comport ourselves as individuals and as a community from a place with love at its core, after all God is love. When we approach conflict with love, the words “We need to talk.” become an invitation rather than a threat.