Imagine in your minds a picture of your classic sofa. Now I am interested to know from you, what things come into your mind when you imagine it? What things do you associate with the classic sofa? Obviously, there are very many things we use the sofa for such as watching TV, gaming, iPads, and phones, reading, lounging on, sleeping on when tired, eating on it, talking, sharing with a loved one. It has all the associations with comfort doesn’t it? But it also has another very useful function which can be both good and bad, depending on what you are going through. Young people might really love the sofa for some other interesting reasons especially when Mum or Dad ask you to do some chores; like the dishes, or dishwasher, tidying your room and all those things.
It’s other very important function is escape! It is the place where we want to stay when we don’t wish to go somewhere else. It is the place of comfort to get away from everything, we don’t like. It is the classic place to go to if we’ve had an argument with a loved one, coupled with the famous TV remote to truly hide ourselves away from our problems. It also curiously has that mesmerising effect on both adults and children where you just cannot seem to get up from it when someone asked you to do something, to which we cry: ‘Oh, do I have to?! And of course, for men and especially older men, the sofa is can also be the classic ‘grandpa snoring’ chair. Once he’s sat down, he‘s fast asleep in no time.
Now friends, if the sofa has some strong associations with the need for ‘escape’ or withdrawing ourselves away for things we don’t like, then today’s Gospel reading in Matthew 18 is going to be quite a challenge to that. Today’s reading is Jesus’ instructions on how to reconcile and make peace with people who’ve wronged us, or we have wronged.
You see, the sofa or comfy chair is a symbolic place we tend to lounge around on, when there is a long-term problem with someone else. So when we have had a bad argument with a friend, spouse, family member or loved one, to comfort ourselves we try and find an emotional sofa for comfort and protection from all the pain of the fall out that we’ve suffered. Now that is okay at the start to find forms of comfort and strength to cope with something traumatic, but you know sometimes we can stay just a little too long on our emotional sofas, feeling the initial comfort and protection but then choosing not to get up from them. We may know people who have stayed put on their sofa’s for over thirty years, holding a grudge, always feeling like the poor victim who needs special treatment. They distract themselves with all sorts of comforts and treats, but they never feel the need to get off the chair to go and speak to someone they love deep down, but who they just can’t forgive.
Jesus knows our human nature very well and indeed the hurt we can inflict on others as well as the hurt we receive. He knows our tendency to sweep sin under the carpet, so we don’t have to face anything too difficult. Which is why he gives in today’s text a helpful step-by-step process for reconciliation.
The good news is that it starts small and simple but has potential for stumbles along the way. Jesus first says: ‘If your brother (or sister) sins against you, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you’. In other words, keep it private, in person and it is recommended to do it quickly. I strongly recommend not to write an email or send a text message. In most cases they can backfire and cause more hurt. In the isolation of our own private world we can too easily become fixated upon our own thoughts and prejudices and fail to see the neighbour for whom Christ was crucified to save.
No one can see your face when you write, and so your words, although carefully worded, can still get misunderstood and taken the wrong way. So go to the unreconciled brother or sister in person, rather than ‘stewing’ or mulling over it from the comfy sofa.
Now if the one-to-one experience goes wrong, and nothing you say seems to be taken the right way, then get one or two others to help mediate your discussion. Third parties can hear and see things that the heat of argument blinds you from seeing, and often it can be very helpful and make both hurt parties to feel safer to discuss things.
Each of these steps so far has the potential for forgiveness and the matter to be over with, but occasionally you’ll argue with people who always have to be right about everything, who can’t tolerate any form of negative feedback. These types of people need Jesus’ third step; the church or the ‘ekklesia’ or wider gathering of believers to help sort the problem. In this setting the stubbornness to resolve things in someone who does not even listen to his pastor or his/her church elders, is now verging on something much bigger and more problematic. For if the person despises the counsel and advice of elders and pastors of the faith who have spiritual authority and giftings to discipline and reconcile people who become so bitter and enraged, then the person needs ‘time out’. Jesus says: 17 If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.
The translation here isn’t the clearest in English because Jesus is definitely not saying to intentionally be unkind, reject or persecute someone just like a pagan or Gentile, but he is using the analogy to say that sometimes we need to put people in ‘time out’ (put someone outside our social circles) so that we cannot not be continually hurt by someone trapped in bitterness. Also, it is done this way, so the other person has space to come to their senses and repent. In these situations, the door is always open for an angry brother or sister to come back, as the church is certainly not in the business of excluding people unless a person is a distinct threat to themselves or others. But in these times too it gives the wider church time and focus to pray for the person and break the power of the enemy.
The procedure in Matthew 18 is wonderfully helpful and truly healing when we wish to abide by it. We have a spiritual tool to sort out our problems as they arise, but the power of the emotional sofa of avoidance can stifle the process from its very beginning. It can make something, that could have been solved in a matter of hours, to sadly last all of one’s lifetime. And sadly too, many people die without resolving issues with their friends and loved ones, and these will be some key matters that Jesus will address with them when they meet him at the end of time face to face.
But the comfort through all of this is that we do have access to God’s help! It’s not a situation of sinful human beings trying to find their own way through it all, but often a case of a spiritual battle taking place too. The benefit of having others involved in reconciliation is that the matter can attract powerful prayer. Jesus says this in verse 19: “Again, truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.”
Some powerful things can happen when people agree on something in prayer. The original word here is ‘symphoneo’ meaning to resound together in agreement or ‘singing the same tune together’. So when there is a serious argument between two people our prayers can resound with the song of healing and repair, and we pray for the hurt parties to pick up the tune and pray too for their bitterness to fade away. In these moments of prayer and repair, Jesus says he is there among them.
Finally friends, we remember also, that Jesus did not offer himself the comfy chair or sofa to cope with us as human beings. He took on our horrible treatment of turning against him head on. He sacrificed himself on the cross to reconcile the world, even though the world was not willing to reconcile with him. As it says in Romans 5:8: ‘Whilst we were still sinners, Christ died for us’. Christ died for us even though we as human beings were sitting there bitter on our sofas scoffing at him and hating him.
No longer do we remain isolated from each other in sin, or isolated from God in his judgement against our mistreatment of our neighbour. The Good News is that Christ has come to mend broken relationships and put back together again our messed-up lives. Through the church, his body of baptised believers, he comes to us in his absolving word which declares to the broken-hearted and the sorrowful that you are forgiven, you are free. For those locked up in their sin, not desiring forgiveness, they remain bound to their sin because they refuse the victory that Jesus has won for them. If we distant ourselves from God and his love it is not God’s fault but our own.
Jesus knows those here today or those you know who have a humble and forgiving heart who are still receiving the hurts, isolation, rejection of someone unwilling to get off their sofas and make peace with you.
The only thing you feel able to do is pray. Prayer is the thing to do to make doors open, and even if it takes a long time for someone’s heart to soften, we pray too for patience for that to happen.
We pray for our amazing and Holy God to encourage anyone of us be reconciled with that brother or sister we have hurt or who has caused hurt. For we not only have a God who helps us and gives us his power to heal and repair we have a Holy God who will help us to give unconditional love even if we don’t receive it in return.
Jesus says, ‘love one another as I have loved you’ (John 13:34).