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Read Matthew 18:15-20 here.
Einstein and Newton were in a bar one day. And Einstein said to Newton, “I’ve discovered mathematically that an object in motion experiences time dilation, meaning that time moves more slowly when one is moving, than when one is standing still.”
Newton replied, “Interesting. Well, do go on.”
So Einstein gave an example: “Imagine there is a person standing beside a moving train and another person inside the train, and the train is at a point in the track equally between two trees. If a bolt of lightning were to hit both trees at the same time, due to the motion of the train, the person on the train would see the bolt hit one tree before it hit the other tree. But the person beside the track would see simultaneous strikes.”
And Newton replied, “Interesting. But what the heck is a train?”
Two great mathematicians. One fundamental communication gap. What the heck is a train?
We’ve all probably had conversations that feel like that, where the person’s response is not at all what we expected because we misjudged the situation.
Years ago, in our group of friends there was one person who was so often drunk that it was getting in the way of his ability to do the things we did together. So we decided, as was in vogue at the time, to do an intervention. We carefully planned out the time and place, who would speak first, who would talk to his wife separately, and where we wanted him to go for in-patient treatment. It was a grand plan, but it left out one very important thing. Well, actually several important things. It was an ambush, and it didn’t go the way we thought it would go. Our friend got very angry and stormed out. He didn’t come home for days, and he never spoke to any of us ever again.
Maybe, after hearing today’s scripture reading, you can guess what we should have done differently. Instead of an ambush, the first step should have been for one of us to talk to that friend one-on-one. That can be very difficult to do, and maybe that’s why we skipped it.
Another problem with our approach was that our goal was to prove that we were right and he was wrong. Maybe that’s how we see it in this scripture, too. “Go to the person and point out their fault.” But I wonder if that really means what we might think it does, because the conversation in which Jesus is saying this begins with this question from the disciples:
“Who . . . is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” (Matt. 18:1)
Jesus initially responds by calling a child over and having the child stand among them, and then Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.” (Matt. 18:3-5)
And then he says, “If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.” (Matt. 18:6) Pretty graphic and humbling. It could be said that our intervention caused our friend to stumble. We thought we had everything figured out and we didn’t.
Jesus goes on to tell them a parable about a shepherd going after a lost sheep, and says, “And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he is happier about that one sheep than about the ninety-nine that did not wander off. In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should perish.” (Matt. 18:10-14)
So, when Jesus tells us to go talk to a brother or sister who sins, the goal is restoration and reconciliation, not proving who is right. The disciples had asked, “Who is greatest in the kingdom of heaven,” and the answer might be, “whoever is willing to go and help people to find reconciliation.” Or, “Whoever is willing to go and have the hard conversations one-on-one.” “Whoever is willing to truly listen.”
What do we often do instead?
- Post about our grievances on Facebook or Twitter.
- Go talk to our friends and rally support for our grievance.
- Give up on that person and stop talking to them altogether.
- Stop going to that church or group so we don’t have to talk to that person.
None of these will resolve the issue. None of these will accomplish reconciliation and forgiveness. All of these are easier.
How we talk to someone makes a difference, too. In real life, if we want to accomplish reconciliation and forgiveness, we can’t be self-righteous or snarky and flip.
- We have to be humble, like a child.
- Willing to listen, and willing to both forgive and accept forgiveness.
- Willing to consider that the situation might be different than how we see it.
- Willing to accept that we might be wrong.
Conflict resolution 101 says that we need to make “I” statements instead of “you” statements. Instead of saying, “You did this and you did that,” we say something like this:
“I feel angry when you take the last donut, because I wanted one and didn’t get any.”
And sometimes the other person has a surprising response.
“I thought everyone but me already had a donut.”
Or “I thought you didn’t like donuts.”
Or “I don’t like you and so I’ve made a point of making sure that you don’t get a donut.”
And now we’re getting to the heart of the matter.
The heart of the matter is that our relationships matter.
Ephesians 4:32 (ESV) says, “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.”
To be reconciled, we need to make forgiveness the goal. We might miss that this is the goal, depending on how we read verse 17 which says,
“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.”
We might think that means to separate ourselves from them, but think about how Jesus treated pagans and tax collectors.
- He called Matthew the tax collector to be one of his disciples (Matt. 9:9) and he had dinner with other tax collectors (Matt. 9:10).
- He healed a gentile woman’s daughter and commended the woman for her faith (Matt. 15:22ff).
William Hawkins, a pastor at a Presbyterian church in North Carolina, proposes that forgiveness is the missing ingredient that is contributing to the decline in our churches. He says, “More than anything else, the unwillingness to perform the difficult task of forgiveness and reconciliation in the love and spirit of Christ is what robs the church of that quality of life that first attracted outsiders. It was that quality of the church’s life that set it uniquely apart from all other attempts at creating community. By the grace of God, it still can.”
Forgiveness is important. Jesus said that people would know we are his disciples if we love one another (John 13:35). But it can be hard to imagine forgiveness when we’ve been hurt. When the church I pastored in Galveston was burned by a fire set by an arsonist, we struggled with this. On the day of the fire, TV news reporters came and asked me to speak to them on camera about what happened, and one of them was determined to get me to say that I forgave the man who’d set the fire. I didn’t want to say it because it was too soon and I couldn’t say it with integrity. I knew I would need to forgive him, and I trusted that God would help me to get there, but this was the very day the fire had happened. I was still trying to wrap my mind around it. But I also knew the world was watching, and I wanted to say what the world needed to hear.
Forgiveness and reconciliation is important, and we need to make it a priority before things escalate to the point of no return. But even if the unimaginable happens, by God’s grace, reconciliation is still possible.
In 1994, in Rwanda, the unimaginable happened. Violence was sparked when the Rwandan president died in a plane crash. The president was Hutu. His plane was shot down by Tutsis. And the Hutus got angry and turned on their Tutsi neighbors. But this didn’t develop overnight. Tension between the two groups had been growing for decades.
When the killing started, it went on for three months. More than 800,000 people were killed. And afterwards it took years to recover. One would think that it would be impossible for there to be forgiveness and reconciliation between Hutus and Tutsis, but there is.
In 2014, twenty years after the genocide that tore apart Rwanda, the New York Times published an amazing story about forgiveness. An organization had been formed whose sole purpose was reconciliation. In their program, small groups of Hutus and Tutsis were counseled over many months, culminating in the perpetrator’s formal request for forgiveness.” Here’s one example.
Jean Pierre Karenzi Perpetrator (left)
Viviane Nyiramana Survivor
KARENZI: “My conscience was not quiet, and when I would see her I was very ashamed. After being trained about unity and reconciliation, I went to her house and asked for forgiveness. Then I shook her hand. So far, we are on good terms.”
NYIRAMANA: “He killed my father and three brothers. He did these killings with other people, but he came alone to me and asked for pardon. He and a group of other offenders who had been in prison helped me build a house with a covered roof. I was afraid of him — now I have granted him pardon, things have become normal, and in my mind I feel clear.”
Most of us probably haven’t had to deal with murder or genocide, but all of us have to work at forgiveness and reconciliation. We need to be willing to ask for it, and to give it.
Who comes to mind for you? With whom do you need to be reconciled?
God loves us so much that he sent his son Jesus to die for us so that we might be reconciled with God and receive forgiveness. God calls us to extend that same grace to one another.
Be reconciled to God. (2 Cor. 5:20)
Love one another. (John 13:36)
And may the peace that passes all understanding guard your hearts and minds in Jesus Christ. (Phil 4:7)
 Science statement adapted from https://www.space.com/36273-theory-special-relativity.html#:~:text=Another%20strange%20conclusion%20of%20Einstein’s,than%20a%20person%20at%20rest. Retrieved Sept. 5, 2020.