Today we need to talk about fleshly desires as named in Romans: drunkenness gluttony sexual immorality- well there are plenty of messages about those but I want to talk about the very worst ones at the end- dissension and jealousy. The very fleshly desire of wanting to win the argument, which is so very prevalent in our world today, especially on the internet. Seeing someone saying something different as first rival, rather than beloved sibling in Christ. They are sins ok maybe not worse than the others- but they have become so normalized in our world we don’t even see then as sin anymore. And these are the evils I see most affecting our society today. They are adding to our division. so we need to talk about them.
Paul talks earlier in the passage about the commandments and how they are summed up as loving neighbor as oneself. But the kind of love we are to love those around us with is not just flowers and hugs, smiles and niceties. This is real world love that has accountability and boundaries. This is the kind of love that speaks plainly about offenses. That calls to account when someone wrongs someone else.
That doesn’t sound like love you might be thinking. That sounds uncomfortable. Well love can be uncomfortable sometimes. Paul says it here, love does no harm. So if there is harm, it needs to be pointed out, listened to, corrected. As Jesus talked about in the passage from Matthew.
I had the desire to hold workshops in our church to work on how to handle conflict in a healthy way, according to the Lombard-Mennonite Peace Center training I received in 2017, we were working on scheduling for the spring and then Covid hit. But this passage from Matthew is one of the main scriptures that underpins the process they use. Spoiler alert- its really all about listening. Learning to truly listen well to one another is 90% of conflict resolution- really the goal is not just resolving the conflict. Its transforming our understanding of the conflict so we can restore and deepen relationships. Humans unfortunately are not always good at listening and it seems at this point in time we are getting much worse rather than better at it. So we need some structured practice.
But another big part of what Jesus lays out in Matthew 18 is what NOT to do when you feel you have been wronged by someone in your community. It is NOT to go and spill your guts about your pain, whine and complain to a THIRD party. This is called triangulation, and it is terrible for authentic relationships. No, Jesus tells us, the thing to do is to go to that person, and talk about it privately, and with the aim not to make them feel terrible for what they did, but to get them to listen. To acknowledge what they did wrong. If they won’t, then you involve more people, just a couple, then everybody if necessary. But again, not to gang up on the offender and make them feel small or make them leave forever, but to be able to pull back together. Instead of a call out, it’s a call in. To restore the relatsionships.
Because that is at the heart of every church- the relationships we have with one another. And if a hurt happens, it damages the relationship. And if its never worked on, that wound can fester for a very long time. and it hurts the community overall.
I have known quite a few churches and quite a few Christians who practice the belief that if someone hurts them, it is best to either a) vent to a third party instead of going to that person or b) just live with it, hold the pain, never say anything- and I myself tend to do that, to avoid conflict. But this second group of people can be just as bad as the first- because again, the relationship is damaged. The friendship the trust the ability to work together for the kingdom of God is weaker. Like I said last week God doesn’t call us to be doormats. Love your neighbor AS YOU LOVE YOURSELF. That means not letting someone repeatedly hurt you. You love yourself and them by raising the issue in a way that will help them hear you. God does call us to use wisdom and love and work together to change our behaviors and do better.
One really eye opening thing to me from that training I went to is that never addressing the offense at all doesn’t actually help the whole community. Because instead of working on it, speaking your piece, the anxiety is left to build up in the system. Like scuffing your feet across a carpet and then when you least expect it the built up static electricity zaps someone you didn’t mean to hurt. And these days our overall stress is even higher and we can’t make coronavirus listen to us, so our hurting is even more likely to come out in ways that aren’t helpful to anyone.
So we need to learn how to speak about the harm we do to each other, in a way that invites listening, healing and transformation. I need to say however, there are exceptions to this. Sometimes power dynamics between people or groups is so great that it is not safe to go directly to the offender- think of some of the heartbreaking examples of abuse of children in churches. It isn’t the child’s role to tell the offender that they hurt them, because they do not have equal footing and the offender could just hurt them more. I think this can be true about dynamics of gender, race and sexuality as well. So it is the job of the whole community to always be looking out for the most vulnerable to be sure no one is being hurt- or if they are that the behavior is changed. One translation of this passage I read actually takes out the part “against you” because the translators feel so strongly that the offense being named was an offense against the church as a whole. This section is Jesus’ discourse about what the church, the assembly of believers was to look like: never to avoid the confrontation but to do it in the way most likely to restore and transform the relationship.
Speaking the truth and listening have been proven ways of transforming relationships. I know a little bit about restorative justice so I looked up some information and found the website of the Centre for Justice and Reconciliation and found some amazing testimony. They have many projects in many countries and have shown that this way of truly listening to one another, along with actions to repair the damage done, produces real results. One project is called The Sycamore Tree Project, which is an “intensive 5-8 week in-prison program that brings groups of crime victims into prison to meet with groups of unrelated offenders. They talk about the effects of crime, the harms it causes, and how to make things right. Using a tested discussion guide, a trained facilitator opens up conversations about responsibility, confession, repentance, forgiveness, amends and reconciliation. These lead naturally into opportunities for the participants to express their experiences and feelings. Offenders explore ways of making restitution for the harm caused by their criminal behavior. Victims consider ways they can continue their journey toward healing and restoration. Finally, the group meets in public celebration. One crime victim from New Zealand, after participating in the program, said this:
“I witnessed a man murdering my father. I have been carrying this hatred and hurt for more than 25 years. For the first time, I can truly say that I have forgiven the man that murdered my father. The feeling is something I can’t describe.” 
What an extreme example of what it can mean to talk through the harm done, and the transformation that is possible. Here is an even more intense program they have worked on: after the genocide in Rwanda, they worked with “Rwanda Prison Fellowship to prepare prisoners accused of genocide to meet their victims, survivors, and community members during that country’s Gacaca hearings. Together [they] developed the Umuvumu Tree Project, trained local facilitators and implemented the project in Rwanda’s genocide prisons and communities. Nine months later, the number of prisoners willing to confess and participate in Gacaca had increased from 5,000 to 40,000. Today, Prison Fellowship Rwanda manages seven “reconciliation villages” in which perpetrators, survivors, and returned exiles live together in peace.”
I hope none of us ever has anything close to those kinds of hurts happen to us. But knowing about the kind of reconciliation that is possible even after extreme violence should remind us that our offenses can also be addressed, that we too can heal relationships by talking about it.
For all of us spending maybe more time than we used to on the internet also, it is good to remember that it is a fleshly desire to win the argument rather than build up the relationship with others. We can disagree but in a way that encourages conversation and mutual care rather than name calling, insulting or ending the relationship. And if someone hurts us not to publish a post about it for all the world to see, but private message first. That is the 21st century translation of Jesus’ saying, go to them privately. And even now phone calls or seeing each other from a safe distance are still better. We all need to remember that the other person is- a person and not just an image on a screen; Our neighbor we are called to love.
There are fleshly desires that tempt us beloved, like when we are tempted to spout hurts to a third party instead of going to the person directly. At those times we can remember Paul’s’ injunction to clothe ourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ and not gratify the desires of the sinful nature. Also when tempted to just gloss over and pretend it didn’t happen, we can remember to love with the robust love that communicates well. Jesus stood up to those who were hurting others, whether he turned over tables in the marketplace or called out the hypocrisy of the religious leaders, he even corrected his own followers when needed. But like we remember with Peter, yes he corrected him but kept on loving him. That is the kind of love we need to put on beloved- the kind that has accountability and boundaries- that loves neighbor AND self -that can talk plainly about what harm has been done so that there can be healing and change. That was the goal- to bring the community together, and in the name of Jesus who is with us when we are that kind of community bearing his name. may it be so.