Most church communities experience conflict at some time or other. How do we cope with differences in the church? And even more of a challenge, how do we cope when there are strong differences of opinion?
When Paul wrote to the church in Rome, he was addressing a situation where some ate meat and others did not. Probably those who refrained were people converted from pagan religions, who feared that the meat on the table may have been killed as an offering to the pagan gods. To them, wanting to leave behind their pagan ways and be faithful only to Christ, the risk of eating meat involved in pagan rituals was anathema. Others were more confident of the new liberty they had found in Christ. They were convinced, as Paul had taught them, that they were saved by Gods grace, through faith, not through particular deeds. They accused those who refused meat as being weak, legalistic, narrow-minded. The non-meat eaters really wondered how they could belong to a church who tolerated such a doubtful practice.
Does that sound familiar? Think of the arguments we have in the church today about how to interpret the Bible. Those who want to feel absolutely sure they are doing Gods will want to be able to refer to particular verses and accept them literally. Others, who approach the Bible as a series of books written by people in particular times and places, want to take into account changing circumstances and ask how the teachings of the Bible apply in our situation in a very different time and place, taking into account knowledge that was not available 2000 years ago. They want, with the help of the Holy Spirit, to hear the Word of God as it comes to us now as living word. They are likely to label the first group as fundamentalists and narrow-minded. While the first group asks how they can tolerate being part of a church which seems to make free with the biblical text.
Pauls advice might seem too difficult: welcome one another not for the purpose of quarreling with them, but because we are all Christs people.
But, you say, the other group is obviously mistaken! We have thought through our position and cannot accept their arguments. I believe that to come to the Bible with new understanding enlivens our faith. But there is a danger then of reading the Bible as an intellectual exercise, rather than a life-changing experience. And sometimes those we see as having a "simple faith" live lives that put us to shame. It is important that we respect and learn from each other. We are not called to win arguments, but to be so wrapped in the gracious love of God that we accept one another as Christ accepts us.
Matthew relates that very challenging story that Jesus told: one servant is forgiven an enormous debt (the equivalent of something like 150,000years wages!), then goes out and refuses to forgive his fellow-slaves much smaller debt. Forgiving is a generosity that defies the arithmetic of deserving it reflects the generosity of God; the generosity of Jesus, who kept on giving even his life. Forgiveness is not a transaction, a balancing of the books it is relational, a restoring of the relationship which has been broken by sin. We might ponder on what has been happening in Australia over our attempts to put right the great rift between indigenous and white Australians. It was a moment of profound importance when the Prime Minister offered the apology earlier this year. It acknowledged that wrong has been done; that the original owners of this land have been treated badly. But saying sorry is not enough. It is a great starting point and needed to be said. But without ongoing work to restore the broken relationship, the apology is empty. This is no easy task facing us. We spent nearly a month in Central Australia recently. We had the chance to speak to a doctor, who critiqued the intervention, because basic services were still not being provided; and because there had been no attempt to sit down and listen to how indigenous people themselves saw their needs. A school teacher spoke of the failure of education, because aboriginal children are not used to sitting in classrooms and being taught. If they live in communities, they learn by being part of the life of the community, copying what the elders do and gradually being given more responsibility. They see the point of what they are learning. And then there is the need to allow for the different experiences and different aspirations among indigenous people. It is all hugely complicated. And years of neglect have compounded the problem. But for true reconciliation demands that we form sensitive relationships with indigenous leaders, rather than try to do what we think is best for them.
Closer to home; your experience will have told you that we cannot restore broken relationships until both parties are willing to really listen to each other, hear each others pain, understand it, and together look for ways forward.
Matthew told the story of the unforgiving servant in the context of a church community where there had been trouble. Just before this story, we read advice on how we should treat people who have acted badly against us. First, we are to speak to them privately. If they dont listen, we are to take two or three other members with us. If they still refuse to listen, the whole church is to be told. As a last resort, the person is to be excommunicated. But the aim is the restoration of relationship. So, asks St Peter, how many times should I forgive another church member who sins against me? Again, Jesus answer defies calculation. By the time we get to 70x7 we will have presumably lost count.
The whole gospel is about a gracious God who keeps reaching out to draw us back into relationship with Gods self. If we have been dealt with so graciously, we are to treat others with gracious generosity. That is not to say that any behavior is tolerated. Matthew has made it clear that we must be held accountable for our actions. Too often in the church we equate forgiveness with being nice, and we fail to address issues that really need to be addressed for the health of the church. But we are to live together in a way that seeks restored relationships rather than retaliation. We are to remember that "there but for the grace of God go I". As I have been "ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven", so I am to let this generosity overflow to the people around me. They, too, long for forgiveness and restored relationships.
And so we pray: Father forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us!