Romans 13:8-14; Matthew 18:15-20

There’s a wonderful line in our Book of Common Worship wedding ritual. It comes after the vows, in the prayer for the new couple:

“Give them the grace,
when they hurt each other,
to recognize and confess their fault,
and to seek each other’s forgiveness
and yours.”

My favorite word in there is when – it’s not if we’ll hurt each other in relationship, it’s when. Not to rain on anyone else’s special day, but conflict is a fact of marriage, so among all the prayers we lift to bless a couple’s life together, forgiveness is key.

One pastor in our text study group identified poor conflict-resolution as the primary root of relational failure in his experience. It’s not conflict itself, because that will always come as long as at least two people are involved, but poor resolution of that conflict. There’s often too much fighting or too little – either we relish conflict because it means we’re right and someone else is wrong, or we hide from it to spare the energy and risk it takes. Either way, we dwell in our hurt without working things out. That happens too often in marriage, politics, international relations, and the church.

Matthew gives us directions from Jesus about being the Church while in conflict with each other. The modern church treats conflict like a four-letter word, to be avoided at all costs, but get this: we don’t have to get along to be the Church. And a good thing, too, because whenever two people get together, there are at least two sets of ideas. In fact, the early church sensed that Jesus was inviting us to clear the air with each other in a positive way. We can hear this passage as practical advice for resolving conflict: first work directly with each other; then gather some limited outside feedback; then ask the whole church for help. The point is that conflict is not to fester, but it’s also not to tear us apart. The goal is to win each other back into relationship.

Granted, it would be much easier just to let people go elsewhere. Dealing with conflict constructively takes more commitment than many people care to muster. But Jesus doesn’t let us off, even at the extreme, when we’re allowed to “treat them like a pagan or a tax collector.” Remember how Jesus treated those outside the covenant? He broke down every boundary, even that of death. He loved us into the realm of heaven. Now we’re entrusted to do the same, to win each other back like Jesus did. That takes a radical commitment to being the church, for better or for worse.

A commitment to unity doesn’t end conflict, but it does transform it. Conflict is no longer about being right or wrong, it’s about finding a way to be united. As this conflict procedure plays itself out, I pray that someone in the church would call out both parties, because usually neither side is completely right. The deeper truth acknowledges our blessedness and our brokenness: I’m not completely right, and you’re not completely wrong. Instead, Jesus promises that whenever two or more agree, it will be done. When two or more people find a common basis for relationship, nothing can undermine it. We’ll still disagree over the details of how best to live out our common life, but our commitment to relationship trumps my or your ideas.

Imagine how relationships would be if people committed to each other first. If politicians began budget debates by granting that both sides want the government to facilitate the greatest good for society. If families shared chores and affections based on serving each other. If churches discussed mission dollars, same-sex marriage, or Sunday school curricula based on the knowledge that Christ’s reconciling love comes before any of our disagreements. None of those would make agreement come any more easily – we’re different people with different perspectives, and praise God for that. What mutual commitment does is to make agreement possible at all. It bases everything on our fundamental agreement to live in Christ’s love.

Christ’s love is a radical commitment to seeking the best for each other, to paraphrase Paul. We tend to overuse ‘love’ to mean ‘really like,’ but love ultimately has nothing to do with enjoying each other’s company (much as that might help). Paul says that love does no wrong to another. Love, by definition, is doing good. That’s why the King James Version translated that word for love as ‘charity’ – benevolence, desiring the good. We have other passions, loyalties, and so on, but love ultimately means a commitment to doing good.

As Christ’s people, we’re invited to set our disagreements and differences in the context of love. If we want the best for each other, we can work out all sorts of things. It’s still not easy, and never let me say it is, but love makes resolution possible. It makes anything possible, if we can deeply agree on it – if we can agree on the best for each other, even if the details work out in surprising ways. Love brings something great among us, for wherever two or three people gather in love, Christ is there.

There’s a presence like that in one transformative relationship, between a Palestinian and an Israeli who have learned to love each other because they’re joined by their grief (with thanks to On Being). Ali Abu Awwad lost his brother Yousef to an Israeli soldier, and Robi Damelin lost her son David to a Palestinian sniper. They find themselves on two sides of a long-running conflict, but as they say, “we all share the same pain.” So they’re working together for a peaceful resolution, united by their common humanity.

I think they’re revealing the presence of Christ in their work and relationship. As Ali Abu says:

When I went with Robi to the place that David had been teaching in the early date that he get killed, we went to meet the student there. When I get to the library that David was preparing for the student, a good library, and I saw Robi start crying there, I don’t know, it’s strange, that feeling that I got at that moment. I have that feeling that David is telling me, ‘Take care of my mother.’ This is the first time I’m telling that. I never told Robi that. And I think Yousef was so happy that Robi was taking care of me and I really don’t feel this identity when I feel about David, when I feel about Yousef. I don’t feel that. They just put us — by passing away, they put us in this deeply feeling with our humanity. And if people appreciate and if politicians appreciate the life as they appreciate the death, peace will be possible.

May Christ be present in our commitment to reconciliation.