So far in this series we’ve focused on the main question: What should you do if somebody sins against you? The answer, in a nutshell: Go to that person. Even though you’re the wronged party, you should initiate reconciliation, according to Jesus. This runs contrary to the popular wisdom that says, “Look, I’m the victim here. I’m not going to anybody. If so-and-so will come to me, great. But otherwise I’m not budging.” Though this sounds reasonable, it’s incompatible with Jesus’ teaching. Even and especially when you’re the victim, it’s your job to get the reconciling ball rolling.
But what if you’re on the sinning side of the equation? Or what if someone else believes that you’ve sinned against him or her, even if you haven’t? What should you do if you know that someone in your Christian community has a bone to pick with you?
Again, common wisdom would tend to say, “Look, if somebody has a problem with me, then that person should seek me out.” This can even sound noble, “I’d be willing to meet with anyone who has a problem with me, but I’m not going to initiate if that person won’t do it.” Given what Jesus has said about the wronged party going to the offender, it’s clear that responsibility lies with the victim for initiating reconciliation. But does this mean the offender is off the hook? Hardly, according to Jesus.
In a passage from the Sermon on the Mount Jesus said this:
So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. (Matt 5:23-24)
This is a surprising text for two reasons. First, it puts the burden of reconciliation on the offender (or one perceived to be the offender). If I have sinned against somebody and know that person is angry with me, it is my responsibility to initiate reconciliation. “But wait,” you might object, “I thought it was the victim’s responsibility!” Yes, indeed it is. In fact it is the responsibility of both parties to seek to mend the relationship. Neither one is free to wait for the other. Thus whether you have been wronged by someone or you’re the one who did the wronging, Jesus tells you to reach out to the other party. Reconciliation is so important that it’s something both parties are responsible to get started. (Photo: A famous moment of forgiveness. In May 1981 Mehmet Ali Agca shot Pope John Paul II in an attempt to kill him. The attempt failed, though the Pope was severely injured. Even so, he asked Catholics to forgive Agca, explaining that he had done so himself. Two years later John Paul II met with Agca, offering his forgiveness personally.)
The second surprise in Matthew 5:23-24 is Jesus’ clear statement of priorities. Reconciliation with a brother or sister takes precedence even over worship. This is truly astounding. It is also one of the most frequently disobeyed commands in all of Scripture. I know Christians who, for years and years, have come faithfully to worship while failing to mend broken relationships with fellow Christians. They think, no doubt, that their relationship with God is what really matters, and that everything else is secondary. But Jesus, in a shocking passage, says that we should seek reconciliation with brother of sister even before offering our gift of worship to God.
Several years ago, my church was celebrating communion. I had finished my part as the officiant and was sitting in a front pew. A man in the church came up to me and asked to speak with me privately. I took him aside and listened as he said, “I need to confess to you that I have had lots of resentment towards you in the past. I now realize that it’s mostly my own issue. I felt snubbed by you in a couple of instances where you could have been more attentive to me. I’ve harbored this for years. But I realize I need to confess this to you now. Will you please forgive me?” He was attempting to apply the logic of Matthew 5:23-24 in a new situation.
I was stunned. To be honest, my gut reaction was to be defensive: “What do you mean I snubbed you? When did this happen? Why didn’t you tell me years ago? etc. etc.” But, by God’s grace, I was able to hear what this man was saying to me and feel his heart in the matter. I offered sincere forgiveness and suggested that sometime later we might talk it through. We prayed for a moment and then he went to receive communion.
As I thought about what happened, I realized that this man had been exceedingly faithful to the intentions of Jesus. He sensed, rightly, that the breach in our relationship – for which he took most of the blame – was something that needed to be mended even before he went to the Lord’s Table. It also impressed me that what this man did was very rare and very gutsy. We’re just not inclined to do this sort of thing.
Please understand that I’m NOT suggesting you go up to your pastor in the middle of communion next Sunday in order to work our your difficulties. In most cases, another time would be more appropriate. But if you are harboring negative feelings toward your pastor – or anyone else in your church – you should initiate reconciliation PDQ.
A common objection to what I’m suggesting here goes like this: “But wait a minute. What you’re talking about would take a lot of time. Are you actually suggesting that we need to seek reconciliation with everyone in the church against whom we have some negative feeling, or who has wronged us, or whom we have wronged? There isn’t enough time in the day for this! It’s so impractical.” Well, yes, this is what I’m suggesting. And, yes, it may take a substantial investment of time if you haven’t been tending to these things for a while. But the guidance I’m giving isn’t mine; it comes from Jesus himself. And if Jesus says this is what you should do, then this is what you should do.
If you make the effort to reconcile, it will take time. But, in most cases, the results will be well worth that effort. Both you and your church will be stronger and healthier. Both you and the church will be more resilient to the kind of division that can ruin both individuals and churches.
I did indeed end up talking at length with man who needed my forgiveness before communion. And, as it turned out, I did need to confess that I had wronged him in a couple of ways. My offenses weren’t great, and he was right that much of the hurt he had fabricated in his own heart. But, in the end, we were both able to confess, to apologize, and to forgive. The result was a much deeper friendship in Christ. In fact, because we shared some difficult and tender moments together, our relationship is both stronger and dearer today than it was before. A few years later when we faced considerable conflict in our relationship, we had a solid foundation upon which to build a bridge of understanding. To this day, I value the friendship I have with this brother in Christ. And he, I believe, would say the same about me.
Before I wrap up this series, I want to reflect a bit further on how the teaching of Jesus might be lived out in today’s world, especially given the extent to which our lives are permeated by electronic communication devices. More next time.