This past week, I ran across some information that was released back in 2000. But I surmise more recent events would show a similar trendline. It looked at the total dollars awarded in the top ten US jury trials for the years 1997, 98, and 99. In 1997, $750-million was awarded in the top ten trials. In '98, the figure was $2.8-billion. In ‘99, $8.9-billion! One legal observer looked at these trends and concluded, “It’s just further evidence that suing someone has become the preferred means of solving disputes.”
In a society that has become obsessed with rights, I suppose that this trend is understandable. Everyone appears to have chips firmly placed on their shoulders, spoiling for a fight.
That shouldn’t be the case for we believers in Jesus Christ, though. Jesus tells us that when one member of the Church sins against another, we have the means of resolving things because He--the crucified, once-dead, now-risen, and living Lord of the universe--is with us. Jesus promises to be among us.
For some, the very notion that Christians might sin against each other and have disputes with one another doesn’t compute. The term disputacious Christian is an oxymoron like jumbo shrimp or Super Bowl champion Bengals.
Many outside the Church and many inside the Church believe that if Christians ever hurt each other, it’s proof that they’re not Christians. But the Church, as I’ve said before, is a hospital for hypocrites, a support group for recovering sinners, a haven for the imperfect.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran theologian murdered by the Nazis in the waning days of World War Two for his opposition to Adolf Hitler, wrote a wonderful book on being part of the Church called Life Together. He warned Jesus Followers against falling so in love with our idealized conceptions of the Church that we’re disappointed when disputes arise. Christians are called to live not in the Kingdom of Nice, but in the Kingdom of God with other real-life, feeling, thinking human beings.
And this side of heaven, though we’re forgiven and recovering sinners, we’re still nonetheless, sinners capable of doing wrong and of wronging others.
Part of growing up as followers of Jesus Christ then, is recognizing that we won’t always agree on everything. Ninety-nine percent of the time, those disputes we have with other Christians are insignificant. But sometimes, they’re the result of someone sinning against us or, at least, our belief that they've sinned against us.
Jesus says that the way for Christians to handle such situations isn’t to simply ignore them. Or to sue the other person’s socks off. Or to begin a whispering campaign against them. Or to demand that our friends side with us and against the offending party. Or to simply ignore the other person. As followers of Jesus, we can dare to live life differently. We can take a more difficult approach. Jesus outlines that approach in our Bible lesson this morning.
But before looking at the steps in the process Jesus tells us to take, I need to make a few quick points.
First of all, Jesus isn’t talking about situations in which Christians simply disagree or in which one thoughtlessly and accidentally offends another. Years ago, I opened my morning paper in Columbus to see that the brother of a guy I had known through political involvement there had been indicted for murder. The next day, the police said that the guy had confessed and given them his motive. He told the police, “I didn’t like the way he looked at me.” Unfortunately, in a similar fashion, many Christians want to make capital cases out of the perceived slights of other Christians. We need to get over that kind of immaturity.
Second, the process Jesus outlines may have some application to disputes we have with those outside the Church, but for we Christians, this is really inside stuff. Maintaining the fellowship of believers is so important to our credibility in the world that Jesus is insistent that we do everything we can to restore that fellowship when sin has breached it.
So, what is the process outlined by Jesus?
First: We go to the person we think has sinned against us. The congregation I formerly served in northwestern Ohio was in a rural setting in which we had to burn all our trash. Once, during a drought season, the burn barrel fairly full, the fire I started fell out of the barrel and onto the ground. It took me quite a bit of quick effort to put it out. When I finally did, three-quarters of the softball infield was black. The next day, a bunch of kids were playing ball there and asked what had happened. I told them about my fire. That evening, I got a call from a church members asking why I’d told everybody he’d started the fire. “I didn’t,” I told him. “I told everybody I’d started the fire and what a dolt I'd been to have done so.”
The point: That man didn’t bother gossiping to anybody else, complaining about how I’d pinned a bad reputation on him. He went directly to me and in a matter of moments, things were resolved.
Jesus says that when another Christian sins against us, we’re to go to them privately. We may learn that they didn’t really sin against us and fellowship will be restored.
Second: If the other person turns out to be unwilling to hear you out, you’re to enlist two or three other Christians to listen to both of you and guide you toward restoration.
Lutheran pastor Mike Foss tells the true story of a time when he and a man in his congregation and his three sons formed an intervention group to confront a wife and mother for her gambling addiction, something that was having a devastating effect on them and on her. At the beginning of this session, for twenty minutes, her husband laid out all the evidence for his concern for his wife and what it was doing to their family. Then, weeping, he told her how much he loved her. Writes Foss:
“She looked at her three boys, took a long look at her husband, and then looked at me. What came out of her mouth next was probably the fiercest barrage of venom I’d ever heard from anyone...ever. With her three sons sitting close by, she called her husband names that made my skin crawl...”That’s the sort of thing that can happen when we confront other believers for their sins against us. But if our motives are to help the other person and not get some sort of revenge, we can do this knowing that Christ is with us.
Third: If the person refuses to listen or repent, we’re to get the whole Church involved. Probably in our case, that would be through our Church Council.
You’ve heard me tell the true story of a church in northwestern Ohio. One member learned that another member of the congregation, a guy he didn’t like, had cancer. So, after worship one day, this fellow walked up to the cancer victim. “Joe,” he said, “I understand you have cancer.” “Yes,” Joe replied. “Well,” the first man said, “I guess you get what you deserve.”
When the pastor got wind of this remark, he followed the process Jesus outlines in today’s lesson. The man refused to repent and ultimately, the Church Council decided that he was no longer a member of the congregation and could not receive Holy Communion.
The whole point in this process is not for us to spiritually look down our noses on others, but to restore relationships.
Sometimes, you and I can become so addicted to our sins that we can’t even hear God’s Holy Spirit calling us to turn from sin and back to walking with Christ. This process is designed to act as a megaphone so that those who sin against us can hear and heed the Holy Spirit again. It requires courage and truthfulness and humility and a commitment to living in the fellowship of a church to which Christ calls all believers.
For all the risks, the results of pursuing this process can be wonderful! Years ago, I became aware of a fellow Christian saying some things about me to others that were completely untrue, things that if unchallenged, would severely damage my reputation.
I stewed about what to do for awhile. Jesus, of course, warns His followers that people outside the fellowship of the Church are going to routinely sin against us and say untrue things about us, designed to savage our reputations and hurt the cause of calling others to faith in Christ. But when that savagery is an inside job, Jesus says that we need to deal with it.
So, I prayed and, hands shaking, picked up the telephone and confronted the guy. He immediately confessed that he had repeatedly said the things I’d heard attributed to him, apologized, and promised to tell everyone to whom he had previously spoken that his statements had been untrue.
That man died a few months later and I presided over his funeral. I felt a special twinge of sadness because not long before, our confrontation and the restoration that resulted had given us a good friendship. We genuinely appreciated and loved one another.
That’s what can happen when we allow Christ to guide us in growing up--caring enough to love, to confront, to work toward a deeper fellowship with those who, like us, are Jesus Christ's ambassadors to the world.
[NOTES: The information on the top ten lawsuits nationally for three consecutive years comes from Perfect Illustrations for Every Topic and Occasion and was originally cited in both Lawyer's Weekly USA and World. Mike Foss' messages can be seen by subscribers of changingchurch.org. ]