One of Jesus’ most oft-quoted statements is this: “Where two or three are gathered, there am I in the midst of them.” If we were to transport that message to our current reality, we might say, “Where two or three are gathered, at least two will be on their cell phone.” Or in the case of the church, it might be “Where two or three are gathered, at least one committee will be formed.”
Gatherings of people, no matter how small or large, potentially bring us much joy and comaraderie. Also inherent in any combination of persons is the possibility of conflict. What it is about human relationships that is so challenging? We rub each other the wrong way. We say things without thinking about the impact of our words. We sometimes value being right more than we value what builds and preserves the relationships that should be of prime importance.
Jesus in today’s Gospel reading talked about a concept he calls “binding” and “loosing.” These are words we know. Binding is good when we sing “blest be the tie that binds”, but if you’re a woman in China who was a child before the practice of binding feet was outlawed, it’s pretty bad. I tend to think of binding as negative: restricting, holding tight, preventing, and denying.
If we “loose” something, on the other hand, we are releasing, allowing, expanding, and empowering. Buddhism emphasizes the importance of detachment. Of letting go or releasing what binds us in an unhealthy way.
Jesus uses this curious phrase: “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven; whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” He said the same thing two chapters earlier in Matthew right after he commended Peter’s faith and said “On this rock I will build my church.”
In this case, Jesus is talking about what people do when they don’t get along: when the good feelings of fellowship are interrupted by some offense. He lays out a strategy for dealing with conflict that makes a lot of sense and has even been used as official policy in many churches. It’s good not only because Jesus said it but because it makes good, solid, common sense.
In quick order, Jesus says to deal directly with someone if they’ve made you mad. Don’t triangle in a third person. Don’t take it to the highest court. Have a one-on-one, heart-to-heart conversation and hope there’s a good result. But if that doesn’t work, he says, include another one or two in the conversation. In other words, you might need a mediator. And if that doesn’t work, involve others in the church. And if, in the end, the offending person doesn’t listen, you get to kick them out. Or at least that’s how this text has been used by some churches. Actually, the text says that you should treat them like Gentiles and tax-collectors. Considering how Jesus himself befriended both of those groups, maybe it doesn’t mean what people think it means.
Jesus then says “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” I think what that means is that the actions and the decisions we make within the community of faith have cosmic implications. It really matters how we treat and how we deal with one another.
It’s actually pretty interesting that Jesus is quoted here talking about life in the church. After all, there was no church at the time. Jesus never converted from Judaism and there was no Christian church to convert to even if he wanted to. The church was formed by followers of Jesus after he was no longer with them.
The Gospel of Matthew emerged from a community of early Christians who were reflecting on the person and the message of Jesus. They were part of the fledgling movement called the church and maybe they didn’t even realize the irony when they wrote of Jesus talking about the church. Or perhaps they envisioned him speaking about what would be a future reality. Regardless, it seems very likely that they were already having their own struggles. Members disagreed; they offended one another; they disrupted the fellowship, and who better to address the issues with authority than Jesus?
I like how this passage ends with that familiar saying. “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” All of these words about binding and loosing and speaking truth to one another and gathering in the name and spirit of Jesus are really just aspects of what is required to build a healthy and authentic community.
Whenever being tied to one another in covenant is a challenge, a good place to begin is with the words of Matthew 18. When there’s a point of struggle, we talk directly with one another about it. Loving one another means valuing the unity of the whole above our own need to be right. But it’s not just about being bound to one another. When we do the hard work to stay in fellowship with one another, we are loosing or releasing each other to make a difference in the world that exists outside the boundaries of the church. How we treat and deal with one another affects heaven and earth; it has cosmic implications.
Sometimes we can imagine that we alone are right and that those who disagree with us are the enemy. One of the things I’ve learned over many years of pastoral ministry is that those who challenge my ideas and outright disagree with me are of extreme importance. When I was much younger, I took quick offense because I was sure I was on God’s side and they were not. That was really foolish. Listening to others and trying to understand why they think and believe differently has been important, even when persons have expressed themselves harshly. Those different perspectives are a gift. Finding ways to love and listen even when there is conflict, and then to rebuild trust and work toward reconciliation is hard work but it is worth it.
Here is a story from the Zen tradition. One day a young Buddhist on his journey home came to the banks of a wide river. Staring hopelessly at the great obstacle in front of him, he pondered for hours on just how to cross such a wide barrier. Just as he was about to give up his pursuit to continue his journey he saw a great teacher on the other side of the river. The young Buddhist yelled over to the teacher, “Oh wise one, can you tell me how to get to the other side of this river”? The teacher pondered for a moment, looked up and down the river, and yelled back, “My son, you are on the other side!”
Jesus’ teaching on dealing with conflict reminds me that none of us is on the other side. We are all on the side of love, justice, peace, and the building of authentic community. May we have the grace to live daily and purposefully in covenant with one another! Amen.