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“The Peacemaker”

Matthew 18:15
Bob DeGray
April 24, 2005

Key Sentence

Peacemakers are committed to resolving conflict.


I. Recognize that conflict is inevitable.
II. Recognize that the responsibility is yours.
III. Go to the person, and go in private.
IV. Share sensitively and clearly.
V. Remember that the goal is reconciliation.


        John Ortberg, in his book Everybody’s Normal Till You Get to Know Them, tells the classic story of ‘The Porcupine’s Dilemma’. He says: “The North American Common Porcupine is a member of the rodent family that has 30,000 quills attached to it’s body. The porcupine is not generally regarded as a lovable animal. The Latin name, erethizon dorsatum, means ‘the irritable back,” and they all have one. Each quill can be driven deep into an enemy, and the enemy’s body heat will cause the microscopic barb to expand and become more firmly embedded. The wounds can fester; if they affect vital organs, they can be fatal.”

        As a general rule, porcupines have two methods for handling relationships: withdrawal and attack. They head for a tree or stick out their quills. They are solitary animals. Wolves run in packs, sheep huddle in flocks; we speak of herds of elephants and gaggles of geese, but there is no special name for a group of porcupines. They travel alone - but they don’t always want to be alone. In the late autumn, a young porcupine’s thoughts turn to love. But love turns out to be a risky business when you’re a porcupine. Females are open to dinner and movie only once a year, and a girl porcupine’s “no” is the most widely respected turndown in all the animal kingdom. Fear and anger make them dangerous little creatures to be around. This is the Porcupine’s Dilemma: How do you get close without getting hurt?”

        Ortberg goes on to say “This is our dilemma, too. Every one of us carries our own little arsenal. Our barbs have names like rejection, condemnation, resentment, arrogance, selfishness, envy, contempt. Some people hide them better than others, but get close enough and you will find out they’re there. They burrow under the skin; they can wound and fester and even kill. We, too, learn to survive through a combination of withdrawal and attack. We, too, find ourselves hurting (and being hurt by) those we long to be closest to.” I agree. Just this week I’ve been hearing stories of people hurt by the barbs of others that get under their skin. We don’t want to be a group of porcupines, but in many areas of our lives we do face the porcupine’s dilemma.

        So what do we do? For three weeks now we’ve talked about peace - peace with God, peace with others, peace in the family - but what do we do when peace is threatened by the behaviors and attitudes of others, or when our own behaviors and attitudes have wounded the peace that we are commanded to have? The answer is one of the most important things we are going to talk about in this series. How do you handle conflict? Is there a third way besides the porcupine’s two options of attacking and withdrawing? I believe there is. It’s called resolving conflict, and I’m convinced that if there is to be peace between individuals, we have to be committed to resolving conflict.

        So today I’m preaching one verse, Matthew 18:15, which is perhaps the clearest and most compelling call to conflict resolution in all of Scripture. I believe this verse ought to be an ingrained part of how we deal with life. In fact this verse is so important that I recommend you memorize it. Let’s begin by saying it together, out loud, as it appears on the screen. Say it with me. Matthew 18:15 “If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over.”

        In Matthew 18 Jesus is responding to a question from the disciples: “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” Jesus takes a little child, and says ‘if you humble yourself like a child, you’re the greatest’. You are to welcome these humble ones, and not put burdens on them or barriers in their path. In fact, you are to seek them as a shepherd seeks a lost sheep; Jesus says “In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should be lost.” And it’s at that point he tells them how to resolve conflict, the implication being that it is conflict that harms these ‘like-children’. How we treat our brothers and sisters, whether in the church or in the family, can make or break their walk with God. That’s why we need to be peacemakers who resolve conflict.

        The good news is that Scripture gives clear instruction about what to do about relational breakdowns. In many ways these are so simple a child can follow them. In fact, this summer, we’re going to be studying these instructions in our age integrated Sunday, using materials from Peacemaker Ministries. On a child’s level, Ortberg says, Jesus’ wisdom is captured in a single phrase: "Go and tell." Go to the person and directly discuss the problem. “The odd thing,” Ortberg continues, “is that we don’t do it. This may be the single most violated of all the instructions Jesus ever gave.” Why? Because, at each point in this teaching, we’re tempted to do it the wrong way. So let’s walk through what Jesus said one small step at a time, and see if we can learn how to be peace makers.

I. Recognize that conflict is inevitable.

        Step 1 is to recognize that conflict is inevitable. The text says “If your brother sins against you, . . ," but we could replace the word ‘if’ with ‘when’. To be alive on this side of heaven means to encounter conflict. We’re all little children in the kingdom, and sometimes we behave selfishly, foolishly or insensitively; often we don’t agree on strategies, methods, convictions or choices. That’s conflict. Sometimes we handle conflict constructively, sometimes destructively; sometimes fairly, sometimes unfairly. Some conflict ends in new depths of relationship; some in screaming and rage; some in coldness and withdrawal.

        Some people pretend conflict doesn't exist, and think a lack of conflict is always a sign of spiritual maturity. That’s not always true. If you’re married to a passive person, you may not experience open conflict; this doesn’t mean the person is spiritually mature; they’re merely apathetic; when you confront them on it, they withdraw.

        Conflict is inevitable. Even if you have no known conflicts right now, it won’t be long before you do. In fact it may be that in claiming to have no conflict you are blinding yourself to the peace-making you ought to be doing. Let’s do a simple exercise: try to think of the most recent person you might have offended - by some oversight, by something you said, by insensitivity, or by intentional hurtfulness. Now try to think of the most recent person who offended you; you had a defensive or angry reaction to their words or deeds. I hope that’s not too much easier. I want you to keeps those situations in mind as we work through this verse. But don’t be surprised if you find that the offense against you was at it’s root a difference of opinion or style that ought to be overlooked. The Peacemakers ‘slippery slope’ diagram will allow us to explore appropriate and inappropriate responses to offenses; and in some cases the appropriate response is to overlook.

II. Recognize that the responsibility is yours.

        But the basic response that Jesus teaches is to take responsibility for the situation. That’s step 2. Jesus says “If your brother sins against you, [you] go. The word ‘you’ is implied in the word ‘go’ - it’s a second person singular command. But we don’t like to take responsibility. We think “Let the other person come to me," and "It’s not fair I should have to take the first step." Ortberg says “Anger often contains an element of self-righteousness that causes me to want to blame the other person and avoid responsibility. A recent television documentary featured the story of two drivers. One driver felt the other had cut him off. He tailgated, then pulled up by the other driver and they made angry gestures. Then he pulled out a pistol, shooting and killing other driver, a seventeen-year-old girl. What struck me,” Ortberg says “was his comment: ‘She started it. I’m just as much a victim as she is.’ It’s amazing how far people go to avoid responsibility.

        But Jesus stresses responsibility. A key verse that complements Matthew 18:15 is Matthew 5:23 "Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and remember that your brother has something against you, 24leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift.” In chapter 18 we are to take the first step if the other person has sinned, but in Matthew 5 you go because you suspect you might have offended. Jesus puts the burden on you in both cases. It’s really a double standard. You go to a brother who has wronged you when he has sinned against you. The verse uses the common word for sin, and it means sin. But Matthew 5 simply says if you even think your brother ‘has something against you’, go. You don’t have to think you’ve sinned; if you suspect this person is having a problem with you, you go.

III. Go to the person, and go in private.

        That’s step 3; you take the initiative. But if you’re like me, you’ll try to say “I’m not good enough at things like this.’ And when you approach the other person, you may not do it perfectly. You may stutter, stammer and stumble. Don't let it stop you. Use as much skill and wisdom as you can, but if you wait until you can do it perfectly, you’ll never go.

        And don’t try the other common dodge ‘I need to talk to someone else. I just want to lay it out clearly and get some feedback from a neutral third party. ‘Don’t you share my concerns about my brother in Christ who is a deeply disturbed psychopath.’ It's more fun to go to someone else who will sympathize. But Jesus says - go directly and privately. More than one person in this room has come to talk to me about a conflict with someone; you’ve heard me quote this verse and say: ‘you go’. It’s hard to do, but it’s the way of the peacemaker. Who do you need to go to?

        By the way, this doesn’t mean you should never talk about your anger. It’s good to get counsel and prayer to help you take responsibility for a situation; it’s not good to substitute it for taking responsibility. Also, if going directly doesn’t work, Jesus gives clear instructions on how to get others involved in verses 16 to 18, after you’ve gone privately.

        We tend to idealize the early church and think it was free of conflict. But the same verses that tell us how they were of one mind and devoted themselves to one another also reveal significant conflicts. The Greek-speaking members had a big ruckus with the Hebrew-speaking members over whose widows were getting taken care of. Paul and Barnabas had such a strong disagreement over a colleague that they dissolved their partnership. But unity and peace prevailed most of the time because people were able to deal with conflict appropriately. Ortberg says “Paul wrote to the community at Philippi, where two prominent women, Euodia and Syntyche, were locked in a difficult conflict. We don't know what the issue was- maybe it was over who had the goofier name. But Paul doesn’t say, “Euodia, talk to some other people about how unfair Syntyche is being to you. Discuss her character flaws and neuroses so that others can pray for her more intelligently.” He doesn’t say "Syntyche, let three or four close friends know how Euodia has mistreated you so they can reinforce your self-righteous sense of martyrdom." Instead, Paul instructs them to resolve this conflict the right way, directly; to "agree with each other.”

IV. Share sensitively and clearly.

        But step 4 tells us that when you go, you ought to do so sensitively and clearly. You show sensitivity when you deal with conflict “just between the two of you." You don’t needlessly embarrass another person by forcing them to respond in front of an audience. One of the things the Peacemaker material will teach us is to show sensitivity by confessing our own sins; ‘get the log out of your own eye’; examine yourself and identify your role in the conflict. You may not have caused the initial offense, but you may have had a sinful response. So they give you the ‘7 A’s of confession’ - really practical stuff. They teach you, for example, to ‘Avoid If, But and Maybe’. The natural man confesses like this ‘if I have done anything to hurt you’ or ‘I’m sorry I did that but . .’ or ‘maybe I could have tried harder’. Mature people confess like this: ‘I’m sorry. I was wrong. Will you please forgive me.’


        But having confessed, we often still need to address sinful behavior sensitively and clearly. Scripture has a wonderful phrase for this: “speaking the truth in love.” When we go to someone we don’t avoid the truth, but we take special care to speak that truth in the context of loving and caring for the person we are confronting. With gentle and careful words we actually ‘show him his fault’.

        Ortberg says “This, too, is often easier said than done. Often when an actual face-to-face confrontation takes place, people end up addressing the problem indirectly in an effort to soften the blow. For instance, a wife may be frustrated with her husband's failure to help around the house. But her frustration may come out in the form of a question: "Wouldn't you like to get the garage all cleaned up today?" He reflects on the state of his heart and discovers that at the deepest level, at the intimate core of his true self, he really wouldn't like to get the garage all cleaned. And he tells her that, proud of his self-awareness and transparency. She goes away twice as frustrated, because she didn't really intend it to be a question.

        So, Ortberg says “On the management team where I work, we often talk about the "Last 10 Percent Rule." The idea is this: Often, after going through all the hard work of setting up a difficult conversation, we shrink back from saying the hardest but most important truth. We fail to say the last 10 percent. We get vague and fuzzy precisely when clarity is most needed. Instead of honestly naming sinful behavior, I speak vaguely of not feeling connected to the other person and hope they will fill in the blanks. This isn’t because you love the other person - it’s because you don’t want to go through the pain that can come when people are confronted by real sin.

        Orberg says “When I speak of the last 10 percent, I don t mean I’m to take on the task of straightening everyone out by highlighting all their faults. It does mean that in love, I must watch my tendency to get fuzzy precisely when the truth is most needed.” So you need to describe clearly what you observed, explain how it hurt you, tell what the consequences have been and ask for the change you’d like. Peacemakers adds other helpful principles, like picking the right time and place for the conversation, being careful to listen, and recognizing that reconciliation is often a process rather than a one time event.

V. Remember that the goal is reconciliation.
        So we’ve seen four truths here: that conflict is inevitable, that the responsibility for dealing with it is yours, that you are commanded to go personally and privately, and that you are obliged to speak the truth in love. The final thing to remember, and maybe the most important thing, is that the goal is reconciliation. Jesus says “If he listens to you, you have won your brother over.” The goal is not to win or score points - your aim should be to restore the relationship. Reconciliation is rarely simple and rarely quick, but it is Jesus' will for the human race, his express command for his church. If this is not your goal, all the rest of your work will be for nothing.

        Ortberg “I was trying to parallel park on a congested one-way street in Pasadena, California, not long ago. The driver behind me was getting increasingly frustrated because he couldn't get around me; he just had to sit there and wait. Finally, I wedged my car in, and he pulled up next to me to share his deepest feelings. "What’s your problem ... ?" he yelled at me, calling me a name I won't repeat. It was a pretty profound question. I ve thought about it often. But the man didn't stick around to discuss it with me. He didn’t really care what my problem was. Now this man did many things right, according to Matthew 18:15. Did he acknowledge our conflict? Yes, with clarity and passion. He took initiative without waiting; he was not passive. He did not complain about me to other motorists; he spoke to no one but me. His communication was impressively direct; I knew exactly what he was thinking and feeling. But he missed the one step that matters most of all.”

        Peacemakers calls this last step ‘Go and be reconciled” and Jesus says it’s a victory if such reconciliation happens. Peacemakers emphasizes that the key to any reconciliation is often forgiveness. You went to this person prepared to confess your part in the conflict, and hoping he or she would forgive you. You also went hoping to be asked forgiveness. But forgiveness is hard. Ortberg devotes a whole separate chapter to it, and calls it “The Miracle of Forgiveness.” Those of you who did the What’s So Amazing about Grace study by Philip Yancey had the opportunity to delve into it pretty deeply, examining what it is and what it isn’t, and how to deal with it in hard cases. This summer explore the truths of forgiveness in some detail because you can’t have real reconciliation without it.

        Yet reconciliation is more than forgiveness: it is restoration of relationship - mine to you and yours to me. Now I recognize that not all conflict results in reconciliation, and sometimes there are positive results apart from reconciliation. But it is the goal - it’s always the goal. Even when you move into verses 16 to 18, and you involve others, the goal is reconciliation, restoration and the renewal of relationship. People are sometimes surprised our church has such an explicit policy on church discipline, but if you sat in on elder meetings where we’ve dealt with these issues you would find very quickly that our focus and our heart’s desire is for restoration. Yours should be too, every time you set out on a Matthew 18:15 journey.

        I want to close with an illustration, but it’s not one from our congregation. You may have noticed that I’ve not used such illustrations today. It’s not that we don’t have them - in fact I want you to be thinking of your own situations. But sometimes a pastoral role and a teaching role are in conflict; in this case the stories I could tell, I won’t, because even the simplest of them is private to the individuals involved.

        So I’ll let Ortberg tell a story. “My wife and I have a friend we’ll call Sue, whose relationship with her mom was marked by friction her whole life. It alternated between uneasy cease-fires and all-out war.”

        Sue never received a compliment. Her mom never told her she looked pretty. In time, the only way they could relate was to inflict pain on one another verbally. Sue ended up in the state where people from troubled families usually find themselves (California) and entered the profession they usually enter (psychologist). She tried to avoid going home, and on occasions when she had to go back, she would stay with her brothers. But there was a hole in her heart

        One day Sue received a phone call. Her mom had been diagnosed with a degenerative disease and did not have long to live. Sue began to pray, asking for miracle. Maybe for her mother’s body, maybe for her mothers heart; maybe for her own heart. Nothing happened. Her mom went downhill rapidly. Sue got another call - the end was not far off. She flew home, where the family gathered for a vigil that lasted days. But her mom survived the crisis. When everyone went home, Sue stayed. One night when she couldn’t sleep, she went to her mother’s bedside, and her heart began to melt. “I’m sorry,” she said, “I know I wasn’t easy to raise.”

        “Me, too,” her mom said. “I’m sorry, too.” For the first time since she was a little girl, Sue’s heart was flooded with love for her mother. She had been afraid she would be cold toward her till the very end. She had not touched her mother for years; now she couldn’t stop. She held her mother’s hand and stroked her head, and wouldn’t let go. “I love you, mom. I really do. I was afraid you’d die without knowing it.”

        At that moment, Sue said, her mother looked radiant, the way some people look when heaven is not far off. Mom was having trouble speaking now. She wrote a single word for Sue to read, and pointed toward her daughter. Pretty. Sue found herself with thoughts and feeling she wanted to expressed to her mother that she didn’t even know she had. She was forty years old and had not been married. “I hoped to give you a grandchild.” You gave me a daughter, her mom wrote.

        It was the last time Sue would see her mother. It was her mom’s last night on earth. Her last, best night. And a prison door was unlocked. Two stony hearts melted. Two human beings who had lived as enemies became mother and daughter again. God commands us to forgive whenever we’re hurt, and reconcile whenever we can, because life is too short not to do so.

        “Blessed are the peacemakers” Jesus says. In order to have peace with others we have to be people committed to the hard work of reconciliation.