Matthew 18:15-2 is about the church. It is one of two occasions where the word, “church,” is used in the gospels. These words occur in his Gospel before the death and resurrection of Jesus, that is before the church was even established. It is thought that Matthew’s Gospel was written some 50 years or more after the death and resurrection of Jesus. Clearly these words in chapter 18 were addressed to a young body of Christian followers who subscribed to the new Faith. Matthew was obviously concerned to preserve the unity of this newly formed church whose life he feared was threatened by disagreement, misbehaviour, and division.
Prior to this passage it is recoded that there was a dispute between the disciples about which of them will be the most important in God’s Kingdom. In order to take the heat out of their debate Jesus took a child and said to them “Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven”. Matt. 18:4) In other words the Kingdom’s not about power, prestige but about humility.
Jesus then proceeded to illustrate the point by telling a story about a shepherd who had a valued flock of sheep. (Matt.18:12-14). As isn’t infrequent with sheep, one went astray and became lost, so the shepherd left the flock to go in search of the one lost sheep and when he found it he rejoiced and restored it to the fold.
God, said Jesus, is just like that shepherd when one of the least of his people go astray. Inevitably there’s conflict in any human gathering because we are all so different.
We don’t see things the same way. This is also the case in the church. It also follows that no one view of life, no individual experience should be regarded as necessarily less valid than another. Sadly, when there are disagreements within any community there is a reluctance to commit to resolving the conflict. That is why in this passage Matthew has offered advice about avoiding division.
Whenever anything threatens the unity of the church it is best to deal with it. Otherwise, the unity of the church is threatened. So Matthew urges the young church not to ignore or cover up inevitable shortcomings, disagreements and disputes lest they fester away and tear the infant church apart. He offers a process for dealing with them. The method he offers may not necessarily be the only way. The important thing is not to ignore our disagreements or conflicts but to take them seriously and take action to resolve them
The process he suggests to deal with those who are in dispute involves being open to one another and listening to each other with respect. In so doing we affirm that no one person is more important than another but should be treated with dignity as a human-being.
Matthew concludes this passage by stating : “where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”(Matt.18:20)
The church has often taken this to mean that even when the fellowship is reduced to small numbers, even to just one or two, even there Christ is present. Without in anyway denying that, there’s a far deeper and richer meaning. It is this: wherever people are gathered together in a spirit of openness and respect, wherever people are prepared to listen to one another and not least with those with whom they disagree, there, and particularly there, Christ’s eternal Spirit is present.
Revd Michael Diffey