Seven Practices for Mission: Part Two - Reconciliation

Practising His Presence in Reconciliation 

This is Part Two of a series of posts using David Fitch’s little book Seven Practices for the Church on Mission (IVF, 2018) as a launching pad for some thoughts on discipleship and mission. Adapted from his 2016 book Faithful Presence: Seven Disciplines, this pocket version provoked questions and responses I felt worth sharing. This precis of the larger book is about practices Jesus gave his disciples for opening themselves to his presence promised in Matthew 28: 20 when Jesus said “Lo I am with you, always”.

“Presence is the way God works,”  says Fitch, a theological teacher and member of the pastoral team at a Chicago church. In response God’s people are called to “be present to his presence”, by which Fitch means to discern it and cooperate with it, living out the restored relationships of the Kingdom. God is faithfully present in our lives, and our response is to be faithfully present to him in the world. Fitch’s book is aimed at motivating Christians to recognise and participate in Jesus’ presence in the world.

The first post on the seven missional practices was focused on the Lord's Table as a way of encountering God's Presence. Chapter Two looks at reconciliation, which lies at the core of what God has done and is doing in the world.  This ministry, says Paul in 2 Corinthians 5: 20,  is so central to the gospel that the apostle calls us “ambassadors of reconciliation.” And like the first practice of Lord's Table, this is something Jesus told his followers, then and now, to practise. Not just as a doctrine, or a forensic status, but as an interpersonal practice grounded in grace. In that practice, he says in Matt 18: 12 NRSV,  He is both present (I am there) and recognised as Lord (in my name). 

This teaching in Matthew 18: 15 -22 is a challenging passage, and others have written usefully about it. Here I will just offer some thoughts from my own decades of pastoral leadership where the need for practical reconciliation has arisen in many ways. And when it has, maybe as identifiable “sin”, or may be just as tension between us as we live out our faith in community, I believe Jesus is calling us to conversation – something I have written about elsewhere. Not gossip, not speculation, and certainly not a hasty email, though the carefully-worded letter can be helpful. Here Jesus says, when someone has offended you, point it out privately. Listen and be listened to. If we are in unresolved turmoil, the starting point is to talk to one another, to express our grievance and seek peace. Then if agreement is not reached, Jesus’ advice is to bring one or two more people into the conversation as witnesses. He promises his presence in this space. If we are still stuck, it might be time to talk to the wider leadership or even the whole congregation. Here, says Fitch, we will listen to the gifted ones, re-hear the gospel, and tend to each other and to Christ‘s presence. As I mentioned in the first post, I find the word “tend” ill-fitting here, and would restate that as “attend” to one another and to Christ’s presence. 

Fitch says that in practices of reconciliation, Christ’s presence is “unleashed” in healing, restoration and embodiment of the Kingdom. That is the goal, not vindication or retaliation. It is not about winning or losing; in fact, he says, we give up our interest in winning, for the sake of something much deeper and richer – the reordering of our world in keeping with the Kingdom rule of God. Mutual submission opens up space for the Spirit to work in shaping our character and conforming us to his likeness. 

A bit of history: a church in which I was serving tried to adopt a step-by-step protocol based on Matthew 18, and some of the leaders were shocked when two of us rejected it as unsafe.  Both had past experiences of one-on-one meetings aimed at achieving reconciliation with church members who were aggrieved. Both of us had come away feeling bullied and bruised; on one occasion I remember saying to my family that ‘I felt crucified.’  My colleague and I felt that an impartial witness, or a ‘whanau support’ person for each participant, would have pre-empted that. It so happens that both of us were women, but I know of an older man feeling coerced by a church leader into dropping a legal action against another member. He felt that was his only option, but when the elder bullied him with the Bible he backed off, and the injustice was never resolved.  So in applying this Biblical mandate of working towards reconciliation, we need to attend to matters of safety and justice, and perhaps move directly to the second step of having  a witness present.  

Last post I introduced the three circles of influence inherent in Fitch’s paradigm:
1. In the intimate circle of believers. Conflict is inherent to church life and reconciliation often needs to be sought.  Pastors are sometimes asked to mediate and I have twice undertaken mediation training as part of my Ministry Development Plan, and it has proved of great value. But when a minister is expected to make a judgment call about who is right, we are dangerous ground,  and painful schisms may ensue. Better to invite each person to tell their story to the other, and use active listening and other counselling skills to help the people really hear each other. One conflict I was able to see through to reconciliation involved two adult youth leaders with very different skills and perceptions as to what was needed in their organisation. After hours of talking, listening and clarifying - and some tears – they worked out that both the administrative/logistical skills of one and the caring pastoral approach of the other were needed to build resilience in the young people they led. 

Not all stories end well. There are occasions when congregational discipline is needed and there is a place for decisive action, as in 1 Cor 5: 12-13. “It certainly is your responsibility to judge those inside the church who are sinning…you must remove the evil person from among you.” But we do so in deep trust, as Paul writes in 5: 4 “I will be present with you in spirit, and so will the power of our Lord Jesus.” 

In a way, Fitch reminds us, conflict should be welcomed. It’s a sign of the Kingdom when new sins or tensions  are being uncovered, an indication that we are engaging new territory we haven’t had to struggle with before. When we submit to one another, trusting the Spirit to speak, illumine, and guide, Jesus as Lord is present, and we embody his rule. This is not just human resource management, something eternal is happening here. In reconciliation his presence is sacramentally made real in the same way as it is around the table. 

2. In the dotted circle where believers engage with curious onlookers. Often on Friday night when the Fitch family host such a meal, there are experiences of tension and conflict needing to be handled with grace. Listening and submission are modelled in non-anxious ways and lives are transformed: “over the months we saw antagonisms unwind, resentments disappear, binding oppressions be lifted and lives be healed." Neighbours become curious as they see how we deal with conflict, how we engage with cultural  and racial prejudices, how our marriages grow through rocky times and how stark personal differences do not separate us. (See Fitch P 34)

3. In the half circle where we are not in charge, opportunities arise for Christians to offer reconciliation as a gift of Christ to the world. As I write, my country of New Zealand is reeling from the shock and grief of a Christchurch mosque shooting where 50 people died and many others were injured or bereaved. In this atrocity we have seen amazing acts of compassion, and outpourings of love, gifts of money, food, flowers, vehicles and expertise, from people of every faith and none.  We have been reminded that God is at work in the world he loves and it is not only Christians who are peacemakers blessed by God. There are people of peace to be found in every community: see Luke 10: 5 - 6. Writing of #BlackLivesMatter, Fitch says "at times reconciliation can only begin with the confession that something very wrong was done, and that I have been a part of it."

In the NZ Herald this week, senior journalist Simon Wilson wrote: 
We are all of us. 
We are the people who cannot live in a society like this. 
We are the people who do not know how to change it so we can live in it. 
We are the people who do not know how to be safe. 
We are the people who must now find out.
We are the best of us and we are the worst of us.
We are citizens of the world. 
We are all of us. 

To consider:
How can you see this practice being employed in your own community?