September 10, 2023

Jed Tate

Edie gave me this bracelet the other day. She got it at a birthday party, but she decided to share it with me so I’m wearing it this morning. It’s one of those bracelets with words on them; sometimes they have phrases that you believe in or maybe they have words of encouragement. I think this one is meant to be a reminder. It says, “keep calm.” I guess I need that reminder sometimes. Probably most of us do.

It kind of reminds me of those bracelets people used to wear back in the 90s. Maybe some people still do. They looked like this except they just had those letters “WWJD.” If you’re too young to remember them, those letters stood for “what would Jesus do,” and I guess those bracelets were supposed to be a reminder too. Like anytime you were facing a difficult situation or a hard decision, you’d look at the bracelet, and you’d ask yourself how Jesus might handle it, and then I guess you’d try to do the same thing. I don’t know how many people actually did that, but the bracelets sold really well, and eventually you saw those letters on bumper stickers and tshirts and all kinds of things.

Well, the history of that question – what would Jesus do? – is actually really interesting, and it goes all the way back to the 1890s and a guy named Charles Sheldon. Sheldon was a Congregationalist minister who wrote a book called In His Steps, which is where that phrase comes from. He believed that Christians should imitate Jesus in the way we live, and our faith should shape not just how we feel and what we believe, but the actions we take in life too. And that belief shaped his theology and his ministry.

He thought any time we face a moral dilemma, any time we’re wrestling with the big problems of the world, that’s the question we should ask. What would Jesus do in this situation? What would Jesus want me to do? And that belief – that emphasis on that question – led Sheldon to a passion for equality. He was one of the earliest Protestant preachers to welcome black people into his predominantly white church. He supported equal rights for women, both in the workplace and in politics. He even became a vegetarian. Pretty radical stuff for the 19th century.

And why did he do all of this? Because he believed that Christians should imitate Christ, that we should live according to what he taught us, and we should follow the example that he set. It’s a very incarnational idea – Jesus entered into humanity to live with us, and when he did that, he taught us how to live. So Sheldon said this is how we should shape our own lives; we should follow Jesus in very practical, lived-out ways.

Listen to what he wrote, “Our motto will be, ‘What would Jesus do?’ Our aim will be to act just as He would if He was in our places, regardless of immediate results. In other words, we propose to follow Jesus’ steps as closely and as literally as we believe He taught His disciples to do.”


Well,  Jesus gives his disciples some very specific instructions in our Gospel text today, and they’re all about how Jesus wants his people in his church to live together. Because it turns out that Jesus knew something most of us have to figure out the hard way: it’s actually really hard to live together. 

And you can imagine – many of the people in the early church came from different places and backgrounds and beliefs; some were Jews and some were Gentiles – so, of course they’re going to disagree on some things. They may even have a hard time getting along. That’s just life, isn’t it? And so as this community of people following in the way of Jesus is coming together, Jesus wants to teach them how to do that in a healthy way. This is how you will live together as the church.

Now, when Jesus uses the word church here – ecclesia – it’s actually one of the very few times the word comes up in the Gospels. And when he says it, Jesus uses the word in a familial way. This is kinship language.  In fact when the text says “member of the church” the actual literal translation is “brother.” So Jesus is equating members of the church with siblings, our brothers and our sisters.

The church is like your family, and like in any family, there’s going to be conflict. Family life is hard. Christian community is hard. I imagine there are times when many of us would prefer to be alone, and yet we’re called to life together, not apart. But in life together, there’s going to be conflict, and if we don’t know how to handle that conflict, it can create wedges between us. In fact, most people who leave the church altogether don’t do it because they stop loving Jesus, it’s because they’ve been hurt somehow by other people. Will Willimon says “we love Jesus; we just don’t always like His best friends.”

Jesus knows this is going to happen. Any time people try to live together, there’s going to be disagreement and conflict; there is no community of people without it. That’s just how life together goes. But it’s how you handle that conflict that matters – because a healthy community needs healthy relationships and healthy relationships need healthy responses to conflict. So Jesus lays out some very pragmatic practices for resolving conflict.

He says, if someone sins against you, go and talk to them about it. Don’t hold it in. Don’t wait until it becomes a big wedge between you. Communicate with each other. And Jesus says, if they listen, then you have regained a brother. You have regained your sister.  That’s how significant this is – when you communicate with each other and listen to each other, it’s like regaining a family member.

Jesus says, if that doesn’t work, then get help. Talk it over with each other, but with a couple of impartial witnesses who can mediate and facilitate healthy dialog, people who can help you work through it. Sometimes the problem is big enough that you need help.

And if that still doesn’t work then there may be a larger problem. You see, the church was welcoming people into the community who were vulnerable, people who were rejected by others, people who were marginalized. And it was important to make sure that kind of marginalization didn’t happen within the church. So if there was conflict going on that was more than just disagreement, and was actually something more like entire groups of people not getting along, then it was time to alert the whole church about it. It was time to involve the whole community.

Then Jesus says if that still doesn’t work, well, treat them like Gentiles and tax collectors. Treat them like outsiders, like people who have left the community and are no longer connected to the church at all.

Now where we’re headed with all of this, what Jesus is teaching his disciples, and what Jesus is showing us, is the practice of reconciliation. The thing is – when we’re dealing with conflict, we are often tempted to want to punish and exclude and kick people out. Or maybe even to just walk away ourselves. But Jesus wants to show us another way that is focused on the healing of relationships and the preservation of community through open and healthy dialog. That’s what reconciliation means.

And Jesus calls on his followers – and that includes us – to be reconcilers, to be healers of relationships.In fact he says, as long as we keep coming back to the table, gathering together and staying there until we work out our conflicts, he’ll be there with us. “For where two or three are gathered in my name,” Jesus says, “I am there among them.”

Now this is good news, but it’s also challenging news too, isn’t it? Whenever we come together as Jesus’s people to sort out our differences, Jesus is there at the table with us. God is present with us when we do the work of reconciliation, and this is important because it’s a reminder that while we won’t do that work perfectly, and we may not get it right all the time, God is with us.

But it’s also challenging too because it’s a reminder that as we sit together in our disagreements, Jesus is present! How we talk to each other, how we come together, how we relate with each other – all of that matters to Jesus. And so we ask ourselves in the midst of every conflict, what would Jesus do here? What does Jesus want me to do? And we’re reminded that Jesus’s way is to reconcile, and as followers of Jesus, our calling is to reconciliation too.

But then what happens when nothing seems to work? What about those people Jesus says to treat like Gentiles and tax collectors, like outsiders who aren’t even connected to the community anymore? Again, we ask the question, what does Jesus do? How does Jesus treat gentiles and tax collectors? 

You see this entire teaching about reconciliation follows Jesus’s parable of the lost sheep – that story when Jesus says “if a shepherd has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray?” How does Jesus treat people who have become disconnected from the community? How does Jesus treat people who have become like outsiders because somehow they got lost?

Jesus pursues them. Over and over. Jesus pursues them, and that’s good news because it means he pursues us too. Over and over again because Jesus saves us and reconciles our relationship with him. And, therefore, as a people following and imitating Christ, we are called to be reconcilers too, to be healers of relationships.

Remember what Paul says in 2 Corinthians:

18 All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: 19 that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation.

That’s our ministry. That’s our work, the work of healing relationships.


In a book called Reconciling All Things: A Christian Vision for Justice, Peace and Healing, the authors tell this story:

In 2006 we organized a gathering in Uganda of forty African Christian leaders pursuing peace in Uganda and the surrounding countries of Rwanda, southern Sudan, eastern Congo and Burundi. One of our biggest surprises was learning of the incredible courage it took for those leaders to gather. On our final evening together, Congolese United Methodist Bishop Ntambo Nkulu Ntanda spoke of the wars between the countries of the Christians gathered. He told how the old stories about Uganda’s former dictator Idi Amin haunted him, how Uganda’s recent war with the Congo had taxed him, how he’d never come to Uganda before and was terrified when he arrived at the airport. But the gathering changed that. “Here Emmanuel, a Ugandan, embraced me when I walked in,” Ntanda said. “I had never worshiped with someone from Sudan, and here there is a Sudanese. Here there have been Anglicans, Methodists, Baptists, Catholics and Pentecostals, all worshiping.” With a laugh he declared he was extending his stay in Uganda for two days. “If reconciliation happens, they will say it started here. I am going back to the Congo with a new story to tell about Uganda.” Ntanda’s story points to our vocation as Christ’s ambassadors of reconciliation.

In the midst of war and conflict, here are these ambassadors of reconciliation, these peacemakers. And what’s amazing is that that’s our calling too. Now you and I may not be ending wars or solving the problems of the world, but we do have that calling in all of our relationships to seek healing. To participate in God’s work of reconciling and restoring relations. 

It’s hard work, but it’s our calling. To pursue each other in love just like Jesus pursued us. 

And so we bear this question with us – in all of our relationships and during all of those times when living together might be hard because life together just is hard sometimes – what would Jesus do right here, right now? Because he tells us that he is with us. And that, in his grace, he keeps coming after us and pursuing us in love. So how is Jesus calling each of us to share that grace with others? How is he calling each of us into the work of being reconcilers?