Coping with Difficult People

 This is the sermon I preached at St. Timothy Lutheran Church this past Sunday. The text is Matthew 18:15-20.

People are difficult, aren’t they? Relationships are troublesome, at times. It is often those we love the most who hurt us the most. We are most vulnerable with them, and then we get stomped on. Do I sound pessimistic? Sometimes our experiences make us this way. I could, like most of us, list a whole host of hurts and disagreements, but what does God have to say about it all?

In the e-ministry, I shared the story of how there was some division within a small group of friends, pastors at that! One of the ladies is very loving and concerned about everyone, but in her desire to help, can be pushy. I need to tell a story about a previous time we got together for dinner. It was when we were experiencing an abundance of smoke from Canada. This particular friend always wants to eat outside. Well, the air was so thick with smoke, that none of the rest of us wanted to. She was the last to get there, so we had already decided that if she brought it up, we would decline. Of course, she wanted to eat outside and the rest of us in unison said, “No!” It blew her away. We kindly explained that some of us have asthma. As she continued to speak of it, one of the other women said, “You can go out and eat there, but we aren’t going to.” 

She is just one of those friends that always has to suggest some kind of change to the plans that have been made. If everyone decides to meet at 5:30, she proposes 6. If we eat in one part of a restaurant, she recommends another part that looks better. Anyway, you get the idea. She is just simply contrary at times. However, she is very compassionate and caring at the same time! Like all the rest of us, she is simultaneously saint and sinner. 

What does this have to do with today’s gospel? Everything. God is very invested in the church, in our lives, in our relationships. The kingdom is all about relationships: relationship with God, relationship with each other, and relationship with our neighbors. This is borne out in Jesus’ words today. 

We don’t want to hurt anyone, so when we have a problem with someone, do we go to that person? No. We tell all our friends. I’m as guilty as anyone regarding this. Jesus said to go to the person and, between you two, work it out. That’s pretty straightforward, as are the other steps Jesus declares. But some things are hard to understand and are easily misinterpreted, so let’s look at them.

If one doesn’t change after following Jesus’ directions, he says to treat them as a “Gentile and a tax collector” (v. 17). Gentiles were outsiders, foreigners, non-Jews. Tax collectors were despised collaborators who were noted for cheating. This seems harsh…and yet, who does Jesus spend his time with? It is with outsiders and tax collectors. We are to continually reach out in love to those erring, just as Jesus did. 

What in the world is “binding” and “loosing?” Those of you raised and confirmed as Lutherans will remember “The Office of the Keys.” Luther described this as, “special authority which Christ has given to His Church on earth: to forgive the sins of the penitent sinners, but to retain the sins of the impenitent as long as they do not repent” (Luther’s Works). That’s one way of looking at it, but it tends to put up walls as to insiders and outsiders.

Another understanding is that “The community needs something bound in order for the key of loosing to work.  Sin must be dealt with.  The only binding that can actually hold a community together, then, is confession and absolution, which is a binding of the sin to the cross and the freeing of the new creation for life together” (Rob Myallis,

Verse 19 is a favorite verse of those who believe in the “prosperity gospel; …” if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven.” They think that these words are about praying for success--from healing to financial freedom. However, looking at the whole passage, it is clearly about church discipline.

[This is not] a magical formula for prayer… this verse is directly connected to v.16 above… Jesus is drawing on the ancient tradition of gathering two others to sustain one’s testimony. Jesus uses that tradition to speak about how those who are in the [church] exercise the role of welcoming/reconciling those who sin/stumble. It is not a magical formula for granting wishes. It is about asking for someone to be forgiven, bound, loosed, reconciled, or treated as an outsider. (D. Mark Davis,

The final verse—oh, how we love and identify with it! “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” Oh yes, especially with attendance being down, these words are so comforting. And they are true, but once again, that is not what Jesus meant in the context of this passage. The entire passage is about relationships in the church community. And so:

When two alienated Christians, with or without a mediator, come together to work toward a reconciliation despite all the anger and hurt that separate them, they are humbled and strengthened by the awareness that Christ is in their midst. It is for his sake that they search for a solution to their problem. (Myallis)


Sometimes we think that if only God’s people today behaved as they did in the early church. However, if we read the Book of Acts and the epistles, we’ll see that those churches had plenty of difficulties—from adultery to backbiting and cheating. As we later sing our Sending Song, “We are Called,” pay attention to the words. Let’s sing it like we mean it and believe it. Then, by the power of God’s Spirit, let’s do it. By the way, our little group of female pastors are all reconciled.  Amen.



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