Crescent Hill Presbyterian Church
July 22, 2018
The Gift of Conflict
Ephesians 2: 11-22
If Christ is our peace, why isn’t the church of which Christ is the head not a more peaceful place? That is the question I’d like to explore this morning.
Mahatma Gandhi, famously or infamously said “If it weren’t for the Christians, I might be one!” The backstory behind this quote is that, though Gandhi was a practicing Hindu, he had some fascination with Christianity. Namely he was impressed by what little he knew of Jesus, and wanted to know more about this one called “Messiah” or anointed. So one Sunday Gandhi decided to attend one of the Christian churches in Calcutta and was stopped at the door by ushers who told him this particular church was for high caste Indians and whites. Gandhi was neither. From there he turned his back on the potential he saw in Jesus, preferring to look for spiritual sustenance elsewhere. That Calcutta church certainly failed to convey the peace that is Christ’s to Gandhi!
If you have spent any time around this church, or another church, before this morning, it is likely you can relate to the sentiment Gandhi expresses in this quote of his. Recent news reporting, for example, has spent a lot of time trying to understand how conservative Christians can justify throwing their support behind a morally challenged chief executive. The question is asked, How can self identified Christians cheer on those who display the 10 commandments in public places in open challenge to the establishment of religion clause in the U.S. Constitution, and then champion a political “savior” who shows 0 commitment to following them himself?” Each time that question is asked, and not convincingly answered, not just conservative Christians experience a blow to their reputation among the nones; that large group of people in the United States who claim no faith at all. And we are left with lingering questions, if not about our faith in God, at least about our faith in Church.
The lack of peace within the church is made worse for those in the church because the persistence of divisive walls and division doesn’t just happen between more liberal Christians and those who don’t think like us politically, does it? It also happens inside our very walls. Since I have been among you, I have had more than one person say to me that they ventured into involvement in the governance of CHPC (or some other church which they pastored) at one time, but came away from their experience determined to leave that “pleasure” to others. What is that about? Do people pull back from us because we are especially miserable failures at being the peace of Christ all humanity longs to see in the world? Or could it be that we pull back because we misunderstand what having Christ as our peace means? Or, better said, that we misunderstand the context in which we are told in Ephesians that Christ is our peace? That is, we misunderstand God’s intention for the Church?
Eugene Peterson, in his book Practice Resurrection, which is basically a commentary on the book of Ephesians, tries to make that case. Here is his argument in a nutshell. That, as individualistic Americans we look to the church to make us feel good, chase away our anxiety and/or emptiness, care for us when we are ill, show us a miracle, provide us with family since our own lives far away. We do not, however, look to the church to change us by giving us a community, which like all human communities, is not always easy to live in. This imperfect community is, far from being a distortion of what God intended, in Peterson’s view, is exactly what God intended for us all along. How could this be? Because, as Nadia Bolz Weber says, church is not meant to be perfect. Church is meant to be practice. What kind of practice? Practice growing up in Christ, says Peterson. Practice becoming God’s. Not just in name. In Spirit and in truth. Not just in what we say, in other words, but also in what we do.
But we can’t do that without training. And the conflict we experience in church, which is cut of the same cloth as the conflict we inevitably experience in the world, human sin, is the opportunity God gives us to grow toward Jesus. To grow toward Jesus by learning, in community that holds us accountable for the truth that Jesus is our peace, how to disagree without destroying relationships, without sacrificing unity, without sacrificing our identity as the Lord’s.
Why do we have to learn this in church? Because it is only in the context of the deliberate embracing of the Word, this Word we read this morning, that conflict can be understood and lived through as a gift. The presence of the Word living and active in us and among us IN SPITE of our sin provides us the conditions into which we learn to grow up into Christ. We learn to disagree, to mistrust, to even dislike, within the context of covenant, which of course is the context of forgiveness and forever. And the good news is that even when we cannot stick with it, if we decide to take our toys and go home for good, Christ does not abandon the Church. Not ever.
Imagine you were training to ride in the Tour de France, or to run the Olympic marathon. Would you feel confident in your chances before having ridden our run your first hill? Understanding church as a training ground may save us from the unrealistic expectations of ourselves and others which tempt us to give up on the process of growing into Christ the only way that is possible, in the context of beloved community.
Beloved community that, at its best, can see the rigors of conflict as part of its growth toward Christ, rather than as one more example of human failure. Consider. I’ve got two girls. And the older they get the more they fight. I am trying to learn to intervene as little as possible. When the emotional blows become physical, I do reach my limit. But I wait that long not because I enjoy the way they spend so much time blaming each other for starting the fight, or raise their voices to drown the other’s protests out. I wait that long in the hope that the challenge of conflict will make them more adept at working through it in a productive way in the future. What do you think? Do you think this is why God may have put us in churches that are full of as much as much conflict as the world is? To teach us in community, whose fruits of love and caring and the forgiveness they require are perhaps the only things that could make us stick to the discipline of this training, how to be more fully God’s? If I, as a mere human parent, can learn to see my girls’ spats not as the ruin of a perfectly peaceful day for mommy, but instead as the training ground for adults that know how to navigate the inevitable human conflict they will experience in a productive way, might it be that God gave us an imperfect church for the same reason? To grow us ever more, through our struggles to be Christ’s in disunion with one another, into people who can reflect the peace of Christ into the wider world?
This, again, is not an easy teaching. That church is the final entry in the litany of God’s actions that establishes the conditions in which we grow up in Christ. As Peterson says that with Ephesians 2, “we begin one of the most difficult sections of the letter. This is because those who are willing to stick with difficult training regiments are few and far between. The only way to hang in there is to learn to recognize the beauty of who shows her face along the way, the Spirit of living Christ, along the. And to see the conflict we experience with others not as something to be avoided, but as something to be mindfully lived through not because we like it, but because it offers us one more opportunity to become more spiritually mature. How would this change those of us who have found our niche here at CHPC? To view conflict not as a failure of our community but as a gift we are that allows us to become more completely God’s as we navigate it?
Peterson says, “I have spent the past 50 years in a church with people, a lot of whom seem to have no idea what is going on.” In other words, they have no idea that the church is the dwelling place of God, in which the Trinity manifests itself in and through the brokenness, the conflict. Which of course is all that is seen if we do not learn how to spot the activity of the Spirit through that brokenness. But that’s how the peace of Christ always comes. Not instead of the brokenness of the world, but in spite of it. It is easy to look at churches and see chaos, hostility, injury, brokenness, fights, sleaze, grandstanding, and the cause of religious wars. So many of those who remain stuck there find a place in the bleachers with a few other like-minded people and make do with what they find there, without really engaging the full experience of church.
But Paul wants us to first understand and then participate in the church as it is because it is still where the living Christ can be found! The Christ who is being lived into, in various degrees by all who frequent it. Yes, Jesus is our peace in the church. Jesus is making peace as we are told in (vs 15) proclaiming peace, as we are told in vs 17, and, in fact, already is our peace vs 14. And it remains true that we are brought near by Jesus to this peace. But peace cannot be achieved in impersonal ways. It cannot be achieved by watching other participate in the training sessions. The peace of Christ is not a strategy, a program or a political process. It is a way of life, molded in church, that requires participation in the ways of peace; the participation of Jesus who is our peace, and the participation by us in Jesus.
May we at Crescent Hill, with God’s help, learn to experience the conflict we live through in our little part of the body of Christ that way, as a gift from the God who never ceases shaping and molding us, and as such uses difficulties, disagreements and even disobedience to Christ’s commands, if we will cooperate with God’s purpose, only to make us that much more fully hers.
Crescent Hill Presbyterian Church
July 22, 2018