May I speak in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, Amen.
Our gospel reading for this morning is a particularly difficult one
It may be regarded as a particularly uncomfortable one to preach on. Particularly in modern society where conflict issues tend to be either a bit of a taboo subject or rather treated behind closed doors.
In fact, my first reaction when I saw what the gospel reading for today was, was to hastily look to the Romans reading which of course is a beautiful sermon in itself and would be a lot easier to address.
But that is perhaps why it’s a good reason sometimes to try and deal with difficult passages head on.
Conflict is unfortunately a natural part, one might say, even an inevitable part of human existence. Wherever there is difference in any form, there is bound to be occasion where difference leads to conflict.
All human beings are made differently and we all have different personalities, different experiences, different insights, and even if we might share the same belief, we will still have different perspectives on that belief.
We know only too well that the Church is an imperfect body of imperfect human beings, with all our incumbent weaknesses, who sadly do face situations at times of conflict
Our gospel passage is partly rendered more difficult by the fact that we live in a western post so-called, ‘enlightenment’ culture. In this culture, the Church is a voluntary organisation of autonomous individuals. In our society, we value independence, self-reliance, individual authority, and in which personal choice is prioritised. It is very difficult to manage a community like that
But the passage makes a lot more sense when we remove the accoutrements of modern culture and place ourselves in a Middle Eastern culture which has similarities to African and Asian cultures both prior to and since what we call, perhaps a little bit arrogantly, ‘enlightenment’, because these were of course profoundly developed civilisations which valued communal identity, family and community far above personal identities. And the passage makes a lot more sense in the light of Paul’s understanding of the church as a body, where one part of a body cannot say to another part of a body: I have no need of you’ (1 Cor 12: 12-26).
For Paul, the Church is a place, not of individuals, but of mutual interdependence, where each member is incomplete without the other; where the suffering of one is the suffering of all, and where the joy of one, leads to the joy of all.
This also means of course that conflict between members also affects and infects not just the individuals involved but in fact affects the entire community. And we know this is true, especially when conflict is deep and toxic. And so, where people are bound together as the body of Christ, disunity between a few becomes a disunity amongst all.
Again, we know this to be true… how sometimes a simple disagreement can divide a whole community.
Many years ago when I was a young Curate 30 years ago. In a parish in Surrey, I lived in a small very tight Close where we all knew each other My next door neighbours ware a couple in, probably their early 70’s and for a period of months they were going through a break up and every single night we heard, night after night, the most obscene shouts and insults and bangs and fighting between this couple who had been married for 40 years. And it deeply upset the whole Close. There is a sense in which they would have regarded that as a personal matter but it fact it affected everyone on in that community: that close, even though it was ‘nothing to do with us.
But note Jesus’ teaching does not say there should be no conflict. Conflict is understood as a fact of life. But rather it is how we as Christians deal with conflict that should be the distinguishing feature from the rest of the world.
The world might yell, shout, slander, curse, even hate… and yes, as human beings, we may all be guilty of that at times.
But as followers of Christ we are called to another path. What distinguishes us as Christians is not whether we fight or disagree, but how we seek to resolve these issues.
I think my most powerful experience of this was in Syria a few years ago when I was in Homs at the height of the battles and attended a reconciliation meeting, organised by faith leaders, just a few hundred metres from the frontlines.
We were a room full of people who had fought on opposite sides in a bloody war and who held deeply opposing opinions, and there was a lot of shouting and disagreement – but the people were also talking and listening. And when we finished our meeting with prayer which I was asked to lead. And as we stood together in silence, the bombs and shells and gunfire started again just a few blocks away . I was moved to tears and remember thinking at that moment however difficult a conflict is…this has to be the way – round a table, rather than killing and in bombs and bullets.
Jesus begins by instructing his followers to attempt to reconcile with the offerring – offending party one to one. In western cultures, we tend to value technical honesty above everything else, but in eastern cultures, the higher value is put on the other person’s dignity – you must not offend the other’s dignity. For us, truth is important. For them, the other’s honour is important. There is an echo of this in our own experience – imagine how you feel when you are offended and how that really grumps us up.
Of course it is in discovering where both can meet – where truth meets preserving the honour and dignity of the other – that reconciliation can begin.
For Jesus, it is only when that process has been exhausted that the rest of the community is brought into the equation. But once again, here we must be careful not to project modern western cultural interpretation into the advice.
This is not about a group of people offering their individual judgements and taking a side, rather it is about first and foremost seeking healing – both for the individual or individuals facing the conflict, and for the community that is affected by the conflict.
If the conflict is unresolvable, then the advice is to disconnect… to release the person from the community. This both maintains their dignity and preserves the stability of the community.
And note Jesus’ does not recommend any form of violence or insult or offence.. simply separation. As a member of a Christian community, we bind ourselves to one another with Christ as our head. And that includes all Christians. Our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ transcend nationality, language, ethnicity, status and gender.
Therefore when any part of that Christian body, such as the suffering Christian body in the Middle East or in Nigeria, which I’m now engaged in quite a bit, then we, to a degree, suffer with them.
But as Son of God, our unity in Christ is also a unity with all humanity. whether that be our neighbour in our town, or in the refugee camps, or on the other side of the world. Which is why we have a responsibility to have a voice for justice, for peace, for the welfare of all.
The overcoming of differences distinguishes us from others. As a writer put it, we are not free from each other. We are free in each other. In other words, we are most free when we bring in the collective wisdom and discernment of the whole diverse body of Christ.
Therefore, reconciliation needs to be at the heart of the Christian community’s mission, both where the local Christian community is placed, and in the wider world. And reconciliation requires engagement, compassion, listening and embrace.
There can be no greater indication of the mutual interdependence and connectedness of humanity today than the pandemic that has spread globally in the last few months and the way it has affected every life on the planet.
The body of Christ prefigures that connectivity that connectedness and our ministry is to offer the model for healing, forgiveness and reconciliation so needed in a groaning and hurting creation and world however difficult that task may be. And the task begins with each one of us.