Last week we celebrated Mother’s Day and a few birthdays at our daughter’s place in Winnipeg. They have a ping pong table and our 3 year old grandson asked me to play “pong pong” with him. He would stand at one end of the table with his paddle and his head just sticking up above the end of the table (remember he is three). I hit the ball at him and he tried to hit it back or he tried to hit the ball to me. Of course balls were flying everywhere, but we were having a good time. At one time, I threw the ball at him and he just stood there and didn’t move and I hit him right above the eye. He started crying and I felt awful. For a little while he didn’t want anything to do with me, but it wasn’t very long before we were playing “pong pong” again.
As adults we are not always as good at being reconciled. In a church that is 135 years old, as this one is this year, there is a long history and in that history there are, not surprisingly, incidents in which people have hurt one another. In the 9 years that I have been here, I have heard some of the stories of hurts. I have heard suspicions expressed and jealousy hinted at. I have sensed anger just under the surface and heard about injustices which were not resolved. I have heard about conflicts that seem to have been resolved, but quickly are mentioned again when new stresses appear. I have also become aware of significant theological differences among people in our midst.
The stuff that I have heard is told to me confidentially and it will stay confidential, but it seems that there are just so many of these mentioned that we need to talk about how we handle the differences which exist among us. Over the next two weeks, I would like to talk about differences and about conflict. Scripture has much to say about these things and I will reflect on some of those texts. In February the ministerial had a seminar on conflict resolution and we learned some very helpful things. This week, I would like to think about how the church can even continue to function with all of these conflicts in the background. I would also like to talk about some of the things the Bible has to say about our attitudes to one another when we have differences. Next week, I would like to talk about conflict and share with you a model of handling conflict which will hopefully help us get along even better than we do.
One thing I have sometimes thought of is that when you think of all the potential for conflict, one might wonder how our church can even function. Does it not require unity to keep on working together?
If you put a lion and a lamb in the same cage, you will soon have unity. The lamb will become one with the lion, but will cease to exist. Unity cannot be created by power. I have a bird feeder and one day last winter there were three different birds all sitting on the feeder at the same time. It was kind of nice to see the sparrow, nuthatch and chickadee all sharing the space. There was a kind of unity in that. The unity was created by the food and when the food was gone, those three birds had nothing to do with each other. A common advantage creates unity for a while, but not in the long term.
It is truly amazing in spite of all the differences we have among us and all the conflicts which have existed over the years, that we are still able to work together, to worship together and to get along. This unity does not exist because of common advantage or because of being forced to be one. It exists because the Spirit of God creates unity in the church.
In Ephesians 4:3 we are told, “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.” In a moment I want to talk about what it means to “make every effort to keep the unity,” but before we do that we need to recognize that it is the “unity of the Spirit.” I have to admit that this is something that I can’t explain. It is something which I believe because the Bible says so and it is something I believe because I have seen it happen. I am not naïve enough to think that every church in every situation will end up well and reconciled. I know that churches split. I know that Christians are sometimes unable to get along. But in spite of those realities, there is an amazing thing that happens in a church that cannot be explained by natural, human means. The fact that people from every socio-economic, educational, cultural background can love and care for each other and work together and serve together cannot be explained by anything other than that it is a work of God by His Spirit.
There is a great mystery in the kingdom of God which is that the Holy Spirit creates unity.
One of the illustrations I have sometimes heard used in regards to unity is the picture of a wheel which has spokes, like a bicycle wheel. What one observes is that the closer one comes to the center, the closer the spokes are to each other. This helps us understand another reality about unity in the body of Christ and that is that the thing which ties us together is stronger than the differences which might separate us.
That center is described in Ephesians 4:4-6 where we read, “There is one body and one Spirit— just as you were called to one hope when you were called— 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism; 6 one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.”
There is a central reality and that is that we belong to the same Father. Our “one God and Father of all” cares for each of us and leads us. We can always go to Him as a reference in any concern we have. Since we are going to the same source, it is possible for us to develop the same perspective, to grow in having the same understanding and so to live in unity. Since there is “one Spirit” we have the same central power directing our lives and so are able to live in unity.
Of course we know that we don’t always get it right away, but if we are indwelt by the same Spirit, we will eventually all be drawn to the same central understanding. Perhaps one way of looking at it is to think of a magnet. If you pass a magnet over iron filings, they will always be attracted to the magnet. Sometimes they are too far away from the magnet to be attracted right away and sometimes the force of friction or some other force will be stronger than the force of the magnet, but there is a central attraction in a magnet that will eventually draw the iron filing to it. So it is with the indwelling Spirit. His presence in us will always draw us to the same center and that is what makes unity possible.
Of course this unifying power assumes that we are indeed centered on Christ. In Romans 15:5 we read, “May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you a spirit of unity among yourselves as you follow Christ Jesus.” Here we see once again that unity is a gift of God. Paul prays for this gift of God for the church in Rome, but we see that it is conditional. If we choose to be centered on the one who is our center, then God will give that unity. If we put our attention on Jesus Christ and seek to follow Him, then He will lead us to Himself and will lead us to unity.
There is a story of conflict and unity in the Bible, which helps us see how God draws His children towards unity. In their first missionary journey, Paul and Barnabas had taken Mark with them. When they were planning to go back and encourage the churches which had been established on the first journey, Barnabas wanted to take Mark along, but Paul didn’t agree because Mark had abandoned them on the first journey. We read in Acts 15:39, 40, “They had such a sharp disagreement that they parted company. Barnabas took Mark and sailed for Cyprus, but Paul chose Silas and left, commended by the brothers to the grace of the Lord.” If that was the end of the story, we would have to say that this ended badly and there was a “sharp disagreement” which caused a parting of the ways. But, God leads His people towards unity and in later times we see that Paul had a completely different view of Mark. In Colossians 4:10 he says, “My fellow prisoner Aristarchus sends you his greetings, as does Mark, the cousin of Barnabas. (You have received instructions about him; if he comes to you, welcome him.)” Then in II Timothy 4:11 we read, “Get Mark and bring him with you, because he is helpful to me in my ministry.” This is the mystery of God creating unity.
There is another aspect of the way in which God brings unity in the church which encourages me and may help us wrap our head around this mystery. In II Corinthians 4:7 we read, “But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.”
In October 2007 a 6.04 carat diamond was sold for $7.98 million US. It is hard to imagine something which is relatively small being worth that much. We could hold it in our hands easily. In fact it is probably the only way we could hold something worth that much money in one hand. Yet, the gospel message which God has given us to proclaim to the world, the wonderful word that Jesus died on the cross and is able to forgive our sins and give us eternal life is much more precious than this diamond. This is the greatest treasure in our world and each of us who knows Christ holds that treasure, not in our hands, but in our hearts.
When precious diamonds are displayed, those trying to sell it will make a great effort to display it in such a way that it’s beauty is really shown. They clean it so that it shines and put it on a dark velvet cloth so it can be well seen. They shine lots of light on it so that it sparkles brightly.
God has done something totally opposite. He displays the gospel in “jars of clay.” When I was in seminary, the professor told us that an accurate translation would be “cracked pots.”
What was God thinking when he chose to display the precious gospel message in such broken vessels? The conflicts we have among us are one example of the way in which we are “jars of clay.” Once again we ask the question, “How can the precious treasure of the gospel demonstrate the grace and goodness of God when it is entrusted to such broken vessels?”
This church has been proclaiming the gospel in this corner of the world for 135 years. Have we been “jars of clay?” We certainly have been. Have we had conflicts? We certainly have. Do we all love each other with deep devotion? Not always. And yet, in spite of that reality over the last 135 years, how many people have come to Christ through this church? How many people have been discipled and become more like Jesus through Sunday School and youth and all the other ways we teach God’s Word? How many missionaries and pastors have been sent out from this church?
How does that happen? That is the mystery of what God does. If the precious gospel goes out successfully through the medium of cracked pots it happens only by the work and the grace of God. Therefore, as the verse says, since this can only be explained as a miracle of God, the glory goes to God. If the display of the gospel made it acceptable because the displaying vessel – His people- were so amazing, then the vessel would be glorified. But since it is not a glorious vessel, the glory must go to God and we recognize that God does something outside of the normal.
Thus, conflict will not defeat the purposes of God. Just as He gives unity, He also makes sure that the gospel is proclaimed and we need to give glory to God!
All this is not to say that we should just go on being “broken vessels.” Just because God creates unity and overcomes our brokenness, does not mean that we should not try to fix conflict.
There are so many passages in Scripture which command us to work at unity. I have already mentioned Ephesians 4:3, which says, “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit…” I Corinthians 1:10 commands, “I appeal to you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another so that there may be no divisions among you and that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought.”
Next week I want to talk about the fact that conflict is not a bad thing, in fact it can be very helpful in growth. But there is a difference between conflict and division. Division is a more serious break. It is that which allows conflict to escalate into a negative thing. How can we avoid division? How can we “keep the unity of the Spirit?” There are certain attitudes which we must avoid if we are to avoid division and there are certain actions which we must take in order to build unity.
When Cain saw that his sacrifice was not accepted, but Abel’s was, jealousy rose up in his heart. God warned him that he should not let sin master him, but he didn’t listen and his jealousy led him to kill his brother. When the brothers of Joseph saw the special coat he had been given by his father, they became jealous. Their jealousy aroused such anger within them that they plotted to kill him, but settled for selling him as a slave. When King Saul heard the celebration song, “Saul has killed his thousands and David his ten thousands” he became jealous of David and wanted to get rid of him. When the brother of the prodigal son heard the music and discovered that there was a party for his wayward brother he became jealous and did not want to join the celebration.
It is no wonder that it says in Proverbs 27:4, “Anger is cruel and fury overwhelming, but who can stand before jealousy?” Jealousy is insidious. When we are jealous we may believe and even say that nothing is wrong, but inside that is not the truth. It eats away at us and all of a sudden, it makes an appearance. I learned at a seminar I attended that anger is inversely proportional to intelligence. That means that the more angry we are, the more unreasonable we become. If that is true of anger and if, as Proverbs 27:4 says, “who can stand before jealousy” then jealousy is even more dangerous than anger.
That is why it is identified as a sin and something which we as followers of Jesus must avoid. Romans 13:13 instructs, “Let us behave decently, as in the daytime…not in dissension and jealousy.”
What is interesting about the stories of jealousy, which I just mentioned, is that it is indeed jealousy that is identified as the sin. We would want to know why Cain’s sacrifice was not accepted and we would want to know why Jacob gave Joseph a special coat when he knew that it could arouse jealousy. But the Bible does not answer these questions because inequality is not a sin, but jealousy is. If we allow it to fester in our hearts, we will make ourselves ripe for division. We need to admit and confess the sin of jealousy if we want to “keep the unity of the Spirit.”
In a recent conversation, my sister-in-law mentioned a book which they were taking in a Bible study. The book is titled, "The BAIT of SATAN" by John Bevere. The premise is - you can choose to NOT be offended. On the Chapters web site the description of the book says, “The Bait of Satan exposes one of the most deceptive snares Satan uses to get believers out of the will of God-offense. Most people who are ensnared by the bait of Satan don't even realize it. Don't be fooled! You will encounter offense, and it's up to you how it will affect your relationship with God. Your response will determine your future. If offense is handled correctly, you will become stronger rather than bitter.”
There is no getting away from the fact that even though we may try to live as lovingly as possible, we are still “clay vessels” and we will hurt each other by things we say or do to each other. Of course, it goes without saying that we need to try to love as much as possible, but we can also approach this from the other side. If we are hurt by what others do, that is a choice we make. Being hurt begins when we assume that people have done things deliberately in order to hurt us. It is very dangerous and a guaranteed way to escalate conflict if we choose to be hurt by what others do.
The reason that being hurt is not necessary is that God loves us. We will be hurt if our self esteem depends on someone else liking us. We will not be as easily hurt if we are certain of God’s love for us. And of this we can be certain. One of the German songs I really like is “Gott ist die Liebe,” which means, God is love. One line in that song, translated is, “God is love, He loves me too. When we know that we are loved by God, the hurts that others do to us are not as painful because they do not strike at the core of our self esteem and we have the freedom to refuse to be hurt. When we allow ourselves to be hurt, we set ourselves up for more conflict and possibly also for division.
Bitterness is another step by which we escalate division. When someone does something wrong or an injustice is done, it is easy and natural to become angry. Anger turned outward can become violence, but anger turned inward becomes bitterness. When we are bitter, we take our anger and put it in a box and wrap some protective tape around it and we bury it deep in our hearts.
Have you ever flown in a plane and put some of your personal toiletries in your checked luggage? From time to time you discover, when you land that the contents have leaked out because of the pressure changes. That is exactly what happens when we become bitter. We think anger is carefully and neatly locked away and taken care of, but when the pressure changes, it leaks out. Sometimes it doesn’t just leak out, it explodes and all the ugly content is spilled everywhere.
That is why the Scripture is so clear that we need to, as Ephesians 4:31 says, “Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice.”
The other danger of bitterness is that it may begin as a small discomfort, but if we allow it a place within us, it grows just like weeds. Some of you speak of certain garden weeds which if you ever allow one little one in the garden, it soon becomes a major problem. Hebrews 12:15 warns us, “See to it that no one misses the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble.”
Another great danger which multiplies strife is to assume and extrapolate. What I mean by that is what we do when we say things like – “That is just what he is like.” Or “This is not the first time he has done that.” By doing that we first of all assume that the other person has evil motives and then we paint them with that evil brush in everything they do. The Bible speaks against this in two Old Testament passages. Exodus 23:1 says, “Do not spread false reports.” Leviticus 19:16 says, “Do not go about spreading slander among your people.”
These are all things which we need to avoid, but there is one major thing which we need to exercise in the midst of conflict so that it does not become division and that is forgiveness. The Bible has so much to say about forgiveness that we really should not miss the importance of this message. Let me remind you of one such passage. Ephesians 4:32 says, “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.”
As we are reminded of the importance of forgiveness, let us recognize exactly what we mean by forgiveness. Forgiveness is not sweeping a wrong done under the rug. In order to forgive, it is not good enough to say “it is OK” when we have been seriously wronged.
In accepting that a wrong was done, forgiveness, however, does not demand punishment for that wrong, but rather chooses to bear the cost of the wrong. If we are wronged and choose to forgive, the right way to do this is to say, “I was wronged” and then to say, “but I choose to accept the price and do not demand payment.”
This is what Jesus did. He did not gloss over our sin, but he paid for our sin on the cross. Whenever we want to understand forgiveness, Jesus is the example to follow.
Many of you are dealing with a lot of straw left in your yard after the flood. If it is not cleaned up, it will have a negative impact on your yard for years to come. That is why you are working hard to clean up.
Conflict can leave a lot of garbage in our lives and if we do not remove the bitterness, hurt feelings, suspicion and if we do not exercise forgiveness, it will leave a negative impact on our relationships for years to come. Let us work with God who gives us unity and let us do all we can to keep the unity of the Spirit.