Years ago, early in my ministry, I resigned from a pastorate position for two reasons. One, because of deep-seated conflict that existed in the church for decades and, two, because of my inability to know how to help the church work through that conflict. At the time of my departure I thought the congregation was entirely to be blamed for the conflict. But now, as I look back, I can admit that I played a role in the ongoing conflict. And my role had to do with the fact that I was deathly afraid of conflict—and because of that my fear dictated my behavior. I simply did not have the capacity as a leader to help the congregation move towards reconciliation.
There is no doubt about it. Even though conflict is a natural part of our relationships, often we are quite unskilled at knowing how to work through conflict.
Now certainly today I still struggle with conflict, but what has changed for me is seeing God’s redemption story through a different lens. This theological shift happened when I started to understand that the central meaning of the life, death, and resurrection of Christ is God’s nonviolent message of peace and reconciliation. Peace and reconciliation are at the heart of the gospel. And to be clear. This is not some “feel good peace inside our hearts” sort of thing. This is a peace that utterly transforms us from the inside out and gives us a way of seeing ourselves as reconcilers and peacemakers. This, I believe, is what the early followers experienced as recorded in the book of Acts. Their experience broke open their image of God and evolved their faith. The story of redemption was and is the story of reconciliation.
To understand this, we need to examine the resurrection stories. As explained in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, the resurrection was an extraordinary event. And instead of trying to explain if it really happened or not, I’d like to share some very curious things about the resurrection stories that help me to see reconciliation at the heart of the gospel.
As you know we celebrate Easter on one day of the year. But, according to Adam Eriksen, Education Director of the Raven Foundation and pastor at Clackamas United Church of Christ in Oregon, it’s very important to note that the Resurrection Story was so influential, so life changing for the early Jewish followers of Christ that they made a radical shift in their pattern of worship. They used to worship on the seventh day of the week which was Saturday. But the Resurrection story caused the followers to disregard this command that is found in Exodus (commandment #4) and switch their day of worship to the first day of the week—Sunday, the day that Jesus resurrected. This is mind boggling to me. How on earth did they get this passed through a committee or a congregational meeting? Why did it matter so much to change the day of worship? Adam Eriksen would argue that these early followers were so radically affected by Jesus’ presence—in whatever way they experienced him– that they discovered a new way to be human. They claimed a new identity—they had become people of the resurrection, people of forgiveness, people of nonviolent love. The experience they had so shook up their previous sense of goodness (a goodness based on self-defined morally “good” behavior) and gave to them a longing for a whole different sort of goodness. And from this new identity, they thought it essential to gather on Sundays for worship to stay close to the resurrection story and remember that they were people formed by the resurrection. Throughout church history it was believed that each Sunday is like a “little Easter” when we remember again the resurrection of Christ.
Second, all of the four Gospel accounts have some variations of the Resurrection story. But they are all consistent on one thing. In whatever way Jesus returned, or whatever the early followers physically saw, each Gospel writer reports that Jesus did not return to haunt them or abandon them. Instead he came back to offer them peace and forgiveness. Even though Jesus was abandoned and betrayed to the cross just a few days earlier, he did not come back and muster up a group of new people who would help Jesus get pay back. This would have been the old way of doing things. Instead Jesus stood in their midst and offered them something radically new—he said “Peace be with you.” With these words, an entirely new picture of God broke in. The early followers made the stunning discovery that it was not a vengeful God that put Jesus to death. It was human violence and wrath that led to Jesus’ dying on the cross. And they realized that it was divine love and only divine love that resurrected Jesus. And from this divine love, the cycle of revenge and violence was overcome. The early followers were reconciled to God as their image of God was healed. I think this is what it means to be reconciled to God—to have our image and view of God shaped by non-violent love, not by judgment and wrath.
Most Sundays as part of our worship we share in the passing of the peace. It is a beautiful time of saying hello, shaking hands, and making a human connection. But it’s much bigger than that. Do we realize that when we offer the peace of Christ to those sitting near us, we are offering a peace that leads us from rivalry to acceptance? A peace that leads us from revenge to forgiveness and reconciliation? A peace that begs us to see that there is no wrath or judgment that lives in God. This is the peace of Christ we offer to each other.
This transformative peace that lives within us helps us to see ourselves as active agents in the ministry of reconciliation. And one of the first things we do when we understand our role as reconcilers is we agree to the task of honest self-examination. Richard Blackburn, who is the Executive Director of the Lombard Mennonite Peace Center shared that the mediation process that they lead is only successful when churches and people agree to the difficult task of self-examination. He approximates that only 1/3rd of the churches agree to do this hard work of self-examination. Working through conflict requires that we see the part we play in the ongoing conflict. If we can’t do that, then reconciliation is virtually impossible. Self-examination is so necessary because when conflict exists, often our emotions can get the best of us. When we are angry and hurt, we often are not doing our best thinking and before we know it we have dug ourselves into a conflict that seems impossible to resolve. Self-examination helps us understand our shared human condition and the propensity we all have to self-righteousness, which can lead to intense negative feelings and even hatred when we are in conflict. In the Order of Worship, I introduce you to John Paul Lederach who wrote the book Reconcile: Conflict Transformation for Ordinary Christians. He shares how easily our conflict can move us down the slippery slope of making enemies. (slide 4)
Three easy steps in creating an enemy:
- Separate ourselves from the person. We begin to see in another person, not the sameness we share, but the differences between us and we attach a negative judgment to these differences. We imagine that the other person is completely bad and that we are completely good.
- See ourselves as superior. Superiority is the qualitative opposite of what we see in the example of Jesus emptying himself. He sought to bring compassion by being like others and recognizing his sameness. When we feel superior we believe we are not only different from but better than the other person. We raise ourselves above them and take the position of God.
- Dehumanize the other person. When we dehumanize the other person we rob them of being created in the image of God. I would add that this leads us to verbally abuse others, slander them, and seek to hurt them.
And Lederach is clear. This process of creating an enemy can happen in a matter of minutes. Lederach knows because he has recognized this in himself. And he is someone who has worked as a reconciler in 25 countries across five continents.
What I love most about Lederach’s work is his passionate belief that we are all called to the ministry of reconciliation. He shares that reconciliation is understood as both a place we are trying to reach and the journey that we take up with each other. Conflict provides an opportunity for God to speak.
“So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself/herself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation.”
Oh, how God believes in us so much!
May the peace of Christ be with you. Amen.