Sermon: Sunday 22 June 2014
Trinity 1
The Revd Hilary Surridge, Curate, Fenn Lanes Benefice

No Conflict please, we’re Christians!

Well, this morning the gospel reading presents us with something of an issue.  It seems to be saying that Jesus will bring conflict.  Jesus said, ‘Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.’ (Matt 10:34)  This echoes similar words in Luke: ‘Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth?  No, I tell you, but rather division!’ (Luke 12:51)

Who can hear those words and not feel a twinge of discomfort?

It seems to be at odds with other teaching in the Bible.  For example, in Isaiah 9:6 we read: ‘For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.’

New Testament examples of Jesus’ words of peace include: ‘Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.  I do not give to you as the world gives.  Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.’  (John 14:27) And:  ‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.’ (Matthew 5:9)

This presents us with a dilemma – what is going on here?  I propose there are three things we could do.  We could ignore it and pretend it never happened.  We could leap on this apparent discrepancy and conclude that it is therefore all rubbish and not worth bothering with.  For the first, I feel that is sweeping it all under the carpet, the second is effectively throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

A third option is to look at this in more detail, and that’s the route I would like to take this morning.  We’re going to start by looking at what we mean by the word ‘conflict’.  ‘Conflict can be defined as tension between two people or groups of people who disagree strongly on a topic or issue.  It can also be defined as an inner tension within oneself.’  [1]

Life is full of conflicts.  Psychologists Eloene Boyd-Macmillan and Sara Savage write:  ‘The way our brains and bodies work, the way we operate as social beings, the way we live, love, and work all involve conflict.  Opposition.  Struggle.  Tension.  Disagreement.  To be part of this world is to engage with conflict and its potential for transformation.’ [2]

So much for psychology and biology; what about theology?  Well, conflict happens – Jesus tells us so.  That can be hard to hear, especially for the first time but it is a vital step.  Conflict is not a failure of Christian living, yet it is rather counter-cultural to admit conflict in our lives, isn’t it?

My favourite example of this is when you see married couples celebrating a milestone wedding anniversary on the TV.  How often will you hear those immortal words, ‘all those years and we have never had a cross word’.   What?  I want to say, why not?  What is wrong with you?!

It puts me in mind of a saying that goes, ‘If two people agree on everything, you may be sure that one of them is doing all the thinking’.

Conflict is a necessary stage in learning, growing, changing.  This is something that affects every single one of us.  You just have to compare the appearance of a new born baby to an adult in later life to see how much learning, growing and changing each one of us experiences.  Churches, too, learn, grow and change – we can see that at the Cathedral with so many changes happening – what an exciting time!

So, accepting conflict as a reality and part of our growth and development is a step forward.  Next, I would like to look at this idea of conflict transformation.  When we have accepted that conflict happens, our anxiety levels around disagreements are reduced and the potential to transform the conflict begins to open up.  The next challenge is to start to deal with it and that means looking beyond ourselves.  ‘It takes humility to acknowledge that our viewpoint might be only partial.’ [3]  I love that quote, ‘It takes humility to acknowledge that our viewpoint might be only partial.’

The process of Conflict transformation has been used successfully all over the world, for example in Northern Ireland and working with religious extremists.  It involves a process called ‘Integrative Complexity’, or IC for short.  ‘IC sounds like ‘I see’, which is convenient because IC is all about ‘seeing’ deeply and accurately our own viewpoint and its underlying values, while at the same time perceiving deeply and accurately another’s viewpoint and values.’ [4]  So, it is about looking really deeply at what is going on.  Simply, it is about imagining walking in another person’s shoes.

Next comes the really creative bit, the branching and weaving – the negotiating stage which offer much opportunity for creativity and growth.

By now, we are seeing, that it is actually good to challenge our default position of ‘No conflict, please – we’re Christians!’  And that’s hard.  I liken it to labour pains.  No one in their right mind wants to go through the agony but, in order to experience the new creation it is something that has to be done.

In the gospel reading, Jesus spoke specifically about conflict within families.  Most of us will have close family members who do not share our faith and so we may relate to the division that Jesus speaks of.  Disagreement resulting from finding or returning to one’s faith can cause rifts in families.

Using the idea of conflict transformation, we can try to imagine what it must be like for the other person.  To a bemused family member, it may be like having an imposter join the family when someone comes to faith and that could cause all sorts of anxieties about time commitments and insecurities about not being loved as much as before; in fact it can turn people’s worlds upside down.  Conflict within our own family is so hard.  It is because we care that it hurts so much.

So, how do we not only survive, but thrive through conflict?  Through the pain, rejection, ridicule or even physical harm?

In order for us to have that vitality, to be ‘alive to God in Christ Jesus’, as Paul encourages us to do in today’s Epistle (Romans 6:11), we can look to Jesus’ teaching in today’s Gospel.  Jesus teaches us that the truth will be revealed:  ‘So have no fear of them; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known.’ (Matthew 10:26)

Jesus tells us that our souls cannot be harmed: ‘Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul.’  (Matthew 10:28)

Later, Jesus says that God Himself will acknowledge us if we acknowledge Him:  ‘Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven.’ (Matthew 10:32)

And finally, Jesus teaches us that God’s love can sustain us, with that rather amusing cameo from the Gospel:  ‘So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.’ (Matthew 10: 31)  Jesus said that God is aware of everything that happens, even to sparrows, and we are so much more valuable to Him.   Whatever is thrown at us, we need not fear because nothing can separate us from God’s love.  Nothing can dislodge His spirit from within us.

Now, when we are in a conflict situation, I cannot think of a better time to love our neighbour as ourselves.  It is by setting time aside to listen deeply to God and the other, that God equips us to take part in His transforming work – transforming conflict to a place of deep peace.

So, the good news is that Jesus models to us how to deal with conflict in our own communities, families and even our own, inner conflicts.  Jesus Christ is the Prince of peace.  A peace that is surpasses all understanding.  We cannot imagine how costly it was for Jesus, but God knows what we go through as we work at transforming conflict in our lives.

Listening to the teaching of Jesus and coming to God in prayer and seeking His forgiveness for the times when we fail to deal with conflict well, each one of us can take our part of ushering in and welcoming more and more of God’s kingdom day, by day, by day.

Amen.

© The Revd Hilary Surridge


[1]              Savage, Sara & Boyd-Macmillan, Eolene, 2007, The human face of church, Norwich: Canterbury Press, p56

[2]              Savage, Sara & Boyd-Macmillan, Eolene, 2010, Conflict in Relationships, Oxford: Lion Hudson plc, p13

[3]              ibid, p22

[4]              ibid, p19

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