Conflict is a normal part of relationships, particularly close relationships, and we all have different ways of dealing with it. Sometimes those ways are healthy, and sometimes they aren’t. There are those that love a good fight and will launch into any which arises. At the risk of dealing in stereotypes, such pugnacious people often find there way into politics, for reasons which are obvious enough. It being a particularly divisive time in our national politics, I’ve noticed more and more friends of mine from all political persuasions who have tried to decide whether or not to even bring the issues up in conversation. My rule (as I’ve mentioned to some of you) is always to ask myself “is this a ditch I’m willing to die in?” The cost-benefit analysis is often a difficult one for me; it’s one of those examples of how my role as a pastor can complicate things. I’m called both to preach the Gospel and to be in relationship with God’s people, and sometimes the former (especially at the confluence of faith and politics) can threaten to complicate the latter. Sometimes that’s a good thing (close relationships being predicated on the acknowledgment of even fiercely held differences of opinion in order to be adult relationships), but sometimes it’s so potentially threatening to a relationship that the most loving course of action is just not going there.
That brings up the converse problem, though- there are those who avoid conflict at all costs, even when sharing the truth as one sees it, and (more importantly) as one believes God sees it, is of the utmost importance. It might seem to us the wise path, but often it means that issues of the greatest import are neglected because too few had the courage to stand up and fight for what they believe to be right. What might have been avoided if, say, Neville Chamberlain hadn’t appeased Hitler? That, of course, is an extreme example, but there are so many times when conscience may lead us into conflict, and for those of us without the natural temerity of a politician, acting conscientiously could be a most difficult thing.
Sometimes our problem is in misunderstanding the requirements of the Gospel. We’ve watered down Jesus’ teaching, domesticated it, and believe its principle command is something like “be nice”. Now, don’t get me wrong: I like to be nice and for people to be nice to me. I think I’m a pretty peaceable person, which comes in handy because I’m pretty guileless, so if I were also naturally prone to intentionally stirring the pot, as it were, I might find myself constantly in conflict. Peevishness and petulance are not a good way of showing the love of Christ. Even so, running from conflict when the stakes are high, when the truths of the Gospel and the well-being of God’s people are on the line in an effort to “be nice” can be terribly harmful for the cause in which we as Christians are engaged.
Jesus says to his disciples in this morning’s Gospel, “Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.” That’s Luke’s version, and Matthew’s is even stronger “Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.”
What follows is even more shocking. I’m sure it was upsetting to hear Jesus validate discord in families. It was to me, and it is every time I’m confronted with this hard teaching of Jesus. But put yourself back in the first century, and imagine that you were raised in a good Jewish family, or even a Greek family which had been faithful in serving the pagan gods of Rome. Then imagine that you hear the Good News of God in Christ, that you are convicted of the truth of Christ’s death and resurrection, that you wish to serve the one true and living God as His Son had revealed Him. This would not have been a popular choice. It would most certainly have led to discord, and perhaps you would have been disowned by those you loved most of all. Would it then have been better that you never received the Gospel of life? Would it then have been better to shun that glorious news for the sake of peace at home? Would God have preferred it if you had taken the path which avoided conflict? By no means!
We still have these choices today, and sometimes they can even have consequences as dramatic as the choices those early disciples had to make. For the first time in our nation’s history there is now a whole generation of people being raised by basically irreligious parents. We’re about a generation behind secular Europe in this trend, and there is still some hope as now it seems that more young people without a background in the faith or with a complicated religious upbringing are finding their way into the body of Christ. The highlight of my time on the high seas this summer was conducting the baptism of a young man who had been interested in Christianity for some time, but whose very strict Buddhist grandmother made entering the Church a difficult proposition. Perha[ps being in international waters finally made the young man comfortable enough to follow through on that to which the Holy Spirit had been calling him for some time.
And all that is not to mention all those countless people today in the less open parts of the Muslim world or in the atheistic countries of the old Eastern Bloc and China who are shunned because of their commitment to Christ and his Church. By the way, lest we start thinking of ourselves as the victims, so too are Muslims the victims of discrimination in good old Christendom and Hindus in Pakistan and Baha’is in Iran and Jews just about everywhere.
While few of us have ever faced being shunned because of our religious convictions, there are still choices we make for the sake of conscience that carry with them the danger of unpopularity or something even worse. Plenty of people became outcasts in their families or their communities when they acted on a conviction that securing civil rights for blacks was a Christian imperative. Plenty of Christians in our own country in recent years have faced fines and even arrest for breaking municipal ordinances against feeding programs, which ordinances are, not always but often, thinly veiled schemes to keep unsavory people (i.e. the homeless and the mentally ill) from congregating. Plenty of Christians faced criminal charges for their participation in the Sanctuary movement thirty years ago, and, this might be controversial, but I do wonder if we ought, both as churches and individual Christians, to be making a lot more noise these days, even getting ourselves in trouble, considering the fact that our Lord himself and his family were refugees.
By the way – this is my personal opinion so feel free to disagree – I think it’s become a lot harder to point out these problems and stand up for a Christian response because so many Christians have claimed that they’ve been persecuted when they haven’t been or had their religious freedom constrained when it hasn’t been. Whatever one thinks about the controversial issues du jour, nobody from the government has come knocking on my door to have any sermons I’ve written be subpoenaed. I think there are fruitful debates to be had on what tax revenue can and should be used for and what equality under the law looks like in the context of religious diversity, but to claim religious persecution at the outset of these debates is like the boy crying wolf when there are real, tangible ways in which our ability to live out the Gospel of reconciliation and love may be constrained either by law or custom.
In all events, I preached last week about conviction, and today I want to add to those thoughts by suggesting that Jesus requires of us the development of a virtue which compliments it. That virtue is courage. Our convictions, as I said last week, compel us to act, but we must grow in courage to make it happen. When we learn that, as that wonderful hymn put it “the peace of God, it is no peace, but strife closed in the sod”, then courage will be required if we are to confront the conflict into which our Christian commitments bring us. What all those people listed in today’s Epistle had in common was the courage to act on faith. Rahab and Gideon and Barak and Samson and Jephthah and David and Samuel and the prophets and the whole people of Israel in their flight from Egypt— all of them had the courage to risk their lives and their livelihoods and all they held dear because they were convicted by God and His promise.
With so great a cloud of witnesses, how can we but do the same? Let us, then, face strife with courage, not running away, not deciding to “just be nice”, but standing up for that which really matters. We may think ourselves too timid, but the God of Hosts is with us, and by Him are we encouraged.
+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.