Proper 18A, 2014
A few weeks ago, Mary Fred referenced the Greek word Ecclesia in her sermon. The word Ecclesia occurs in only two places in the Gospel of Matthew--Ecclesia means “gathering” and the use of this particular word gives us some insight into the context in which the Gospel of Matthew emerged...
One in which small groups of followers of the way, of Christ, gathered together as a community---and as in any community, there emerged norms for how members of the community are to treat each other.
Recently, a colleague referred to the dynamic of “belonging, believing and behaving” that marks community life. And in Matthew, a Gospel whose authorship occurred during a time of regularizing the fledgling Christian community, we see woven through the text instruction as to both belief and behavior for those who participate in the Ecclesia or gathering of early Christians.
When people claim belonging to community, it can follow then that people ascribe to roughly the same sets of belief and have norms of behavior that are meant to govern life together.
In this case, we hear instruction for how to handle conflict within community--a process of confrontation, negotiation and adjudication.
All with the same goal in mind--the restoration of the offender to the community. Much of the scripture we adhere to shares this goal of reconciliation--and many of my sermons have touched on the idea that central to who we are as Christians is an identity as a reconciling people. We are called to unity and called to reconciliation of the broken relationships amongst us and the world we live in.
The trajectory of our liturgy EVERY SINGLE WEEK points in this direction. We begin by reminding ourselves what we gather for--the blessing of God. Then, we hear the story of God’s work in scripture. We then reflect upon how the work of God continues in our own lives. Following these actions of hearing and reflecting on the story we are given the opportunity to reflect on the brokenness in our lives and then reconcile with those in our community with whom we may have broken relationship. The peace isn’t intended as a “stretch” break or chance to catch up with friends--but as a time of saying that regardless of what has happened before we are at peace with each other.
Then having made the point that we’ve worked towards reconciliation of broken relationships, we have the opportunity to participate in another essential symbol of our unity--the broken body of Christ manifest as bread and united again through the one body of the church.
As hymn #305 puts it, “One Body we, one Body who partake, one Church united in Communion blest; one Name we bear, one Bread of life we break, with all thy saints on earth and saints at rest.”
Given that what we do and say, what we pray and believe, points us towards reconciliation--given this, how is it that we so often struggle with this central act of our faith?
I have heard people, often folks who have been wounded or alienated by conflict within the Christian community, point to the Church’s brokenness as a sign of the hypocrisy of Christians...that our conflicts and the manner in which we treat each other gives every indication that, those things we claim to hold sacred have no authority or bearing in the world.
I wouldn’t necessarily suggest googling “conflict in the church” or “Christian hypocrites”, but if you were to do so you would see a search engine litany of woundedness.
And, I wonder if part of our trouble is that we are really lousy at conflict. We avoid it, we ignore it, we let things fester...until some crisis, some straw on the camel’s back, serves as the catalyst for explosion. And, at that point, people walk away--disengaging completely from relationship (regardless of who was in the wrong) and the body of Christ becomes further fractured.
Or, blame is placed on one person or group...and in the scapegoating of an individual or discrete group, no one else in the community has to own their part in the conflict. And, since the conflict doesn’t actually get dealt with through scapegoating it’s only a matter of time before conflict bubbles up again.
Now being lousy at conflict is not new to the modern church. And, it does not surprise me in the least that in some of these earliest texts of our tradition we see the community--the gathered people, the ecclesia--being instructed in how to deal with conflict. It seems right and fitting that as the community wrestled with what it meant to actually be in community, we see emerging rules of life for community. The ordering and structuring of the ecclesia intended to perpetuate the community as a place where Christ is made manifest in the actions of Christ’s body on earth. And, because we are people making manifest God’s will in the world--well, we aren’t going to get it right all the time. I mean, really, if you want to see a bunch of dunderheads messing things up, take a look at the disciples. Scripture doesn’t hold up the disciples as perfect--it holds them up as people. This is critical to me, because in their imperfection we can see that God calls each and every one of us--not just the best, not just the perfect (as if there were such a person!). And out of our imperfection comes the potential for transformation and affecting change in the world we live in.
In our brokenness, we as Christian community are given the opportunity to model how God calls us to be in relationship. We are given the chance to teach the world what peaceful reconciliation can look like. If we can shine light on our conflicts, we are then able to shine light on what we do about them--or as those who’ve made their work that of teaching parenting would put it, kids who see the beginning of an argument ought to see the end of the argument as well. Because, in seeing how grown-ups in healthy relationships handle conflict, they will learn how to handle conflict.
Times of transition can be times when the uncertainty and anxiety of change lead to conflict. As you know, the transition team is currently requesting that members of this community participate in the online survey they are conduction as well as attend one of the various listening sessions being offered.
And, as this process of discernment continues, I would encourage us to consider how we are called to be in relationship a reconciled and reconciling people. I would encourage patience and an intentional focus on the work we are called to do in the world--because if we remember that we share a goal to make God’s love manifest to the world, perhaps we can be more forgiving when our attempts fall short.