At Times of Conflict

At Times of Conflict

If you studied the Gospel lectionary text for Sunday, September 10, or preached on it, I hope you didn’t miss several things often overlooked in this reading. The Gospel text for this past Sunday was Matthew 18: 15-20.

In this reading, the Matthean writer recounts Jesus’ teaching on conflict. While many translations have imposed the context of the “church” into Jesus’ original teaching, we know this was not the word because the church as we refer to it was not yet in existence. Yet, the Greek word is ekklēsia, which is the spiritual and physical manifestation of the community of God.

In his teaching about the community of God, Jesus names an eternal truth that when the community of God comes together, there will be conflict. Meaning that when believers come together, regardless of their faith, there will be disagreements and differences of opinion. Instead of denying the possibility of conflict, Jesus names the inevitability of conflict.

Then, after naming the inevitability of disagreements and differences of opinion, Jesus outlines a timeless and proven approach to dealing with it when tension arises between people. And hopefully, you know this and practice in your church, the local expression of the community of God.

First, you go directly to the person with whom you are in conflict. Then, if that person cannot listen or understand your perspective or if you cannot listen to that person and understand their perspective, others should be invited in (not to take sides) to hear and help the two persons find a resolution.

If there has been no movement toward transforming hearts, minds, and spirits, then this is the time for the wider community of God to be involved. Finally, if this does not work, surprisingly Jesus also names and accepts that there may be times when a resolution is not possible, and if that is the case, then walk away. (As a side note, I find this very similar to Matthew’s retelling of Jesus' instructions to the disciples as he sends them out. If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, leave that home or town and shake the dust off your feet (Matthew 10:14).”

Yet, before we leave this teaching, take note of the ending of this reading, which is Matthew 18: 20. Matthew 18:20 is the kind of verse that can be found on coffee mugs and t-shirts. Matthew 18:20 is the kind of verse we often use referring to the people of God gathering for worship, study, or prayer, especially when we are self-conscious about the small number of people who have gathered for a particular event. When we say or hear, “For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them (Matthew 18:20), do we think of conflict?

When we are engaged in the hard work of conflict transformation, how many of us joyfully say, “Well, you know, as Jesus says, ‘For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.’” When a disagreement or discord arises in the community of God, do we acknowledge how Jesus is in it all, with us in it? Probably not. Most of us are afraid of the tension, the confusion, the misunderstandings, and the hurt. We make it worse when we are scared and don’t face it head-on, as Jesus teaches. We make it worse because we talk to everyone else EXCEPT those we should be engaging in conversation.

Yet, consider this:

What if Jesus calls us to the holy work of working it out when there is conflict?

What if Jesus is willing to join us in the muck and mess of the life of the community of God?

What if Jesus is waiting to help transform and renew our hearts and minds so that we can understand one another better?

What if we believed that even in the most challenging moments or seasons of conflict, the community of God could come together to listen, wrestle, and find common ground?

What if Jesus wants us to learn that being loving is much better than being right?

What if what Jesus said is true, “For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.”

Blessings, Rev. Shana Johnson, ISC Conference Minister