Bible Readings: James 1:19-27 & Matthew 18:10-20

Handling Conflict

This morning we are continuing our sermon series focussed on living in community. This week we are thinking about conflict in the church, about how we can handle it well, so that it doesn’t become destructive or fracture our life together. The reality is that when people live together, work together, get closer together, there is always conflict. We disagree about things, we have different needs and wants, we don’t see things in the same way. Today is not about trying to build some unrealistic eutopia where conflict doesn’t exist, but that we think about how we behave when we’re in conflict, so that it can become an opportunity for growth and deeper love.

Some of you listening to this will know that I don’t always get this right. We’ve fallen out or disagreed and we aren’t yet fully reconciled, or I haven’t applied fully all the principles that I’m going to talk about. We don’t have a pulpit here in this building, but if we did, I definitely wouldn’t be up in it this morning. What I preach this morning I preach as much to myself as to anyone else.

Well, let’s begin with what Jesus says. In our reading from Matthew’s eyewitness account of Jesus’ life, we hear Jesus saying this, “If a brother or sister sins, go and point out the fault, just between the two of you.”

That seems to have a fairly clear principle underpinning it, but before we get to that, let’s have a look at the wider context in which Jesus is speaking. The story that Jesus has just told is all about a sheep that wanders off, and a shepherd that leaves 99 sheep in the fold and goes searching for the lost sheep, bringing it home with much rejoicing. The context here is one of restoration, of reconciliation, of rebuilding relationship. After the passage that we heard read, Jesus goes on to talk about forgiveness, and commands his followers, which includes us, to forgive repeatedly and relentlessly in response to the forgiveness that we have received from God. As he taught us to pray, “forgive us our sins as we forgive others.”

So, when we go to talk to someone because we have been hurt by something they have said or done, we are to do so in the context of seeking restoration of relationship, and intending to forgive.

Having got that straight, the basic principle is that if someone has hurt us then we go and talk to the person first, and then talk to others if necessary. This is key to handling conflict well in a community – that we talk to each other and not about each other. This is not often easy, and will take courage, but it is necessary. We need to talk to each other and not about each other.

This example has focussed on what we are to do when we are wronged. But what about when we know that someone else is upset with us? What should happen then?

In Matthew chapter 5, we read this, “But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, “Raca,”is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, “You fool!” will be in danger of the fire of hell. ‘Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.”

Again there is a fairly clear principle here, which we’ll get to in a minute, but first lets think about the context. The first bit of context to note is that Jesus is talking about what is to happen in the church family. He keeps saying, “brother and sister”, by which he means fellow Christians. We are one body, all adopted children of God, we are brothers and sisters, with the same heavenly Father. They say that you cannot choose your family, and that is as true about your Christian brothers and sisters as it is about your earthly family. The second bit of context to be aware of is that Jesus roots this in the context of worship. There is something about unresolved conflict that gets in the way of our worship. Part of being serious about answering the call to be closer to Christ, is to learn to handle conflict well and to take responsibility for being reconciled with those who are upset with us.

Having got that straight, the basic principle is that if someone has been hurt by us then we go and talk to that person. This is key to handling conflict well in a community – that we talk to each other and not about each other. In one piece of teaching Jesus puts this responsibility on the one who has been hurt, and in the other on the one who knows that there is someone upset with them. In other words, there is no place to hide for any of us – no excuse for us to expect the other to make the first move.

So, we’ve taken on what Jesus has taught us, we’re upset with someone, or been upset by them, and now we’re going to go and talk with them. We’re looking for reconciliation, we’re ready to forgive, we know that they’re our brother or sister. But, how are we going to be in that conversation, what are the guiding principles there? Let’s turn to what James writes in his letter to the early Christians.

“Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry.”

Simples.

Well, it’s simple to say – not so simple to do when things matter to us, and we’re feeling hurt or guilty.

Quick to listen. Listen carefully. Not just to the words, but to the emotions. The words in conversations like this are a bit like ice bergs – there’s something on the surface but there might be a whole load under the surface that goes along with those words. As we listen are we making generous assumptions about the motivations and purposes of the person speaking, or thinking the worst? This kind of listening takes patience and practice, but is possible for us all to get better at it.

Slow to speak. Consider what you are going to say, and how you are going to say it. Reflect on how it might be heard. In a minor exception to the principle of talking to each other, rather than about each other, it can sometimes be useful to practice what you are planning to say with someone who will be honest with you about how what you’re planning to say really comes across. In general I think that it is best, if at all possible, to speak to the other person. If I have to write instead, I usually get Liz to read it through, and often give it at least 12 hours before sending what I’ve written.

Slow to become angry. This is not a suggestion. If you know that you have a short temper, then it is not a lovable quirk, or something that other people just have to learn to deal with, it is an habitual sin and it needs to be dealt with. Anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires. Remember what Jesus says, “I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment.” Anger is a fact of life – we get angry, sometimes rightly and sometimes wrongly. What makes the difference is what we do with that anger, how we express it, and whether we allow it to fester or not.

So, those are some of the key principles laid for us in Scripture about how we are to handle conflict. We talk to each other and not about each other. We are quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry. We take responsibility for resolution, whichever side of the argument we are on. We intend to forgive and are quick to own our own failures and sin.

As we come towards the end, a brief word about the heritage of past conflicts. Sometimes there are hurts and conflicts that still have an effect on us today, but we can’t go and talk to the person about it. Maybe they’ve died or you’ve lost contact. Maybe you know you sinned against someone, but you never said sorry, and dragging it all up now with them would just reopen old wounds and it wouldn’t be fair. Maybe someone never knew how badly they hurt you, and you know that bringing up now would just be too much. But the scar of the wounding is still there. What are you meant to do with that?

Well, at our Ash Wednesday evening service this year we will have an opportunity to lay down old sins, hurts, and bitterness. You are invited to write a letter to God, pouring out your pain, or confessing your sins, to bring to the service in a sealed envelope. These will not be read, but will be placed on the table as we celebrate Communion, putting the Body and Blood of Jesus between you and those things, as a symbol of freedom from them. Following the service the letters will be burnt.

So. We’ve thought about how we can handle conflict well in our community. As a church we’re facing a financial challenge at the moment. We’re going through this whole process of thinking about how leadership in the church is going to be structured, and as we take on new responsibilities and as the way things are organised changes, and we have to learn to work with new people there’s plenty of potential for conflict – I suspect we’re not going to be short of opportunities to put this stuff into practice. But that’s OK – because I believe that as we do that we will become more like Christ, we will come closer to Christ, and our fellowship will be strengthened as we handle conflict well together, and so we will be more effective as we are sent to be closer to others.


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