It is pretty clear that what we are hearing from Matthew’s gospel today* is directly out of the experience of the Early Church. To begin with, it is quite unlikely that Jesus would ever have used the word εκκλησια or “church” to denote a gathering of disciples. Moreover, the pattern of conflict management described reflects a stage of institutional life well beyond the itinerant and intensely personal ministry of Jesus. Anyone who has had much experience in the church in any age must wonder about the reliability of the global statement, “If two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven.” It sounds very much like an institution’s approach to inspiring members to reach agreement. We know enough from the New Testament about some of the conflicts that tore apart the Early Church that we can readily understand the need to emphasize the desirability and usefulness, not to mention the necessity, of harmony. “Look what happens when just two of you agree!” Then there comes a telltale verse that reflects post-resurrection experience for sure: “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them.”
To recognize the probability that what we are hearing is the Early Church’s interpretation and application of Jesus and his teaching is by no means to diminish its value, let alone to negate it. Indeed it is not just the Early Church but the contemporary Church that must in fact do that all the time. We might do it well or poorly, but we have little choice but to reckon with who Jesus is and what he means for our particular situation. Indeed, every age has to a great extent reinvented Jesus to address its own needs and concerns. Jaroslav Pelikan, a theologian at Yale, wrote a book decades ago called Jesus Through the Centuries, in which he traced exactly that: how Jesus changed with and for each succeeding age. Ours is no different.
I invite you to open up with me the question of what it means to practice the teaching of Jesus in an age of conflict. I think you will very likely readily agree with me that we are soaked with conflict these days on just about every level. These scriptures today remind us that there is nothing new about living in a world riven with conflict. The question is not whether our conflicts are the greatest and deepest ever—arguably not. Nor whether we are getting worse at handling conflicts—I have no firm evidence that we are worse at conflict resolution, although I admit that we seem to be caught in a deep trough at the moment. The issue is ultimately a spiritual one: how do we practice, if we do, the teachings of Jesus in facing conflicts?
|Alexander Smirnov, Cleansing of the Temple|
Jesus himself was not conflict averse. Folks have a habit of pointing to his celebrated cleansing of the Temple, chasing out the moneychangers and overturning their tables and pens and cash boxes as evidence that Jesus could be on fire with anger and ready to do battle with opponents in a very physical way. I would argue, true as that may be, Jesus engaged in virtual non-stop controversy from the beginning of his ministry. He took on the religious authorities of his day. He sided with the very people whom those authorities considered anathema. He flouted tradition and law when either got in the way of according human beings decent treatment and hospitality. He set aside Judaism’s holiest institution, the Sabbath, when its observance meant ignoring human need. None of this made him popular. Still less did it make him the exemplar of dodging conflict or the hard choices that have to be made in in the heat of conflict.
How do we square all that with his teaching and practice of the Love of God and neighbor? I will tell what we don’t do. First, we don’t continue to romanticize Jesus as “gentle Jesus meek and mild.” He was anything but. Second, we don’t fall for the ahistorical nonsense that Jesus was all about making nice to folks that are out to use, abuse, violate, and destroy others. What we do instead is to look and see why Jesus himself was in the conflicts that he was in. What was going on?
A number of years ago there was a television commercial built on an image that actually helps to get to the bottom of this question. The commercial began by showing a scene of a large and busy room in a public space, perhaps a convention hall or shopping mall. Over to one side was a sizeable platform that was noticeably higher than the floor where crowds were milling about. As the viewer continued to watch the relatively short commercial, it became clear that in increasing numbers, people were stepping up on that platform until, at the end, the majority of the crowd stood there and not on the lower level. Then came the voiceover that said something like, “People are moving to…” and the corporate sponsor was named. What was interesting about this visual was the two levels of the room that existed simultaneously. And that is the key for me to understanding the conflict at the heart of Jesus’ ministry. He in effect proclaimed the presence of another level of reality that existed simultaneously with people’s ordinary situations. The name he gave to that other level was the “Kingdom of God,” ‘η βασιλεια του θεου [hay bah-see-lay-ah too the-oo]. In Matthew’s gospel, the phrase is often “the Kingdom of Heaven” instead of “the Kingdom of God,” but it is the same thing. What it is not about is the afterlife. It is rather the appearance of an entirely different reality that has manifested itself right in the middle of the ordinary world of human affairs.
And this is where the conflict begins. It was clearly the purpose of Jesus not only to announce the fact, the reality, of the Kingdom, but to invite people into it. Hence he continues to tell parables that illustrate how differently the Kingdom operates from the ordinary world, how its values are in many ways counter to the values that the world generally honors. Not only that, but Jesus himself modeled what life in the Kingdom looks like. He lived according to the standards and values of the βασιλεια. In so doing, he engaged in personal combat with the powers that run the “ordinary” world and showed in his life, his teaching, and death how clashes with that world are inevitable.
The world is not a region that is somewhere outside ourselves. It is very much a part of us. The way human beings develop can be thought of as having two selves—a self that learns to adapt to what people expect, to protect itself against whatever threatens it, and to control its environment to its advantage. But in the very depth of the human heart is the potential for being and living differently. Normally the first half of life is about establishing the first of those selves—establishing ourselves in work, relationships, family, and so on. The second half of life is about discovering the limitations of all those things and learning little by little how to let go of all that stuff that we have been giving our lives to and to live instead in tune with a deeper reality. Bingo. That is the process of mounting the platform and taking a stand outside the movement of the crowd. In Jesus’ terms, it is living life in the βασιλεια. In my vocabulary, it is learning how to live the Resurrection, how to be in touch with one’s own soul, and how to live in a way that increasingly sees oneself as a part of an endless web of connection that embraces the entire universe. It has something to do with everything we are, everything we decide, and everything we do. But it is not just “different” from the false self sucking energy from our own inflated egos. The βασιλεια is qualitatively distinct. To describe it in terms of Jesus’ own life, the βασιλεια is a life of forgiveness, of caring, of the eradication of barriers between human beings, between the human community and God, and between the human being and the rest of creation. In a word the βασιλεια is about healing. It gets its only power form pure love, and that love is so strong that it drives away sickness and ultimately proves itself stronger even than death. Nothing can separate us from the love of God: that is the fundamental truth at the center of the βασιλεια.
Now you can see how it is that the βασιλεια is not about life in some other world somewhere else, but the power that is at work undoing the very things that make the false self false and the world a mess. It is possible, though not necessary, to call the powers that run the false self and its world the devil or evil. Paul, in a choice that has caused untold problems, referred to the same reality as σαρξ or “the flesh.” Well, it is not the body that is the problem, but the energy that runs the world that exists outside the βασιλεια.
|Christ whipped, displayed at the 2015 Biennale, Vatican Pavilion|
Now we are in a position to see what all this has to do not only with the inevitability of conflict, but also how to handle it. It cannot all be reduced to a flat set of rules. Always do this or never do that. But there are some principles, and here are some of the key principles:
1. Have some guiding principles and know what they are.
2. The main guiding principle is to be in relationship and know how to tend to relationships. We can’t get anywhere when we simply dis and dismiss each other.
3. Practice putting ego aside. Learn to listen not to argue or to agree but to understand.
4. Speak the truth.
5. Realize that where a person or a people are today is not necessarily where they will be tomorrow. Allow for the possibility of shifts and changes.
6. If you allow for shifts and changes, make sure you keep some space to shift and change yourself.
9. Remember that the most important phrase for stating an opinion is, “It seems to me that…”
10. Practice forgiveness.
I am not sure what Jesus might have meant when he said that when two or three are gathered together in his name, he would be there in the midst of them. But I think I know. I believe that if we intentionally live in the βασιλεια, we will find that the power of Christ is palpably present. It is not theoretical, but real. And if I am wrong, I think it is just fine to be wrong if it means that I actually am, and you actually are, making the world a better, safer, more loving place just by moving to the higher level, whether anyone understands it or approves or not.
*A sermon based on Matthew 18:15-20
© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2017