The last few words of these comments from Jesus are usually a comfort to us. “Where two or three of you are together, there I am in the midst of you.” It’s a profound and powerful promise of Christ’s presence with us in life.
But plug these words back into this longer passage and we are tempted to read between the lines to hear Jesus say instead, “Where two or three of you are together, there’s a great probability you will have conflict.” Perhaps it’s not unfair to visualize Jesus in our midst with a yellow flag in his back pocket and wearing the black and white stripes of a referee.
I gave the sermon a hopeful title today. Maybe it should have been, “Fighting Together.”
With unusual clarity Jesus lays it on the line when he speaks squarely to the issues of congregational conflict among the people of God. No parabolic comparisons. No veiled language. Jesus speaks to the tough issues of what happens when people of faith commit themselves to a shared life in community. It’s hard to miss the point when we read these words, yet somehow, the church has struggled mightily with doing what Jesus says to do.
Why is it with such straight talk from Jesus, we’ve often dodged the tough interpersonal issues and as a result become so dysfunctional? Jesus is not nearly so clear about the full range of other hot topics such as divorce or the end of time. He doesn’t utter a word about the tough issues of our time such as homosexuality or abortion or global terrorism or police military tactics, yet he’s unwavering in his ideas about how we should resolve our conflicts with one another. Why can’t we simply do what he says when one member of the church offends another member?
But before we can fully explore the process of conflict resolution, we are forced to agree that the church of today doesn’t much resemble the church that was birthed at Pentecost. When I read the second chapter of Acts, I’m forced to admit that the church of the first century is a far cry from the church of today. It’s more than the superficial differences of structure and form. Instead, the differences are clearly pronounced down in our bones by the way we love one another.
It’s understood in the polar ways we relate to one another, highlighting our need for connectedness but tempered by our need to be independent from one another. The church of today is polarized on the other end of the spectrum from our ancestors of faith described by Luke where “they had all things in common.” We are an independent mess, aren’t we?
It’s amazing to me how we can be members of a church for twenty years and not know one another! How can we sit across the aisle from one another week after week and not know each other’s names? How can we carry one another’s burdens or care for each other in the isolation and loneliness we feel if we don’t seek to know one another in a deep and satisfying way?
Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote a simple book in 1938 about the life-connections we have with one another in the family of God that he titled simply, Life Together. Obviously it’s the inspiration for the title of today’s sermon.
The church struggles today with Bonhoeffer’s book because we are forced to admit that individualism is a value we elevate above all other values and resist developing deep relationships with one another. The feeling of being alone in an ocean of others who share the same faith is the price we pay for our individualism. We believe and put our faith in Christ and yet we have no one with whom we can share our deepest struggles. Ironic, don’t you think?
When we read the second chapter of Acts, we realize we don’t live as communally as they did. “Life Apart” might be a more apt label for some congregations who cannot let go of their overwhelming need to keep their sense of self a secret from anyone around them. No matter how we draw the lines on the wide spectrum of communalism or individualism, we are a family and have a desperate need to break bread together and bear one another’s burdens.
The approach of Jesus is sound, solid instruction to those of us in the church. Take note of how often Jesus spoke of the church in family terms. Whenever the language of family is used, we’re talking necessarily in relational terms.
We are interconnected and joined at the heart because of the love of God who sent us a Savior in the form of Jesus of Nazareth. Around the cross of Jesus, the ground is level and we’re all a part of the family of God. We cannot refuse the fellowship or deny the community created by the unity of our forgiveness in Christ. We are family with any and all who call themselves Christians whether we agree with them or not.
We live and breathe and have our being in order to serve a larger cause than any one need of our own. We have been called by God to be reborn into the family of God as one of God’s children and whether you willed this or not, you find yourself immersed in a very human family of believers. Like it or not, we are bound together by the forgiveness we discover in Christ and are not meant to live alone. To the extent that we can collectively and intentionally seek to be a healthy, growing church depends in many ways on whether we’re willing to find the balance between our need to be alone and our need to be together.
John Claypool tells of the night he dreamed he was taken to the next world and given a vision of both Heaven and Hell. The angel who took him on this tour commented that the only thing death did to people was to stiffen their elbows. Other than that, they were exactly the same as in this life. When they descended down into Hell, it was a scene of unbelievable anguish, confusion and hostility. Everyone had bread in his or her hands, but because of their stiff arms, they could not get it to their mouths and so they were utterly frustrated. Everyone was angrily flailing at everybody else as they futilely attempted to meet his or her own needs.
From that awful scene of discord, the man was taken to Heaven, where the atmosphere was utterly different. Here was joy and harmony and a great sense of community. Instead of thinking only of themselves, they concentrated on feeding each other. And there they were, paired off, face-to-face and knee-to-knee, feeding each other and being fed … something they couldn’t do on their own with stiff elbows.
Jesus pushes us towards one another until our need to fight is converted into the need to shoulder one another’s humanity, bearing up one another’s burdens, and finding a good reason to share the rich love of a forgiving, graceful God.
© Dr. Keith D. Herron 2023