“Koinonia and Conflict: Where’s the Love?”
Rev’d. Tanya Stormo Rasmussen
Congregational Church of Hollis, U.C.C.
16 February, 2020
Proverbs 15:18
Ephesians 4:1-6, 15-16
1 Corinthians 13:4-8a

Has this ever happened to you?  You’re enjoying your cup of coffee and cookie down in Hardy Hall during fellowship time, having a pleasant conversation after worship, and then out of the blue, someone makes a politically-charged comment that raises your hackles?

Maybe you don’t even need to wait until fellowship hour.  I’ve been told that occasionally, some of my remarks have sounded politically-charged to some of you, and you have felt offended.

While I pray constantly as I prepare my sermons, and I work very hard so that what I say will be clearly grounded in Scripture, and will be faithful to Christ’s Gospel, and will reflect my best understanding of what Jesus himself would teach; the fact is that Christians, from the very beginning, have discovered disagreements about how God’s Word ought to be interpreted and applied to the world we all inhabit, though experience differently.  All you need to do is read through the New Testament to see that Jesus’ followers have always experienced conflict amongst themselves.  The disciples fought over which ones would receive the seats of honor in Jesus’ kingdom.  Martha and Mary disagreed about who should be doing the work, and which work was most important.  Just after he correctly identified Jesus as the Messiah, Peter tried to argue with Jesus when Jesus said that he was destined to suffer.  But Jesus rebuked him saying, “Get behind me, Satan!”[1] because he saw how Peter was putting his own personal preferences ahead of the will of God.

Later, as we read in the Acts of the Apostles, Peter and Paul and other apostles would disagree over issues like circumcision, and whether or not to eat certain kinds of meat, and about how best to engage with the nonbelievers in the communities where their fledgling churches were taking shape.  In our study of the Holy Habits, we’ve been repeating the verses from the end of Acts chapter 2 that describe a harmonious community where everyone shared life and food, prayers and fellowship, and any resources that were needed.  But only a few chapters later, we read that the harmony of the group is under severe stress.  Throughout Paul’s letters, there are exhortations for believers to get beyond their squabbling and disagreements, and instead to seek the mindset of Christ Jesus, and embody his ways in the world.

As Christians, we are called and covenanted to live, work, and worship together despite what are sometimes differing deeply-held views.  It’s through our living, working, and worshiping together that we give visible expression to God’s love for the countless versions and perspectives of human beings.  It’s what Jesus meant when he said, “By this, everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”  And that was to clarify his command, “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”[2]  Though we tend to put limits on our human capacity to care, there is not one person or group that God does not love, not one perspective that places an individual or group beyond the scope of God’s love, regardless of how flawed or warped their understanding might be.

On Wednesday evening this past week, I participated in the annual ecumenical Service of Prayer for Christian Unity in greater Nashua.  There were about a dozen different faith leaders participating in the service, representing the Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Baptist, United Methodist, Episcopal, Mormon, Christian Science, Lutheran, Salvation Army, and U.C.C. churches.  And within each of the churches we represented, there are no doubt different points of view held by our respective members not only about aspects of Church doctrine and teachings—which obviously affects our church politics, as well as our interpretation of what we should advocate for or accept (or not accept) from our secular government.  The Roman Catholic Church, for example, is quite public about its positions against birth control and same-sex marriage.  The United Church of Christ, on the other hand, is equally public about its stance supporting these issues relating to human life, relationships, and community. (Of course, it’s worth also pointing out that there are individual members of the Roman Catholic Church who don’t believe that birth control and same-sex marriage are against God’s will, just as there are members of the U.C.C. who believe that they are.)

So, human beings are complicated, perspectives vary widely, and conflict is an unavoidable part of life.  But, contrary to what a lot of people think, conflict is not inherently a bad thing.  And, our attitudes to it determine whether our response will be destructive or constructive; whether we have the potential to transform and be transformed by it.

The way that difference so often is handled by public figures these days can lead us to the wrong conclusion that engaging in conflict is essentially a test of survival.  Too often, opposition is viewed with an impoverished belief that there’s only winning or losing.  But our faith reminds us that there are no losers in God’s book—only beloved children of God, each and every one of us.  The power games of this world are self-seeking, rooted either in pride or insecurity (or both!) by individuals who don’t recognize or truly believe that the sole source of lasting power, security, and identity or being rests with God alone.

In the churches, because certain Biblical verses exhorting Christians to practice unity sometimes get misconstrued (for example, the idea that unity requires uniformity; it doesn’t), there’s commonly an attitude that conflict is bad, wrong, or inevitably destructive.

These interpretations of conflict lead to defensiveness, fear, and anxiety, and to our instinctive “fight-or-flight” response to the perceived threat.  Emotional and spiritual walls get built that are intended to protect, but really only deprive us of deeper connection and the life that God intends for us.

But when it’s handled well, conflict can be generative of exciting new realities.  Conflict is an essential source of energy for overcoming injustice, oppression, and evil.  If we are faithful and listen carefully to each other, we can find points of common ground, which can – if we remain open and curious – draw us into someplace deeper and more beautiful than we otherwise would have seen or known on our own.  Especially when we engage conflict using and demonstrating the divine gift and power of love.

One of the first things we talked about in our exploration of the Holy Habit of Koinonia or Christian Fellowship, is trust.  Trust is foundational to the deeper sort of fellowship and connection we’re called to in Christ-like faith.  And, the ways we deal with conflict both reveal how much we trust each other, and provide opportunities for us to practice trusting each other and God more deeply.

In Matthew 18:20, Jesus says, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am in the midst of them.”  Imagine inserting the words, “in conflict” after the words “For where two or three [in conflict] are gathered in my name, there I am in the midst of them.”  How might that transform how we feel in the midst of a disagreement—the idea that Jesus is right there with us?  In the 1990s, there was a popular fashion trend for a while.  It seemed like all the high school youth groups were pushing those rubber wristbands with the letters WWJD (What Would Jesus Do)?  It’s actually a pretty good question to guide our personal thinking and attitudes, and an imaginative way to keep Jesus present with us.  In contrast to the ways the world tends to engage conflict, Jesus shows us how to be with and be for others in ways that heal – not just those in opposition to us, but also our own wounds, insecurities, and needs for belonging and understanding.

I’d like to suggest four concrete ways we can all practice love as we’re seeking to develop the Holy Habit of Fellowship in the midst of conflict.  These four things, if practiced, have the power to transform.[3]

The first is to approach and listen.  Don’t give in to the temptation to flee from someone you disagree with, but go and listen to them.  Genuinely listen, not just to see how to make your counterpoint, but in order to truly understand the other.  Ask questions, be curious.  Check your defenses, pay attention to the parts of you that don’t want to hear what the other has to say, and probe yourself a bit more deeply: What is it about what they’re saying that feels threatening, and why?  Perhaps the most important feature of healthy conflict engagement and resolution (and the most visibly absent feature in most of the conflicts that flood the media) is listening for real understanding of the other.  In the first chapter of his letter, James the apostle exhorts his conflicted audience: “My dear friends, you should be quick to listen and slow to speak or to get angry.  If you are angry, you cannot do any of the good things that God wants done.”[4]  One of our deepest needs as human beings it to feel understood, and listening – not only to the words, but also around the words, paying attention to what’s happening nonverbally as well – is the only way this happens.  The heart of good listening is authenticity, caring, and genuine curiosity.

Next is, as St. Paul put it in our lesson from the letter to the Ephesians, “Speak the truth in love.”  His first letter to the Corinthians is where he laid out how love behaves, and we’ve been reading it as our Call to Worship this month.  Address your adversary, or the one with whom you’re conflicted, with patience, and kindness, without envy or arrogance or rude tones.  Tell your story truthfully, with humility and clarity; be as specific as possible, don’t talk in generalities, and speak only for yourself.  It does not build trust in the midst of conflict to say, “Lots of people are saying…”  Talk about the impact of the conflictual situation on yourself, your emotions, your needs – but without making demands, or mind-reading, blaming, or seeking to demean or diminish the other.  Don’t insist on your own way.  And when you don’t get your way, work hard not to become irritable or resentful – these are behaviors that come easily, but they diminish us and cut us off from the communion our spirits truly long for.

Third, use your imagination to help you understand and enter into the experience of the other.  So much of our destructive conflict is due to a failure, refusal, or lack of imagination.  Using our imagination opens our minds and hearts to the leading of the Holy Spirit, invites our creativity, and allows us to see things in new ways.  It involves letting go of our assumptions and positions, even if just for a moment.

Finally, be forgiving.  This may be the hardest one of all, especially when we’ve been deeply wronged.  Forgiveness is a holy habit of its own that takes practice and much prayer.  “Each day it must be prayed for and struggled for and won.”[5]  For those who are able to forgive, there is an experience of freedom and new life that manifests divine love and resurrection power.

Friends, as we strive to deepen our experience of Christian Fellowship as Jesus practiced it, the unfortunate reality is that we’re bound to stumble.  We’ll likely get it wrong as often as we get it right, at least at first.  That’s how developing habits and being transformed works.  And when we stumble, we need to forgive ourselves . . . but with a resolve to try again.  Furthermore, we need to practice the same sort of forgiveness toward others, who are struggling as much as we are.

And, here’s another thing: there may come a point at which our conflict with another is simply humanly irreconcilable.  That’s a profoundly painful moment, but it’s real and it happens.  Sometimes, we bump up against our human limits and we simply can’t go any further.  Sometimes, the bad habits of relating we’ve developed over years of time have become so entrenched that we simply can’t find our way back out of them, and the most loving and life-affirming thing is to part company and allow God to accomplish healing and transformation in other ways with the conflicting participants.  God knows our limitations even better than we ourselves recognize or acknowledge them.  And God loves us in spite of them.

The Good News, the Gospel truth, is that we are made for love and fellowship – and it is for these things that our hearts yearn, even in the midst of conflict.  As we practice the Holy Habit of Koinonia Fellowship, may each of us, and our entire community, discover the life-giving transformation that accompanies conflict that is engaged healthfully and steeped in love.  Amen.

[1] Matthew 16:23, Mark 8:33.

[2] John 13:34-35.

[3] From the UMC’s “Engage Conflict Well”, published by the JustPeace Center for Mediation and Conflict Transformation.

[4] James 1:19-20, CEV.

[5] Ibid., p. 4.

© 2020 The Congregational Church of Hollis, UCC