Acts 15:1-12; John 17:1-11
6th Sunday after Easter
21.05.2023 St Barbara’s
Rev Tulo Raistrick
A few years ago, before I became a vicar, I was working in a job where I was becoming increasingly frustrated and disillusioned. Someone more senior than me seemed to be taking all my good ideas and claiming credit for them. When a promotion came up that seemed to be tailor-made for me with my experience and skills, they got appointed to the role without an interview. I was bitter. I was tempted to sabotage some of the good work that I had helped to enable, because this other person was now getting the credit. I began to criticise and complain about them, and collude with other colleagues who I thought would take my side. Having been happy and fulfilled in my work just a few months earlier, now I began to consider leaving.
I have to say it wasn’t my finest hour, that I didn’t handle the situation at all well (and I will tell you how the situation was resolved in a few minutes time), but I’m aware that such fall-outs, such breakdowns in relationships, occur all the time, and often at a much more serious or painful level than my small conflict.
We live in a world where disagreement and conflict are part of everyday life. The disagreements and conflicts we see acted out in TV dramas and soaps, or in the media, hold our attention in part because we see our own conflicts, our own difficult relationships, mirrored there. Whether at home or at work or within our wider families, we know how easy it is for relationships to go wrong, to go sour. And we see it at a bigger level too. The number of strikes in recent months, from the railways to the postal service, from nurses and junior doctors to teachers, all point to a breakdown in relationship, a loss of trust, a sense of not being heard. And conflict mars international relations too, with devastating consequences, whether that’s in Sudan, Ukraine or Yemen.
The church is by no means immune either, as we have seen with the conflict and strong disagreements about human sexuality, or just because individuals struggle to get on with one another.
Well, our reading from the book of Acts, opens a window into a huge point of disagreement, conflict and controversy within the early church. But it also shows us how they went about trying to resolve it, an example that may be helpful for us in the conflict situations we find ourselves in.
The issue for the early church in the book of Acts was about what to do with non-Jews (Gentiles) who became Christians. Jesus was a Jew. The disciples were all Jews. Did that mean that anyone who wanted to follow Jesus needed to become a Jew and follow the Jewish religious laws? It was not an unreasonable expectation. After all, for centuries, God had chosen to work through the Jewish people. The religious laws were there as a means for helping people to live holy and faithful lives. So, if you wanted to follow the Jewish Messiah, surely that meant buying into the centuries of Jewish tradition and culture too?
But on the other side of the argument were those who were appalled at the idea that faith in the grace of Christ was not viewed as enough for salvation. They were shocked that people were being made to jump through other hoops, including, in the case of males, circumcision, before they would be regarded as true Christians. For them, the fact that God had given the gift of his Holy Spirit to Gentiles without them becoming Jews was proof enough. They would point to the church in Antioch – a church full of Gentile believers – that was growing at a tremendous rate, that was generously giving to the needs of communities around the world, that was sending out missionaries like Paul and Barnabas. Why did they need to suddenly conform to Jewish religious laws? God was clearly at work within them.
Well, the issue came to a head in Antioch. Powerful disagreements broke out. People stopped eating together.
And so Barnabas and Paul were sent to Jerusalem to meet with the leaders of the church there to see if a way through the conflict could be found.
What happens is an intense meeting. I imagine that it would have been a bit like one of those apochrypal meetings between the trade unions and the employers in the 1970s, locked in a smoke-filled negotiating room, with no-one allowed to leave until an agreement was reached.
The meeting began with Paul and Barnabas telling everyone what was going on in Antioch, and the remarkable work of God’s Spirit amongst the Gentile Christians. The traditionalists then gave their view. Then, after much debate, Peter spoke of his own experience, and how the conversion of the centurion Cornelius has convinced him that it was not necessary for Gentile Christians to adhere to the Jewish law – after all, it was a burden that not even the Jews could keep. James, the brother of Jesus, and the apparent leader of the church in Jerusalem, having been listening the whole time, then spoke and gave the clinching argument in favour of the Gentile christians. A letter was then written to inform the churches of this decision.
This may feel a bit dry and arid, even bureaucratic perhaps, but there are some important principles for us here in the way that we resolve conflicts with those who passionately disagree with us.
Firstly, those in conflict came together and talked about it. It would have been easier, perhaps, to avoid each other or bad-name one another, to grumble and complain, but instead they all met together in Jerusalem and talked it through. |n the conflicts we face, it is often much better to grasp the nettle and talk to the person, rather than letting it stew and fester. For some of us that may come easily; for others of us we may need to pray for the courage of the Holy Spirit.
It was the advice I was given by the Chief Executive when I went to complain to him about my colleague. He saw that this was not an issue of bullying or abuse (it it had been he would have stepped in), but of two adults falling out with each other. He refused to do anything until I had made an effort to talk to the person myself. It was a hard, but good, response. I plucked up the little courage I had and had the conversation. More on that in a minute.
Secondly, having come together, the council in Jerusalem listened to one another. Luke tells us “the whole assembly became silent as they listened”. Listening to someone else when you passionately disagree with them is not easy. The temptation is just to jump in and counter everything they say. But true listening involves a desire to genuinely understand the other’s point of view. It is less a skill, and more an attitude of love. Indeed, it is a good way of acknowledging that the other person, as well as oneself, is valued and loved by God, no matter your disagreement.
To give my colleague his due, when my conversation took place with him, he really did listen. He made the effort to understand where I was coming from, which made it easier for me to listen to him. He didn’t agree with everything I said, but at least I knew he had taken it seriously, that I had been heard.
Thirdly, there is a real sense in this meeting in Jerusalem that there was a genuine attempt to discern how God may be working among them. Paul, Barnabas and Peter all speak of God’s work. When we are in conflict situations, it is difficult but important to try and step back and ask, “where is God at work in this situation? where is his love, his grace, his Holy Spirit present?” In many situations we find ourselves in, that may be a question we have to ask silently, by ourselves as the person we are in conflict with may not share our Christian faith, but it is an important question to ask. In what way may God be at work, bringing his healing, his restoration? What is of importance to him?
In my situation, I confess that it took far too long for me to realise, but the penny did eventually drop. The actual work that we were doing, work supporting communities addressing poverty issues in Africa, was far more important than who got the credit, or who got the promotion. That’s where God was in this situation – in the good that was being done. It gave me a very different perspective on my disagreement.
Finally, the church in Jerusalem found a solution that extended grace to all. It would have been easy to dismiss the traditionalists out of hand, to tell them that their views were outmoded and outdated. But whilst the meeting was very clear – Gentiles do not need to become Jews or conform to Jewish religious laws – they urged Gentile Christians to live in such a way that enabled them to continue to have fellowship with their stricter brethren. There is grace here, love extended to those who may have been perceived as the “losers” in the debate.
In my work situation, I did not “win” the argument with my colleague, but grace was extended. He included me more in future decisions. He went out of his way to keep me informed. It took time, but the relationship that had been broken was restored. Following those principles in the early church, we found a way to resolve our conflict.
For all of us who may face conflict situations, there are no easy solutions, but the example of the early church may be of real help. We are called to love those we disagree with, and that can often mean meeting with them, listening to them, and discerning how God may be at work within them and the situation. And it means seeking a resolution where all may know they are loved and valued.
May God help us to respond with his love to the conflicts we face. Amen.