Peace in the Community – Jesus Lifestyle – Matthew 5.38-48 and Acts 6
Eleventh Sunday after Trinity
Acts 6, Matthew 5:38-48
Good morning my name is John Harris am privileged to share the message from Scripture this morning.
Several years ago, I officiated a wedding between a Dutch man and a Nigerian woman from our previous church. The wedding was scheduled to start at 2.00 and by 5 minutes before 2.00 the Dutch man’s family and friends were all present and waiting to start. However, very few of the Nigerian woman’s family or friends were there. Over the next 30-40 minutes they progressively arrived until at nearly 3.00 the bride finally arrived. At first the Dutch man’s family sat patiently, then a little less so until you could see on their faces that they were not very impressed by the situation. How would you respond? Get angry? Become resentful? Think of all the other things you could be doing with your time? Be thankful for time to relax or chat quietly with your neighbour?
Crossing cultures always has the potential for misunderstandings that can cause tensions in relationships. God’s heart is, for there to be peace and unity among God’s people, to see reconciliation occur – God desires to be reconciled with us and for us to be reconciled with each other.
In the Gospel reading today from the Sermon on the Mount we once again focus on the passage that we looked at previously – Matt 5.38-48. Rev Grant asked me to dig a little deeper into the Matthew 5 passage on conflict. Here Jesus teaches about the human desire for retaliation and getting even when we have been hurt by someone else. As in all Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus is trying to get his listeners to understand the importance of heart attitude – not just formal laws, rules or obligations. In this passage Jesus I think foreshadows the challenge of conflict that he knew the church would face. Jesus highlights our tendency to hit back when hurt, be defensive when we feel threatened, to safeguard our own interests and group when we feel others not from our group are benefitting when we aren’t. In tackling these key principles Jesus was preparing the disciples to outwork the teaching in their own lives and in the church. Jesus was building into his disciples these kingdom values for any relationship – that of love, forgiveness, humility. The same is true for us today as we relate to one another and deal with our own hurt.
We see in Jesus’ own life that he modelled what he taught –
in the face of opposition he demonstrated love and a generosity of spirit towards those who sought to bring him down. He didn’t shy away from pointing out hypocrisy or injustice, but he didn’t strike back. When conflict arose between his disciples, Jesus rebuked rivalry and jealousy, reminded them that the first shall be last and the last shall be first, he washed the disciples’ feet to show the importance of a servant heart, he prayed for unity and love to be at the heart of his followers. Some of Jesus’ last words on the cross were a prayer that his Father would forgive those who were responsible for killing him. Jesus’ life backed up his teaching leaving the disciples leaving with a clear understanding of the way of Jesus.
This is our challenge as his followers.
After Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, it was the task of the disciples and the church to heed the teaching and model of Jesus. In Acts 6 we see one example of the early church wrestling with putting Jesus’ teaching into practice – working out what it means to be a diverse community who follows Jesus. In the reading from Acts we discover that there were at least two cultural groups within the early church – Hebraic Jews who were born in the land of Judea and spoke Aramaic, while Hellenistic Jews came from across the Roman empire and spoke Greek. For both groups this was a new experience for until now they had not had to associate and be in such close community. They both might be Jewish followers of Jesus, but they had different cultures, different languages, traditions and ways of communicating and living. Sound familiar??
As the church grew and the apostles became busier the Hellenistic Jewish Christians felt that they were being neglected and treated unfairly in the distribution of food to the widows – most likely there was suspicion, rivalry, and misunderstandings due to religious, language and cultural differences. When conflict arose they had a choice to make – fight for their own group, retaliate against the other group, or do the hard work of seeking to live out what Jesus taught and modelled.
Over the last 20 years of cross-cultural mission work I have experienced these tensions both in teams I have led, and in teams that I have helped deal with these tensions. Our natural and initial response to those who are different and whose ways are different to ours is to put up barriers and seek to safeguard what we perceive to be our own interests. What I have learned through hard experience is that listening is vital, looking to shared interests, common goals and creative solutions that harness our differences. And significantly recognising that we are brothers and sisters in Christ.
The passage today from the sermon on the mount clearly calls for a radical commitment to love, as opposed to getting even. It is a love that goes beyond loving one’s own group to even loving one’s enemies. Jesus crossed many barriers to reach out to other – he included a tax collector and a zealot in his own group of core disciples, he spoke with a Samaritan woman, a prostitute, the unclean, the lowly and outcast. Jesus called for his disciples to be one as he and the Father were one. He taught that the world would know we follow Jesus by our love for one another. Jesus said the whole law could be summed up with these two great commandments – to love God and love others.
Jesus calls his followers, the body of Christ, the church to be a community with love at the centre of all relationships – love that was to be expressed in action, love that is unrestricted and not exclusive.
The Acts passage reveals that humans have a temptation to mostly care for those who are like ourselves. We can have a strong sense of in and out culture but Jesus challenges this and asks the same of us. The church is to be a welcoming place with a radical commitment to love in a way that is generous and open hearted.
So, going back to the problem between the Hebraic and Hellenistic Jewish Christians. I can imagine as the apostles sat down to find a solution to this cultural tension and rivalry in the early church, they would have reflected on what Jesus taught and what they saw Jesus do. Jesus own words about loving your enemy, loving your neighbour, not seeking to retaliate, and about peacemakers being blessed must have played a part in this attempt to reconcile the conflicting groups.
They decided on a practical solution to create a group of people who would attend to the practical needs of the new community. At least two of this group were from the Hellenistic group – Stephen and Phillip. In this way they preserved unity and the two groups could be reconciled with one another, each finding a place in the community. It valued both cultures and groups in the community resulting in space for the church to grow. Love, accepting the other, and seeking peace triumphed over retaliation, jealousy and building walls. I love the Message translation of Matt 5.24: “I’m telling you to love your enemies. Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst.” This is what we see the early church do here – they allowed the tension to bring out the best in each other.
Thankfully in All Saints we don’t have problems such as these, yet in a church that does have different cultures and languages, where people speak in languages which might not be their mother tongue, there is always potential for misunderstanding. Tensions and even conflict are to be expected but the important issue is how we deal with it. In my previous international church where I was on the pastoral team a point of tension was when should English or Dutch be spoken? Some people got offended by Dutch directness or frustrated by some culture’s lack of directness. Some people from some cultures wanted lively worship songs and dancing while others from preferred more reflective songs and worship.
What I tried to do as a leader was to listen to others, to start conversations with one another, to find common ground. Listening and sharing with one another and trying to understand each other’s perspective and looking to common interests was one practical step in dealing with these tensions.
As a church made up of different nationalities, we can expect misunderstandings. That is the reality of bringing different cultures, languages, and Christian church traditions together. At times we may feel a little uncomfortable or uncertain. However, as we continue to put into practice Jesus’ teaching, we do all we can to love each other and maintain the unity that we have as a church. The apostle Paul echoes Jesus’ teaching when he wrote to the church in Rome where there were cultural and other tensions between Jewish and Gentile Christians: Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone (Rom 12.17-18).
Some final thoughts from my mission and church experience –
- Be open to other ways different to your own
- Be curious and learn about other cultures – listen to and seek to understand others
- Be humble – we are not always right or have a monopoly on the best way to do things
- As we relate to one another with love we can find practical solutions as problems arise
- When we fail to be who we want, and misunderstandings occur, we extend grace towards each other offering and receiving forgiveness and working to set things right
- As we create space for difference it can lead to creative solutions reflecting the creativity of God
The church is first and foremost the body of Christ, it is secondarily ‘our’ community – not yours or mine but our community. We are in this together to love and serve God and each other, to work through our differences constructively. Jesus has not left us alone either. We have the Holy Spirit to draw on to guide and empower us in outworking Jesus’ teaching on conflict. As we together put this into practice we model and reflect Jesus’ own character – loving, generous, just, inclusive, seeking the best for the other, practical, and sacrificial.
John Harris, August 2021.