You may know the story of a question set in a training examination for police recruits:
‘You are on the beat and you see two dogs fighting. The dogs knock a baby out of its pram, causing a car to swerve off the road, smashing into a grocer’s shop. A pedestrian is severely injured, but during the confusion a woman’s bag is snatched, a crowd of onlookers chase after the thief and, in the huge build-up of traffic, the ambulance is blocked from the victim of the crash.
‘State, in order of priority, your course of action.’
One recruit wrote, ‘Take off uniform and mingle with crowd.’
Which direction do you walk in when there is conflict? Do you walk towards it, or do you – like the police recruit – behave like Jesus really said, ‘Go out into the world, shut up and keep your heads down’?
Perhaps you want to avoid conflict, because you see the potential it has to be destructive. And so our theme this week is about how we can affirm hope in conflict. Because if we come through conflict healthily, it can be constructive, it can result in growth.
So how can we approach conflict in hope?
Firstly, we can have a hopeful attitude to conflict by looking to our future goal. Hope is about what the future will hold, so if we can envisage a future goal and work towards it through conflict, that will help.
And – surprise, surprise – Paul has that in mind in Ephesians 4. It’s about unity, one of the things we fear will be a casualty of conflict. He starts the chapter with the fact that God has already given us unity in Christ, and he looks for us to maintain and build that unity. So the unity that is already given is present in all the ‘one body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all’ language (verses 4-6), but he also calls us to ‘make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace’ (verse 3, italics mine). By the end of the passage, he is talking about us as one body, where every part does its work together in love (verses 15-16).
Our goal, then, is unity. We have been given and entrusted a basic unity of the Spirit in Christ, but it is our duty to live out the unity we have been given.
What does that mean for us when conflict arises? It means we engage in the humility, gentleness and patience that Paul writes about (verse 2). None of these qualities is about compromising our convictions – humility doesn’t simply mean lying down, rolling over and saying to the other person, “Well of course I was wrong, you are right.” It does mean we bring a certain attitude of heart and mind to the discussion, where we value the worth of the person we disagree with, where we do not shoot them down on the assumption that we are always right and they are always wrong. It means we treat those we disagree with as people who – like us – are made in the image of God, and so should be treated with dignity, love and respect, however much we may genuinely believe they are in the wrong. If we only see conflict as a battle to win, we shall end up with disunity. But if our goal is to resolve our differences honestly and become more united, then we shall bring humility, gentleness and patience to the table. Again, this does not mean we walk away from conflict or pretend it isn’t happening, because those strategies just perpetuate the open wound. But we hold our convictions with a Christ-like heart.
So – to those of you whose natural instinct is to charge into conflict aggressively, I say – by all means don’t duck the conflict, but do take a step back before you get involved in order to check your heart. Please make sure you are entering the fray with humility, gentleness and patience.
And to those of you who find conflict stressful and who would rather duck out, I say – your gifts are needed in order to heal the tensions. You do not need to be afraid of voicing your beliefs, there is an important place for those who would put their point across quietly. We need to hear you, too, and remember that assertiveness is not about being belligerent, it is simply about being able to state your position, your desires and your needs. That truly can be done in a Christ-like way.
There is a second future goal in Ephesians 4, and it is maturity. Listen again to the final three verses of the reading, and note the references to growing up:
Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. 15 Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. 16 From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.
From infants to a mature body. That is our goal. How often is it that among a group of people who are physically grown up, the level of behaviour when it comes to working through conflict is nothing less than childish? Too often I have come across actions in churches by adults that amount to more than “It’s my ball, I’m taking it home and you’re not playing.”
So what makes for maturity, according to Paul? His answer would appear to be, getting stuck into Christian service. Tracing back the few verses before these, maturity in the church comes from his people learning to serve, and that’s what leaders are about. Immaturity comes when people just say, “Feed me, feed me, I’m not being fed,” and they complain and spread disgruntlement. It’s no good treating Sunday morning as once-a-week spiritual feeding station, then just going away until next week. That’s a consumer mentality that thinks everything we like must be laid on for us, and we should get something for what we pay. Such an attitude knows little or nothing of the Gospel, and it therefore causes strife in the church by its moaning and bleating.
If we are to be hopeful, then, about conflict, we shall see that one of the ways we can become a more mature, grown-up fellowship is by committing ourselves to serve Christ by serving one another and serving the world. That way, we become less me-centred and more God-centred and other-centred. This takes us away from the complaining state of mind that inevitably follows from a mentality that expects everything in the church to be provided on a plate for me. Too often, the problems we deal with are caused when someone moans that the church in some way let her down, when she has not been cultivating an attitude of service herself.
You see, we are not just shaped as people by what we think: we are shaped by our desires and by our actions. And even if we do not currently desire to serve, we should begin serving, because eventually such action will affect our desires and our attitudes towards others.
Thirdly and finally, although I have touched on some practical action as we have considered how our hopes shape us, there is a particular course of action to which Paul calls us to aspire in our desire to grow into maturity. And yes, it comes in those words of his that have become a hackneyed expression in Christian circles: speaking the truth in love (verse 15). This, he says, helps us grow.
But ‘speaking the truth in love’ is difficult. Some of us are better at truth than love, and so we go up to someone and offer ‘a word in love’, which turns out to be cover for negative criticism. Others of us are better at love than truth, and we use love as a justification to avoid a conflict when one is actually needed.
How, then, can we break the impasse? Let me offer a suggestion. While the context and other uses of the word almost certainly refer to ‘speaking the truth in love’, the literal translation here is, ‘truthing in love’. In general, there is not simply an obligation upon Christians simply to speak the truth but to live the truth. Some of our problems are caused by barstool Prime Ministers who love to criticise but do little to live out the Gospel. We need fewer pontificators and more practitioners. When we are devoted to practising the Gospel life – to ‘truthing in love’ – our hearts become softened by grace. We are aware of how much we need the mercy of God, and this affects the way we approach others.
Naturally, it will also bring us into greater connection with the holiness of God, and this will alert us to many things that are wrong with the church and the world. But before that happens, the holiness of God will expose what is wrong with us.
Equally, for those of us who are too nervous to confront an issue and prefer to pretend it’s not a problem at all, living the truth leads us into a greater courage so that we can bring problems out of the darkness into the light where they can be dealt with healthily.
Unity, maturity, truthing in love – yes, we do actually have cause for hope in the face of conflict.
If in last week’s sermon I began by alluding to 1960s television with Opportunity Knocks, in this week let us move forward to the 1980s, to the birth of breakfast television and the arrival on our screen of fitness instructors in lurid spandex leotards. If you didn’t go out to work, or if you worked from home, then almost as soon as your cereal had settled in your stomach, an energetic extraverted fitness expert was there to help it all come back through vigorous exercise.
Yes, this morning I bring back to your thoughts the memory of Mr Motivator (or Derrick, to his friends). I can offer prayer afterwards for anyone who finds the recollection too traumatic.
But I do want to talk about motivation today. Not, how do we motivate people to take more physical exercise, but how do we motivate the people of God to live as a Christlike community? How do we become more like a family that bears the resemblance of our heavenly Father and of our elder brother Jesus?
In this most famous of passages in Philippians, Paul gives us three motivations to live our common life as the church in a manner befitting of Jesus Christ.
Firstly, he gives his readers some incentives. I’m sure you have used incentives to motivate people to do something. “If you do that, you’ll get extra pocket money.” “If you don’t do what I want, you’ll lose pocket money.” “If you do this for the company, you could earn a bonus.”
People who observe Christians have to cope with the high degree to which we get involved with things such as community service, and sometimes the uncomfortable fact that Christians do more than average requires an explanation from them. One such explanation that I have heard from some contemporary atheists is that what drives Christians is their fear of burning in hell. As the rock group Crowded House sang in their song ‘Distant Sun’, ‘Like a Christian fearing vengeance from above.’
But nothing could be further from the truth for Christ-followers. We are not motivated by fear of frying, we are motivated by the love of God. The words of the seventeenth century Latin hymn which we know as ‘My God, I love thee not because’ put it well:
My God, I love thee; not because
I hope for heaven thereby,
nor yet because who love thee not
are lost eternally.
Thou, O Lord Jesus, thou didst me
upon the cross embrace;
for me didst bear the nails and spear,
and manifold disgrace,
And griefs and torments numberless,
and sweat of agony;
yea, death itself; and all for me
who was thine enemy.
Then why, O blessed Jesus Christ,
should I not love thee well,
not for the sake of winning heaven,
nor any fear of hell;
not with the hope of gaining aught,
not seeking a reward;
but as thyself hast loved me,
O ever loving Lord!
So would I love thee, dearest Lord,
and in thy praise will sing,
solely because thou art my God
and my most loving King.
And it’s that positive incentive Paul gives the Philippian Christians in verse 1:
Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion …
It’s all about their experience of God’s love, of being loved and giving love. If you need an incentive to live the Christlike life in community with your brothers and sisters, it is this. God loves you. He has united you with his Son. You are comforted by his love. You participate in the things of the Spirit. You experience tenderness and compassion.
No Christian needs to be stirred up by terror about eternal consequences. We already know that we are loved with an everlasting love. We can be humbly confident in the love of God for us. It is there in God’s promises. It is there in God’s actions. It is there in our spiritual experience. Let us live as the family of God because his love has drawn us to himself and drawn us to one another in his presence.
But what would that involve? We therefore secondly nevertheless hear of our obligations:
then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. 3 Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, 4 not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. (Verses 2-4)
You can sum up the obligations here in two words: ‘unity’ and ‘humility’. Unity comes in the words ‘like-minded … same love … one in spirit and of one mind’. Humility comes in doing ‘nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit’ but ‘in humility valu[ing] others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests’.
These are to be the characteristics of the Christian family: unity and humility. We are to seek unity in our thinking and goals, bound together by love. That means selfish ambition goes – holy ambition is fine, that is, ambition for the glory of God, but we must not be self-seeking. And vain conceit must go too, because our motivations in the Church are not to seek applause for ourselves but for Christ.
The thing about this is, most of us will sign up to unity and humility without hesitation. Voting against unity and humility is for Christians like voting against apple pie. Yet what we have to watch is the small, subtle temptation. I have to win the argument all the time. I do little things that just elevate my reputation in small, almost indiscernible increments. What I claim to be the cause of Christ is really my own personal campaign.
What are the antidotes? Perhaps some of it comes in Paul’s exhortations to ‘value others above ourselves’. It isn’t that we don’t value ourselves at all – one of the lessons of dealing with my parents’ frailty has been the hard one that I have done all I can but I can’t do it all, and if I try to do it all I will become ill and no good to anyone. So I must value myself to a certain extent, but I mustn’t put myself on a pedestal.
The great thing about valuing others above ourselves is that unity and humility flow as a result. If with a good heart I seek someone else’s well-being, then I will become more united with them. If I do this truly, then by necessity I value them from a posture of humility, because this is an act of service.
Yet what we need to remember above all is that these things don’t just happen automatically. We need to be utterly deliberate in our intentions and actions of valuing others. It must be a conscious decision that we act out. As the American preacher Vance Havner once said,
The vision must be followed by the venture. It is not enough to stare up the steps – we must step up the stairs.
Imagine what the effect might be if we did, though. Just as it was said of the early disciples, ‘See how these Christians love one another’, wouldn’t it be wonderful if that were what people said of us in this community?
Thirdly, finally and supremely, we are motivated by the story of Jesus. Now you would expect Jesus to trump everything. He is our example. We are to imitate him, are we not – daunting as that may sound?
But Jesus is not a vague set of principles and laws. Jesus is a person, indeed the Second Person of the eternal Trinity, who became human. He has a story, a narrative, and that is what is compelling for us: his story. He actually lived the things he calls us to do as his family. He has modelled it all for us.
And of course ‘story’ is an engaging and persuasive medium for us humans. You don’t generally communicate truth, goodness and beauty to children by getting them to recite a list of laws in the same way that they learn their times tables by rote. You tell them stories. Many adults find the same is true. It’s why novels, TV shows and films are such strong parts of our culture. The story is magnetic, captivating and convincing. Somewhere embedded in the story are the values of the author.
Nowhere is this truer than in the story of Jesus. And Paul gives his readers a miniature summary of Jesus’ story (verses 5-11), telling of how he who came from the highest heaven put aside all his status to become a servant and obey his Father, even to the humiliation of the Cross. Yet God vindicated that humility by raising him and exalting him, so that one day every being in the universe will recognise him as Lord. When Debbie did her jury duty at the coroner’s court in the summer, everyone had to stand when the coroner himself came into the court or left; similarly, when the name of Jesus is announced at the end of time, all will not stand but bow as an act of homage. That is how far the Father has vindicated his Son for his humility and obedience.
The great thing about what Paul does is that he carries the story of Jesus beyond what the Philippians know. They know Jesus was incarnate, they know about his humble life and death, they know that God raised him from the dead, but they don’t know the climax of the story where the tables are so completely turned that the Humbled One receives the humble praise of all creation. Will not the Judge of the earth do right? Why, yes he will.
As Paul tells the whole arc of the Jesus story, going beyond what we know in the Gospels to the resolution of all the conflict and tension, he gives us an incredible motivation to live as the family of God. Is it that Jesus is our example in how to live in the power of the Spirit? Yes – but it is more here. Paul gives us more than a model for living. He says more than, ‘Copy Jesus’. If that were all he gave us, we might not have much more than a dull moral lecture.
However, the full story of Jesus motivates us to live as a united, humble family. How? By showing us how God ultimately treats those who live in humble obedience. He vindicates them. He exalts them.
Oh, to be sure, all creation will not bow down at the sound of our names – we are not entitled to worship as Jesus is. But our God is the God of the great reversal. Not only does he call us to values that turn upside down the assumptions of the world, he then confirms that upside down way as the true grain of the universe in final judgement. For judgement to God is not simply the punishment of the wicked, it is vindication, too. And those who are willing to live the humble life of service, seeking to build up the family of God by valuing others above themselves are those who will be vindicated by God at the end of all things. These are the people who can expect to hear the words all Christians covet: ‘Well done, good and faithful servant.’ It’s the story of Jesus as told here by Paul that gives them that hope, and the motivation to live for it.
Do we want, then, to live as the family of God? Are we willing to put in the effort under the leading of the Holy Spirit? Let us find incentive in the love of God to fulfil our obligations to unity and humility. And let us be motivated by the vision given to us in the story of Jesus, as we go through our travails, for God is the master storyteller, and although he gives us freedom to improvise our characters, we know he has planned justification for his humble people.