By Linda Rex
PALM/PASSION SUNDAY—I remember years ago sitting in a church service listening to a pastor talk about conflict and how as couples, it was important to have good communication skills and be able to handling conflict in positive ways. I had learned over the years that the best way to deal with conflict was to avoid it altogether. Now, granted, approaching conflict through avoidance does seem temporarily to create a more peaceful atmosphere in the home. The reality is, though, this method of dealing with conflict exacts a pretty steep price in the end.
When we don’t engage issues as they come up between us and the significant people in our lives, we really don’t create peace. What we create is a mound of unresolved issues that may erupt later as a destructive volcano when stressful events occur in our lives. Avoidance can actually prevent the true resolution of conflict. Handling conflict in healthy ways may in fact increase intimacy and bring healing to the relationship—we may miss out on opportunities to deepen our relationship with another by avoiding conflict.
Yes, we are told “If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men” (Rom. 12:18 NASB). In the context of this passage, though, we are told not to give back to others the evil they have done to us and we are not to exact revenge on them for the harm they have done us. The point Paul was making, I believe, was that we respond to their evil with good—this is the best way to treat someone who is mistreating you.
This is nigh to impossible for us as humans to do in our own strength. It is definitely counter-intuitive and rubs against the grain of our fallen humanity. If we are honest with ourselves, our response to conflict with another person is make sure our position is defended, our opinion protected and affirmed, and that the other person understands and accepts that we are right and they are very wrong. The way we often do conflict when driven by our flesh involves opposition, condemnation or criticism, and unforgiveness. And when we feel unable to defend our position, we may choose to avoid engaging altogether.
During Lent, we are walking the journey with Jesus toward death and resurrection. What might be helpful is to remember that this journey began long before this cosmos was ever created. The Word of God could have said to Abba, “I really don’t want to have to deal with these humans. I know what they are like. They’re not going to live in relationship with us like they were created to—all they will want to do is go their own way and live in opposition to us. We’ll have conflict all the time.” And he would have been right.
But the Word of God did not avoid conflict by not coming to be with us. Rather he expressed a divine humility in embracing our humanity and taking it upon himself. He did not reject our weaknesses or failures to love, but engaged them fully, face-to-face with us in our human flesh. For him, this conflict would serve a purpose—to restore us to the relationship with God we were created for and to remake our humanity into what it was created to be, enabling us to truly reflect the image of God.
This Sunday we are reminded both of the events of Palm Sunday and those of Holy Week. On Palm Sunday, we see Jesus intentionally walking towards Jerusalem and the events which would transpire there. In the gospel accounts, we hear Jesus warning his disciples of what he was facing—his death and resurrection. Even though all his disciples didn’t fully realize what he was saying, they believed what Jesus was doing as he entered Jerusalem that day was significant enough that they participated in the celebration of hosannas and laying down palm branches.
Symbolically, we see Jesus being treated as a triumphant deliverer. The Jewish leaders wanted the hosannas silenced. But Jesus acknowledged this was his day—this was his time. Creation knew its Maker and would honor him even if these people did not.
Jesus wasn’t interested in being acknowledged as a hero, though. He knew the path he walked was a path of conflict and betrayal. Even the one who promised he would never walk away or deny him did. And the one he knew would betray him did so, offering him up to the Jews for a few coins. Jesus did not try to defend himself, but allowed himself to be misunderstood, misrepresented and humiliated. How many of us are willing to engage in a conflict with this measure of self-effacing humility?
The journey of Holy Week takes us from triumph to ignominy. In engaging humanity on its own ground, Jesus experienced crucifixion and death. He was willing to go to these lengths in order for him and his Father in the Spirit to be reconciled with humanity once and for all. What price are we willing to pay in order to make things right in our relationships with others?
Needless to say, it has been impressed on my heart once again that there is no place for avoidance in our significant relationships. Walking in the Spirit rather than in the flesh means walking in the reality of Jesus’ complete offering of himself in spite of what he knew we would do to him on the cross.
It also means that there will be times when on our side, there is no conflict—we are fully accepting, forgiving, and loving toward the other. These can be times where all the other wants to do is live in opposition to us, pouring out on us whatever venom or destruction they can muster up. This is when we don’t avoid the conflict, but rather respond as Jesus did, in offering love and grace—God’s goodness—in place of the evil being offered us. We don’t act in our flesh and take revenge, but walk in the Spirit and with healthy boundaries in place we offer God’s grace and love. The ground of Jesus’ death and resurrection is where we take our stand, and in Christ by the Spirit we find the power and heart to love and serve the one who opposes us.
Conflict then becomes not a ground for hostility or relational destruction, but a sacred offering of openness to the power of the Spirit to deepen and heal the relationship. We don’t need to fear conflict, for in Christ it becomes a way in which Jesus’ can work to bind us together with God and with one another in deeper and healthier ways. The beauty of Jesus’ wilderness journey is that it ends up in an eternal loving relationship of God and humanity bound together forever, not at conflict with one another but in perfect unity. The humility of the cross ends in glory!
Dear Jesus, thank you that you did not refuse to engage us in face-to-face conflict but chose to embrace conflict as a means by which we would be forever united with you and Abba in the Spirit. Thank you, Abba, for participating with Jesus in this mighty work of redemption and renewal. And thank you, Holy Spirit, for working into our being and our relationships that grace and love which Jesus lived out in his life, death, resurrection, and ascension. Amen.
“Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” Philippians 2:8 NASB
“I gave My back to those who strike Me, / And My cheeks to those who pluck out the beard; / I did not cover My face from humiliation and spitting. For the Lord GOD helps Me, / Therefore, I am not disgraced; / Therefore, I have set My face like flint, / And I know that I will not be ashamed. He who vindicates Me is near; / Who will contend with Me? / Let us stand up to each other; / Who has a case against Me? / Let him draw near to Me. Behold, the Lord GOD helps Me; / Who is he who condemns Me? / Behold, they will all wear out like a garment; / The moth will eat them.” Isaiah 50:6-9 NASB
by Linda Rex
This week I was reading an article about the recent upswing in homicides which has been happening in our church neighborhood. Although it’s hard to know exactly what is sparking this upswing in these individual events which don’t seem to have any tie to one another, the article made an interesting observation: “…most shootings are not completely random. If you look closely, they’re often fallout of interpersonal conflict that can go back and forth over months or even years.” ( See http://nashvillepublicradio.org/post/homicides-spike-east-nashville-precinct-its-commander-looks-answers#stream/0 )
Everywhere I look I am beginning to see and sense a deep sense of rage underlying people’s response to politics, relationships, and even stopping too long at a red light. It seems to me that we are growing into a generation who do not know how to have healthy relationships or how to handle conflict in healthy ways. It’s so much easier to defriend someone on Facebook than to have a difficult conversation in which healthy limits are set and respected by each person involved.
But there is a reality we cannot ignore and it is that in spite of all our efforts to create an orderly, safe society, we cannot create one by simply legislating right behavior and enforcing laws. I believe there is a fundamental disconnect between our desire to be free individuals who can make our own choices and live our own agenda, and the reality of living in community. This is because living in loving, respectful community requires a change in our being, not just in our doing. And that is the issue.
We have, whether we want to admit it or not, an inner drive to be our own masters and in control of what we do and don’t do. We also want to be free to live uninhibited by rules or the control of another human being—unless of course, giving that control over to another person allows us to feel in control of our safety and peace. We want to be free to do what we want, when we want, how we want, without God (if we believe there is one) or anyone else telling us otherwise.
The problem with this type of freedom and control is, we live in a world with millions of other people who also have this same desire for freedom and control. When one person’s desires and plans clash with another’s—we have conflict. When one group’s agenda clashes with another group’s agenda, we end up with war. And this is not what we were created for.
Such an intense desire to be free and rulers over our own lives is not necessarily an evil thing in and of itself. In many ways it is a reflection of the God in whose image we were created. God has given us this world and our lives to be responsible for—they are ours to care for, use responsibly, and to share with others. And we need to be doing those things. And God, in his being, is fully and completely free. We reflect that.
But we need to realize God’s freedom is not the type of freedom we believe we were created with and for. This is a different kind of freedom from just doing what you want, when you want, and how you want. God’s freedom is held within his real existence as a Being who lives in other-centered love. The Word of God who came into our human flesh revealed to us a God who is Father, Son and Spirit and who lives in a relationship of equality, diversity and unity which the church fathers would later call circumincession or perichoresis.
These are interesting terms. The first one, circumincession, was used to express an ongoing movement of pouring out from one into another and receiving in return. If we were to give this some consideration, we would realize we as human beings, made in the image of this God, were designed to be other-centered persons who live in a constant existence in which we pour out from ourselves into others so we may receive that which is poured out into us. This constant pouring out and receiving is a movement which exists within true loving community.
A misguided sense of personal freedom shortcircuits true community. When a person turns away from those around them and seeks only to receive and not to give, this kills healthy relationship. The natural give and take which should occur between people cannot because there are walls between them, or there is abuse, neglect, indifference—you name it. We do all these things to one another because we are broken. And we find ourselves unable or unwilling to live together with others in the mutual submission, the compassion and understanding, and the mutual giving and receiving we were created for.
In my opinion, we do not need more rules to live by. Rules just create in us a desire to break them or to beat other people over the heads with them. We don’t need more legislators or enforcers. What we need is to realize and live out the truth of what God meant for us to be from the beginning. We need a deep realization of who we are, and whose image we were created to reflect, and to begin to live out of this center or core in our being.
God created us with good hearts, to live in loving relationship—this is the truth of our being. When we don’t live in this way, we are miserable and we make everyone around us miserable too. It seems we choose to live in misery, and God knew that wasn’t what we were created for. So he came himself in Jesus and allowed us to dump on him all the rage and evil of our broken humanity. And in doing so, he restored our broken humanity.
God’s purpose in allowing what we did to Jesus was to provide each one of us with the capacity for true humanity again. God gives us through his Son Jesus and by his Spirit what we really need—a change of heart and mind. We need a change of being which will drive a change in our doing. We need to be transformed by grace. So God in Jesus Christ made a way.
When a person comes to themselves—i.e. realizes they are not living as they were created by God to live, and not being the person they were created by God to be—it is a humbling experience. And I think God intends us to come to this place over and over in our lives, not so we can beat ourselves up, but so that we will face our need for him to heal, transform and renew us, and so we will invite him to enter in and begin to create in us anew the capacity for true, healthy relationship with God and with the people in our lives.
This is the whole purpose of the gift of the Spirit at Pentecost. The Spirit creates true community among all people, because all people have been included in Christ’s life, death, resurrection and ascension. The Spirit can be resisted, rejected, and even quenched, but this gentle Dove works diligently to resolve differences, to renew relationships and to heal wounded hearts. The Spirit can be invited to stay or be ignored. Either way, the Spirit is still present and at work—it is our experience of God’s presence which is unfelt or felt.
When we open ourselves to the Spirit’s work, we experience the reality that Christ is here in the midst of us, drawing each and every one us together into loving community. I am more and more convinced each day what we really need in our neighborhood, and throughout our world, is for God by his Spirit to breathe new life into each of us.
Darkness and evil will continue to resist the Spirit of life and truth. But in time Light will drives away the darkness, for darkness is merely the absence of light. Those who live and walk in the Light of God’s love and grace need to be willing to share in the sufferings of Jesus—for truth and grace are always resisted in some way. May we have the strength and wisdom to continue to demonstrate in a real way in spite of resistance and opposition what it means to live in loving community, and to suffer for the sake of love and grace, through Jesus our Lord, and by his Spirit.
Abba, thank you for the gift of your love, truth and grace. Thank you for rescuing us from evil, sin and death through your Son Jesus, and for sending us your Spirit so we could begin to recognize and experience true community. We pray you will breathe your Life into our neighborhood and indeed our world so we can live once again in the love and fellowship we were created for. Drive out the darkness with your Light. Enable us to experience the truth of the perichoretic life we were created for. In your Name Jesus we pray. Amen.
“You, however, did not come to know Christ that way. Surely you heard of him and were taught in him in accordance with the truth that is in Jesus. You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.” Eph 4:20–24 NASB