“But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed.” The language used in the epistle reading today seems a bit frightening. We may ask, “Is God is ready to bring us to ultimate destruction?” The truth is that the Good News of God in Christ is an announcement that God is in the business of reconciliation and not destruction. God doesn’t give up on us. Today’s epistle writer asserts, “The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance.” God’s is patient as we work through our problems and differences so we might move forward in mission together.
God does not want any of us, both as individuals and as the Body of Christ corporate to perish. Throughout the history of the Church, the one sure sign that the Church was perishing, was when the body became divided over conflict. Despite what we may believe, conflict is not a bad thing. We might believe it is because we are called to be peacemakers. For some folks, conflict is a sin and something to be avoided at all costs. Jesus might have said, “When two or three are gathered in my name, I am there in the midst of them,” but I imagine he also knew that when two or three people are gathered, there are at least three differing opinions about any subject that might come up for discussion. Jesus was not conflict avoidant throughout his ministry. He and the religious leaders clashed many times over differing ideas. Jesus and the crafter of today’s epistle even had a little disagreement that resulted in Jesus telling the Apostle Peter, “get behind me Satan.”
Conflict is not something we should avoid because we fear it is dreadful thing. It is not in the differences of opinion that we fail as Christians. Typically is in how we deal with conflict that can be an awful, fearful, and anxiety producing situation. We can deal with tensions in any number of ways. We can be avoidant and hope the issue goes away, we can work together sharing ideas so we can come up with alternative solutions, we can compromise and each party give a little, we can force the issue without regard to the feelings of the other, or we can passively submit to the wishes of others. Different circumstances all require different responses to conflict and sometimes the options available may at times, require a unique type of response. This fact is nothing new to the church.
One of the first examples of conflict in the church originated because Gentiles were kept out of the fellowship of the church. This little conflict erupted between the Apostles Peter and Paul and it was settled later at the Council of Jerusalem. The Church through the Spirit collaboratively came to the conclusion that it was in the interest of the mission to allow us Gentiles to participate in the life of the church. Good thing for us, eh? There are other historical examples in the history of the church when leaders had to make more time-sensitive decisions in order to avert disaster, and in those times discerning the best course of action required bold action. In both examples, there was the potential for conflict and in both examples the tensions were dealt with in different ways, but both embraced Christian love, patience, and a desire for reconciliation and understanding.
How we deal with conflict and how we approach it in a Christian manner is crucial to keeping the community from perishing. When tensions emerge, sometimes our individual needs will conflict with the needs of the Body of Christ. Sometimes dealing with tensions requires us to take a step back, and evaluate things from the perspective of the overall mission of the community. When we practice this type of discernment, we recognize we are baptized into a community. As a community each of us had different gifts, different ministries, and different wants and desires, but we are ONE BODY. God’s desire is for the overall health of the body and that might outweigh the issues of conflict at hand. When the Body is healthy, we are able to sustain our mission, which is to bring others to unity with God in Christ. Sometimes for the health of the body, we must make some painful choices.
A man went to the doctor with a terrible wound on his arm that was bleeding profusely, oozing infection and causing severe pain. The man asked the physician if he could just put some medicine on the wound and maybe bandage it so he wouldn’t have to look at it any more. The doctor had to tell the man that the only way for real healing to take effect; it would be necessary to explore the extent of the damage in his arm, clean out the wound, remove the infection, delicately care for all the tissue around it, and then apply the healing balm that would restore him to full health. The man was conflicted, but he knew a change was necessary. As painful as it would be, the man could not continue with his arm as it had been.
We all realize that sometimes the most painful things can be the most helpful to our health, but change can be a painful thing for us. Many times, conflict emerges because even when we don’t want it, change may be necessary. Making a change for a new circumstance, changing from what we have known before and with what we have become comfortable, is always a place of possible conflict, but it is not something to avoid.
Communities have over the centuries become polarized over any number of change issues. Sometimes it happens over theological differences. Sometimes it happens when there are disagreements over social issues. Sometimes it happens over little things like the way we should dress on Sunday, the type of music we choose to sing or not, or maybe it’s the way the priest cuts his or her hair. Living in Christian community means that we have to accept the hard truth that conflict avoidance is unhealthy to the body. What we really must do is deal with our disagreements in love and mutual understanding. We must be willing to hear and listen and trust each other, and most certainly, we must be patient with each other especially when we disagree.
In one of Jesus’ parables, a young son one day out of the blue prematurely his father for his share of the father’s estate. In actuality, he was asking for more than just an early withdrawal of his inheritance check. By his actions, he was rejecting the most important relationship in his life so that he could pursue his own wants, needs, and desires. In this relational estrangement, he eventually found himself in a pig sty wishing he could come home. That is not the end of the story because this father never gave up and waited patiently for his son’s return. Like the prodigal son, when our relationships become estranged because of conflict, God awaits patiently for our return so that we can enjoy the reconciliation of a restored relationship. We are a people bound together through the waters of baptism, and because of the power of the Gospel message, we believe we can live in patience, forgiveness, and repentance. Repentance is not merely saying I’m sorry, it has a deeper meaning. It means to turn, to change, and to choose a new path. We are empowered for repentance by the Spirit that is the purifying us and bringing us together in unity and peace. The transformative work of the Holy Spirit in us though can be a frightening thing, because it means we must change and that in itself is a source of tension, conflict, and uneasiness.
The language in today’s epistle about heavens passing with a loud noise, elements being dissolved with fire, and everything done will being disclosed, is pretty frightening stuff. At first, the imagery mirrors that of a Hollywood movie depicting the cataclysmic end of the world events. I am not convinced that this is what Peter is referring to in his letter. Some scholars assert that Peter is using radical metaphors like the “melting of elements with fire,” so the hearers of the word might understand the powerful purifying work of the Spirit in us.
If you have ever witnessed a forest fire, you will have seen the terribly destructive force that burns up millions of acres each year. There is an obvious destructive element to a forest fire, but there is also a purifying character as well. Old limbs are scorched and dead grass and leaves are destroyed. However, in a few weeks the earth is once again replenished with the ashes of what was once before. The forest by the cleansing work of fire is able to replenish itself and out of the ashes, shoots of new growth emerge.
The grace of the Spirit’s work in us is God’s cleansing fire of purification. Even in the midst of conflict, disagreements and divisions, God is working to heal the wounds of our estrangement. Healing happens when in humility and with grace we learn to die to ourselves. When we let go of what we hold so dear and allow the Holy Spirit to heal us, we are brought back into unity with God and each other in Christ. We are transformed from the old to the new, from what was to what will be, from death to life.
While in a meeting a few weeks ago, I noticed outside the back window of my office a beautiful butterfly flying about. Her joy was obvious as she flitted around and occasionally resting momentarily on one of the branches outside the window. Every day, this little butterfly shows up. I think sometimes her presence is an intentional reminder to me of the beauty of God’s grace. The butterfly, by her mere existence, exudes the sheer joy of what it means to fully live into that to which we have been made. The other day as I watched my little friend, I noticed something new in the corners of two of the window panes. There, near the branches where my little butterfly dances, two new cocoons can be found. In those tiny little cases reside larvae, but something else is there too. Inside each shell is the potential for two more butterflies, but for that to occur, the larva must die to what it once was, so that it might emerge as something beyond anything it can imagine. There is a tension in the life of this little creature as it must considers what it is now, and what it might be if it merely embraced its calling. If it can merely embrace the conflict emerging because of the change about to occur, not avoiding it, not fighting against it, but remaining with it and working through it, the potential that transition can bring, will be an amazing thing.
As a Christian community we have and will face many challenges in our common life together. How we deal with those tensions, those disagreements, and those conflicts will define not only us a group of Christians, but it will directly impact how we witness to God’s love to the people around us. If we can embrace the Good News of God’s reconciling love, embrace and welcome the tensions inherent in common life, if we can be patient with each other as God is patient with us, and if we can create space for grace to abound, we will emerge as a people, a committed loving people, a Christ-like people whose joy, patience, and forgiveness will reflect God’s love in the world right here among us, and for those who look to us to live out the Gospel in our everyday lives.