Last week we looked at the role of the church as salt and as light in our communities. How we could make a difference in both an unobtrusive and perhaps a more open and obvious way. This week we consider one important aspect of that role – arguably the most important, the key role of the church of Christ. That is the role of the church in healing and reconciliation. Jesus is described as the ‘one who will bring healing to the nations’. Paul in his letter to Titus writes of Jesus ‘The grace of God has dawned upon the world with healing for all mankind’. Reconciliation and healing lie at the very centre of the Christian faith; they are central to our understanding of the cross – salvation means ‘healing’. One of the introductions to the sharing of peace at the eucharist reminds us that ‘Christ is our peace; he has reconciled us to God in one body by the cross. Jesus came to save, to heal, to bridge that divide, that gulf between God and human beings – and to help us be reconciled with one another.
On Wednesday, I was privileged to attend a talk by a Muslim gentleman to the children at Bawdsey school. He began by explaining how the words ‘muslim’ and ‘islam’ come from a common root, from the Arabic word for ‘peace’. A ‘muslim’ is one who is at peace with himself, with others and with nature. So far from the image which is portrayed on our television screens. It is perhaps ‘human nature’ that the ‘bad examples’ are the ones which grab our attention. It comes as something of a surprise – even to me who should know better – just how central peace is to Islam. So too with Christianity. We speak, sing, of the Prince of Peace, of Jesus who came to preach peace to those who are far off and peace to those who are near; the One who will bring healing to the nations. Yet we are challenged by the current situation in the Central African Republic, in Northern Ireland, by all those stories in the media about conflict and division between Christians and situations where Christians seem to be doing little to bring reconciliation and healing.
Reconciliation is at the heart of the gospel, yet everyday experience, underscored by even a tiny knowledge about Church history, proves that it is easier to talk about it than to practise it. Following his inauguration, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, acknowledged the difficulty of ‘managing discord gracefully’.
The church – we, here on this peninsula – need to develop a role in healing divisions, bringing people together, in managing discord gracefully rather than encouraging division and separation. Not just within the church but within and between our communities. Through prayer, God the Holy Spirit will lead us into transforming situations and people. We need to make that connection between what we do and say, and who we are, in church and when we meet others at work and at meetings of other organisations. It IS challenging!
It is arguably ‘natural’, but not always helpful, to lose one’s temper after experiencing a perceived injustice, or on seeing someone we care about being wronged. Today’s news items are full of people who have lost their temper over a range of significant issues. Whether their anger achieves results is a matter for debate. In today’s gospel reading, Jesus points out the dangers of losing one’s temper and the way it can be counterproductive both for God’s purposes and ours.
It is not always easy to remain calm in the face of some calamity or injustice. For instance, those caught up in the severe weather that is wreaking havoc in parts of this country, are naturally distraught when they see their previously ordered lives suddenly turned upside down. We have witnessed a lot of anger from those who believe the Government and the related agencies have not done enough to prevent the flooding, and then alleviate the problems that they have caused.
But several individuals and groups, while still being angry at what they perceive as a lack of coherence in the government-led response, have taken matters into their own hands and sought to build their own flood defences, as well as rescue those in danger. It is so encouraging to see farmers in this part of the country sending fodder and bedding to help those who have been so badly affected.
On the other hand, the government and the various agencies have been arguing that they have been doing all they possibly could to resolve the recent problems. This is evidenced by the number of visits made by the Prime Minister and Cabinet Ministers to the affected areas.
As a general rule, those who do lose their temper, usually excuse their heated response (afterwards), as ‘letting off steam’. Others even suggest that their rants were acceptable under the circumstances, and far better than resorting to some form of violence. In today’s reading we see Jesus making the connection between actions and words, especially with regard to the sentiment of our words. Words that are said in anger cannot be simply explained away as ‘blunt speaking’ or ‘harmless’ in comparison to a physical action. There is little doubt that at times words can wound as badly as an incision from a knife.
Unlike Jesus, our anger is often not redemptive, and our rage over some perceived wrong usually results in bitterness and hurt rather than reconciliation or some other form of positive resolution. Jesus says that if someone is looking to offer their ‘gift at the altar’, he or she should be reconciled with their brother or sister before offering this gift. The best place for our anger, especially if it has no righteous dimension, is to lay it at the ‘altar’ or the foot of the cross, for Christ to deal with it.
For most people, anger is usually a more everyday, self-centred experience. How dare he/she behave/speak/drive like that, challenging my self-esteem, my self-image? Then we come up against Jesus’ words here and feel guilt alongside anger. We ought not to behave like this …
Approaches to anger management offer skills and techniques to handle violent emotions in ways that are socially acceptable. But, for Christians, the primary resource is God’s grace, empowering us to deal with both anger and guilt. ‘I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do:
says Paul (Romans 7.19), Anger is a powerful force. Being on the receiving end of someone else’s anger can be scary. Being so angry ourselves that we might lash out, or shout, or lose control is perhaps even more frightening – and we don’t want to talk about it, because we are ashamed. However, getting to grips with our frightening feelings is part of growing up into Christ. We first have to look into our hearts and be honest about our lack of control over our emotions. Jesus is not saying pretend not to be angry. He is saying deal with it – before someone gets hurt. If we bottle our feelings up until the pressure explodes, we are not modelling grown-up living.
There is a danger of presenting the gospel as a call not to Jesus but to the way of niceness. Conflict is difficult, but managing it is an essential part of living and growing together. The community that prioritises harmony above creativity and challenge will often ultimately fail to thrive. One of the reasons that churches lose teenagers so successfully may be that we cannot deal with their challenging pursuit of penetrating questions. As models of ministerial leadership are transformed, it is vital that congregations take responsibility for dealing with the emotions provoked by change.
Our present review of mission and ministry on this peninsula presents us with an enormous challenge. For many the changes may be difficult to come to terms with. But reconciliation is about growing into new life and new relationships, not smoothing over the surface so all is sweetness and calm.
The work of reconciliation is demanding and costly; it means taking up our cross and dealing with rather than avoiding conflict. But our example and our reward is Christ himself. It is not our own strength but God’s that transforms us and enables us to discern God’s will (Romans12.2), to be instruments of peace.