I grew up in a church that was very conflict averse. There was conflict, tons of it, but it rarely got talked about. And so I went to seminary thinking that conflict was bad, that anger was something to be afraid of because it was of the devil. Early in my first year, I got a taste of conflict when our class president decided we should work toward giving the seminary the greatest class gift in history. To do this he thought we should hold fundraisers, kind of like a high school student does to go on a band trip. And so at one of our earliest class meetings he had James make a presentation about pecans. It was thought that we could sell pecans - roasted, candied, spicy, etc. to our families, friends, and yet to be named field education churches in order to raise ten thousand dollars for the best gift ever.
Pecangate, as it would come to be known, lasted for about two weeks as angry reply-all emails bounced around the class of 2007. As class treasurer I was privy to even the "not reply-all" emails and by the time it was all said and done, I was fully convinced that conflict was awful and should be avoided at all costs. I spent the rest of that first year internalizing every conflict, avoiding all disagreement, and ended up so filled with bitterness, wrath, anger, wrangling, and slander that I was, to use the words of Paul, "grieving the Holy Spirit."
By the time our first year retreat came around I was just about finished, ready to leave seminary all together, ready to really get away from everything and everyone that made me so angry. Fortunately, I made that thought known during the course of that weekend, and heard, often from those with whom I had nothing in common, that I needed to stay, that God had brought me to this point for a reason. At about the same time I stumbled upon a quote from Doug Pagitt's Church Re-imagined that has been sort of a mantra for me in the years since. "Oddly, many Christians find that their fellow congregants play no more crucial a role in their daily lives than the people they walk past in the grocery store. They share a common experience from time to time and receive services from the same organization, but little else." (27) About thirty seconds after I finished reading it, I added this quote to the signature of my email. Over the years, I have re-read that quote thousands of times. Noting that for a very long time I too had treated my fellow sojourners like fellow shoppers - a polite head nod, maybe a smile, but nothing more than that.
Living in authentic Christian community is difficult work, especially when we place all sorts of unnecessary expectations on ourselves. And, unfortunately a fair portion of the theology done over the last 2000 years has created unnecessary expectations on those who call themselves Christian. Talk with Christians for very long and you'll get the sense that any sort of emotion outside the range of politely pleasant is of the devil. Because of this, conversation among Christians often stays painfully shallow - as Pastor Craig mentioned a while back - we talk about the weather, our dinner plans, and if we're feeling really safe maybe the upcoming seasons for Alabama and Auburn football. You know, something in the range of awkward elevator conversation. The end result is that we don't really know the people we come to worship with week in and week out let alone others who worship the Lord out in the community. We are, as Doug Pagitt says, merely consumers of the same service.
And I don't believe Jesus became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood in order to provide the service of salvation for us. No, Jesus came to turn the world right-side-up so that all things might be made new. He didn't come to offer a service but to change everything. And high up on the list of everything Jesus came to change is the way in which we interact with each other. Having been made in God's image, we were created by our Triune God to be in relationship as the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are in relationship. We were made, as Paul writes, to be members of one another - to walk with, talk with, care for, and love one another as messy as that might be.
We can take some solace in the fact that even those churches planted by Paul himself struggled with what it meant to live in authentic Christian community. But we cannot be comfortable in that fact. Instead, we should look to Paul's advice to the Ephesians as a model for our life together - as members of St. Paul's Foley, as members of the Diocese of the Central Gulf Coast, as Episcopalians, as Anglicans, and as members of the one holy catholic and apostolic Church - those who have been made new in Christ Jesus. To do that, we must trust that God will be faithful to our Collect for today and "grant us the spirit to think and do always those things that are right so that we who cannot exist without him may be enabled to live according to his will."
Our first step on that journey is our relationships, one with another. First and foremost it means putting away shallow politeness and admitting that just as Christ was fully human, so too are we. And that means, from time to time, people will annoy us. It means putting ourselves out there and talking frankly with one another. It means sharing opinions on politics, money, sports, and religion. It means admitting that faithful and thoughtful followers of Christ can hold different opinions on major subjects, and that's OK.
Sometimes, moving past polite pleasantness will mean that disagreement will happen. It might even mean... that we'll get angry with one another. Paul wants the Ephesians to know, and I want you to know, that anger is OK. Allowing the devil to use our anger as an opportunity to sin is not. Don't let anger be the fuel for revenge, violence, or hurtful speech. Don't sit in your anger and allow it to fester. Don't permit the devil to take advantage.
This isn't easy, which is why I think Christians have mostly decided to avoid conflict all together. If we stay on the surface there is very little chance that somebody might get their feelings hurt, that somebody might get angry, that the devil might makes his way in. But Jesus doesn't enter our lives with shallow politeness; he comes in and overturns the tables of our hearts - replacing the gods of self, pride, money, and malice with his Spirit - the Spirit of truth. It is by this Spirit that our prayer for today is answered. It is by this Spirit that Paul calls the Ephesians and us to "put away all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander." It is by this Spirit that we are able to "be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another as God in Christ has forgiven us."
And it is only by this Spirit that we are able to become imitators of God by living into those words that are so often used as an offertory sentence, "to walk in love as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, and offering and a sacrifice to God." We can only open ourselves fully up to one another when we've fully given ourselves to God. We can't forgive until we are forgiven. We can't love until we know that we are loved. And we can't be in right relationship with another until we are in right relationship with God.
Forgiveness, love, and right relationship - these are the things Paul hoped for the Christian community in Ephesus. These are the things that I hope for us. Getting there might be bumpy. It might mean periods of painful truth telling. It might mean that once in a while we get angry with one another. But in the end it will mean the reward of God - real Christian community - a life of real joy. "Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you." Amen.