“Where two or three are gathered together in my name,” said Jesus, “I am there in the midst of them.” Matthew 18.20
So often, this phrase is used to encourage the small 8am congregation that “small is beautiful” and it’s okay that only a few of the faithful have made it out in the early frosty morning to church! However there’s another way of reading this, which may be truer to the text.
Jesus was no stranger to conflict – indeed reading the gospels, he was in the midst of conflict for almost the entirety of his ministry. Then and now, Jesus provokes fierce debate and disagreement. When we have disagreement plus tension (or anxiety), we have conflict. And when two or three or more are gathered, there is always the potential for precisely this to happen. Actually, it’s more of a probability than merely a potential, for no group, no matter how small, will ever agree about everything!
Conflict will happen. It is as inevitable as death and taxes. But how we handle it, and how we allow it to shape us, is very much in our hands. We can allow conflict to be bitter and brutal, and to destroy relationships. Too often, it does exactly that. The very word ‘conflict’ has really negative connotations and we associate it with war and wounds.
However conflict can also be an opportunity for growth and change. For reconsidering our own view or position in the light of another. For letting go of the things that no longer serve us or our community, and embracing something new. It can be a chance to understand each other better, to know what the other truly needs or wants. But this can only come about if we can let go of our own anxieties, and truly listen to each other.
This is where Jesus is so important. Even the most cursory glance at history tells us that conflict is natural to humanity, and the history of the Christian church is one long series of conflicts, starting in the gospels, and continuing to the present day. However when we meet in the name of Jesus, he is with us. And this can change everything, if we let it.
The Name of God and the Name of Jesus matter because they have meaning, they indicate and reveal the nature of God. Jesus means “God saves”, or “God heals” Immanuel: “God with us”. Christ: “the anointed One”. And the name God revealed to Moses at the burning bush: “I Am.” God is life, presence, healing, salvation.
When we meet in the Name of Jesus, we meet in that character, and his presence and characteristics are with and within us. “Do not be afraid”, Jesus tells us. His presence can lift away anxiety so that we can see past it.
Conflict is inevitable in any group, in any church. We are, after all, different! And that difference is wonderful – it is creative and life giving, and brings so many differing skills and perspectives to the table. As St. Paul wrote, we are all members of the Body of Christ. But wouldn’t it be wonderful if those members could work together instead of against each other. And wouldn’t it be amazing if people said, “If you want to know how to handle conflict and difference positively, go down to your local church.” (PS our churches do do it well, but there’s always room for learning!)
I pray that our churches can be precisely that example: places where difference is celebrated and seen as revealing the incredible beauty and breadth of God’s creation, and where conflict is seen as opportunity, rather than something to be feared and avoided at all costs. For when we avoid conflict, the cost is our unity, our peace, measured in human lives just as surely as when conflict is mishandled and becomes war.