Bethel Evangelical Lutheran worshiping Jesus at 8th and N. East Ave. in York, NE.402-363-0022

May 14, 2017 Sermon

Click HERE for an audio version posted on our Facebook Page.

Acts 11:1-3

Dear Friends in Christ,

How do you handle conflict? Do you try to avoid conflict at all costs? Are you willing to take the blame even though you know it wasn’t your fault, just to have peace? Or, are you the opposite type that responds in kind? If they yell, you yell back. If they say something hurtful, you say something hurtful back. Are you passive/aggressive? Do you just smile and then get revenge later like the wife who told me, “if I’m angry with my husband I just wait until he gets in the shower and then I start the wash and flush the toilet?”

No one can avoid conflict unless they go off into the wilderness and never interact with another human being again. We are sinful people living in a sinful world. Wherever two or three people gather together there will be conflict at some point, no matter how hard they try to avoid it, or how much they claim to love each other, or how Christian they think they are. So, the best thing we can do is learn to practice God’s way of resolving conflicts.

As you read about the early Christian church it seems so wonderful. It seems that everyone was following Jesus’ command to let others know that they were his disciples by loving each other as he had loved them. We are told that they gathered daily in the temple courts. They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. They had everything in common and shared with those who were in need. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved. It sounds wonderful, and I’m sure it was, as long as it lasted. But it didn’t last. There was conflict over the distribution of food to the needy widows. And then, there was this incident; conflict between some members of the church and Peter because he had gone to the home of the Gentile centurion, Cornelius. He ate with and baptized non-Jews! Some were horrified that he would do such a thing.

We can learn something about loving conflict resolution from the bad example of those who criticized Peter.

Luke begins the account by telling us that believers throughout Judea had HEARD that gentiles had received the word of God. They had not been there. In fact, Peter had not even returned to Jerusalem when this report was being spread. And, if all we had was the statement that gentiles had received the word of God we might expect that the next sentence would tell us that everyone was rejoicing with the angels in heaven over the fact that more people were brought to faith in Jesus. But that’s not what happened. There was a group in the church, the circumcision group, who saw themselves as defenders of tradition and doing things the right way (which meant “the way we like it and have always done it”). When they heard the report, the first thing they did was think about all the things Peter must have done wrong for this to have happened. They couldn’t wait until he got back to Jerusalem so they could inform him of his error. And as soon as he got back they called a meeting and criticized him. “You went into the house of uncircumcised men and ate with them.” Don’t you know it’s wrong for a faithful Jewish Christian to do that!

The first thing we can learn from their bad example is that they didn’t do what Luther encourages us to do in his explanation of the 8th Commandment. They did not put the best construction on what they heard. They assumed the worst. They acted on what they HEARD. If what they heard made it sound like Peter had done something wrong, instead of criticizing him openly they should have gone to him privately and asked him to explain.

This is the problem I see with things like Christian News and some of the blogs and things on the internet, and even someone asking me if I have heard about what this or that pastor did, or what this or that congregation is doing. Even if what is printed in a paper, or written in a blog, or what someone heard from reliable sources is true, unless you were there you don’t know the whole story. It’s gossip. It’s a failure to take people’s words and actions in the kindest possible way. It’s a lack of love because the loving thing to do would be to seek to contact the person directly, get the whole story, and if there was sin involved, try to come to the wonderful resolution of confession and absolution as Jesus instructs us to do in Matthew 18. Or as Paul says, Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

God displays this kind of love for us at all times. Jesus displayed that kind of love for his disciples who often did things that were sinful and displayed “little faith.” He loved them, and us, enough to go to the cross to pay for our gossip and lack of love for each other; for all the conflicts our pride, and keeping record of wrongs, and delighting in evil have caused. Filled with the love Jesus has for you, love others as he has loved you by striving to avoid thinking the worst of your fellow believers, and seeking to understand before criticizing them.

We can also learn something about loving conflict resolution from the good example of Peter. The people who were criticizing him were wrong and he knew it. But he didn’t treat them the way they were treating him. He didn’t put them down and say, “I was with Jesus. I am an apostle. How dare you question or criticize anything I do.” He lovingly answered their criticism by explaining why he had broken tradition and entered the home of a Gentile, and why he had baptized those Gentiles even though they had not been circumcised first.

He let them know that he understood where they were coming from. When God gave him the vision of the sheet that included unclean animals and told him to kill and eat, he objected as they would have. But God repeated the vision three times to make sure he understood the point, and he told him very clearly that he was not to call anything unclean that God had made clean. And then there was the timing. As soon as the vision ended the messengers from Cornelius were knocking at the door. That was no coincidence. And, Peter learned that Cornelius had a vision too. In his vision he was told to send for Peter who would bring him the message of salvation. And, as Peter preached, those who were listening received the Holy Spirit in the same way he came upon the disciples on the Day of Pentecost. Peter’s conclusion was that God was making it clear to him and everyone who saw it, those who knew the whole story, that God has granted even the Gentiles repentance unto life.

Peter worked to resolve the conflict by humbling himself. He put himself in their shoes and understood why they might want to criticize what he had done. Then he gave them the whole story, indicating that he had not acted on his own, or on the basis of his own wisdom, but on the basis of what God had clearly indicated through visions and clear statements. He reminded them of what Jesus himself had foretold- John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit. And since the Gentiles had been baptized with the Holy Spirit, Who was I to think that I could oppose God?

It’s easy to respond in an unloving way when criticized. It’s easy to give in to the temptation to respond in kind; to say, “well, what about the time when you did something just as bad or worse.” But that would not be loving others as Jesus loved us. When he was insulted, he did not retaliate. When he was crucified and mocked he prayed Father, forgive them. In doing so he didn’t just give us an example, but he paid for the times when we respond to criticism in kind instead of in love.

What was the result of Peter’s loving conflict resolution? When they heard this, they had no further objections and praised God. They joined the angels in heaven in rejoicing that God had granted even more people repentance unto life.

That’s always something to remember in the church. Jesus said that the goal and purpose of the church is not to uphold tradition and make sure no one becomes a member who might change something we like and have always done. Jesus said that the goal and purpose of the church is to make disciples of all nations. Keeping that in mind will help us avoid causing conflict where there doesn’t need to be conflict, over customs and traditions that are not doctrine. Remembering the extent of Jesus’ love for us will help us handle criticism as Peter did, in love.