Jesus’ ministry led to crucifixion. His gospel message led others to martyrdom. His instructions to those who wanted to be his followers was “Take up your cross and follow me.”
The Gospel is a divisive, peace-bringing word – not the paradox it seems, but not as straightforward, perhaps, as we might like. At the heart of the gospel is the proclamation of the Kingdom of God, which is marked by shalom; wholeness, harmony, peace, completion. And yet, wherever the gospel “goes,” so to speak, conflict follows. How can that be?
Perhaps one of the hardest sayings of Jesus is “Don’t think that I’ve come to bring peace to the earth. I haven’t come to bring peace but a sword.” He follows it by saying “Those who love father or mother more than me aren’t worthy of me. Those who love son or daughter more than me aren’t worthy of me. Those who don’t pick up their crosses and follow me aren’t worthy of me. Those who find their lives will lose them, and those who lose their lives because of me will find them.” As Ulrich Luz puts it in his Hermeneia commentary on Matthew, “God’s kingdom means not only that radical love breaks out; it means at the same time a break with the world whose expression among the followers is the renunciation of possessions, vocation, and family.”[i]
Peace, as it turns out, is rather evasive. It does not come to us on our terms; we approach it on its terms. Two parties desiring peace will need to approach it together. When we try to acquire peace on our terms – without “the renunciation of possessions, vocation, and family,” we discover that it eludes us. Shalom is about harmony. It is about the whole. When we interrupt the whole to focus on ourselves – the individual – we interrupt shalom.
“Those who lose their lives because of me will find them.”
To say that this is counter-intuitive is an understatement, at best. History’s best efforts at achieving peace have often involved wars. Rather than pursuing peace, we look for ways to get ahead. Rather than even resolving conflict, we’re prone to give into the urge to have the last word, end up on top, or proclaim other petty victories. They may result in a fleeting sense of self-satisfaction or self-righteousness, but it never amounts to peace.
Peace requires the surrender of self. The kingdom of God requires the surrender of self. Being a follower of Christ requires the surrender of self. And we have a hard time doing that without a fight. Because we have a hard time imagining how victory or peace can come through surrender.
Enter the pastor.
Early in his book, “Proclamation and Theology,” Willimon makes a case that the God who created through words becomes incarnate in the proclamation of the gospel. The God who created the universe comes close to humanity in preaching. The evidence, he says, is not in a powerful sermon, but in the people produced through preaching. And he reminds us that the prophets of scripture both deconstructed old worlds and constructed new worlds with words.[ii]
God inhabits our words. (Holy responsibility, Batman!)
And sometimes those words are divisive. Not by the arrogance of the preacher, but by the nature of the gospel! Sometimes those words, which proclaim the Kingdom and the way of Jesus, clash powerfully against the established powers of the world. They clash against our assumptions about the way the world works. They clash against our notions of what it means to be a good human, as they call us to, in Christ, embrace what it means to be fully human. And when that happens, expect backlash.
It is normal and expected, then, for the pastor, or indeed anyone who proclaims the gospel, to run into conflict. From people who are struggling with surrender. Or selfishness. Or greed, pride, envy, lust, or any manner of sin and self-centeredness. Because where the gospel “goes,” conflict follows.
In that sense, if ever there is a church absent of conflict, it may also be absent of the proclaimed gospel. And if there is conflict, examine it carefully for the possibility that the church is doing something right.
[i] Ulrich Luz, Matthew: A Commentary, ed. Helmut Koester, Hermeneia—a Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg, 2001), 111.
[ii] Willimon, William H., Proclamation and Theology. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2005), 7-11.