This sermon is part of the sermon series "Fruit: It Does a Body Good". See series.
A man is shipwrecked. He spends months alone on a desert island. Finally, a passing ship sees him and sends a boat in to rescue him. When the crew arrives, they see three huts along the shoreline. They ask him why there are three huts if there's only one of him. He replies, "The first one is my house, the second one is my church, and the third one is the church I used to go to."
It's sad but true that churches and church members have a reputation for not getting along with each other. Church fights and factions and splits are far too common. We chuckle at the joke, but if you've lived through that kind of conflict, you know painful and disillusioning it can be, and how damaging it can be to a church's witness in the community. Maybe you're here today because of some conflict or controversy in a previous church, and you need to recover, to heal. What scares me most is how many people have been so hurt or disappointed they've given up on church altogether.
As we're learning how to build up this body of Christ, we need an answer for the conflicts and controversies that we are sure to encounter as we worship and grow and serve together. And so today we'll be exploring the Fruit of the Spirit called peace. It's the third in a list of nine qualities that we hope will come to characterize our relationships within the church, and beyond. Our key verse for the series is Galatians 5:22-23.
So far we've learned that love is acting in the interests of others, no matter who they are, how we feel, or what it costs. And we've learned that joy is taking delight in one another and in God's unfolding work in our lives.
The definition of peace begins with "the absence of war or hostility." But the dictionary also describes peace as "freedom from quarrels and disagreements; harmonious relations." The Old Testament word for peace is the Hebrew word shalom which includes the idea of wholeness and well-being—everything being as it should be. The New Testament Greek word, eirene, was often used in a political sense to describe a town or village that was well-run—where things operated efficiently, where people got along with each other, where prosperity and opportunity prevailed.
Interestingly, the leader or official of such a town was often known as the "Peace Keeper." It's the kind of leader who subdues his enemies, who helps the needy, who brings abundance to the land. It's the role that Deborah the judge played in ancient Israel, when she not only led the nation to victory over their enemies, but brought order and prosperity to the nation. Judges 14:31 tells us that under her leadership, "the land had peace 40 years." When we vote on presidential candidates, we're looking for a Peace Keeper—someone who can not only resolve our international conflicts, but who can bring order to Washington, stability to Wall Street, and prosperity to Main Street.
And certainly, peace is what we hope to enjoy as a church—not just the absence of conflict, but the presence of harmony, order, and vitality. But as our shipwrecked friend reminds us, peace is easily fragile and elusive in a church.
The Galatian controversy
As it turns out, the churches in Galatia—the churches Paul was writing to in this letter—were not enjoying peace and prosperity. In fact, things had gotten pretty ugly. What prompted Paul to write this list and to include "peace" as one of the first big three? Let's look at Galatians 5:16-26. You don't have to be a Bible scholar to figure out that relationships are strained in these churches he's writing to. I love the way Paul sneaks up on them in this passage. In verse 19, he begins his list of vices with some of the biggies—immorality, debauchery, idolatry, witchcraft. Right about the time he's got his readers nodding their heads and agreeing with how overtly bad these things are, he starts listing things like discord, jealousy, rage, ambition, factions, and envy. And just so his readers don't think these inter-personal sins are less bad because they're lower on the list, he finishes with some biggies, too—drunkenness and orgies. Are you serious, Paul? Are jealousy and selfishness in the same league as witchcraft and drunkenness? Apparently they are.
What was going on in these churches that their relationships were so unhappy and destructive? Galatians 1:6-7 reads, "I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—which is really no gospel at all. Evidently, some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ." Galatia is north of Judea, in the area we now call Turkey—far from Israel. While some of the believers in these churches were likely Jewish, many of the converts were Gentiles, from non-Jewish backgrounds. When Paul arrived there in Galatia, he preached the gospel—the good news that Christ died on the cross for the sins of the world, so that anyone who turns to Christ in repentance and faith can be forgiven of their sins and become a child of God. This really was good news! It meant that anyone could be saved, whether you were a devout Jew or an out-and-out pagan. Salvation wasn't a matter of keeping a set of laws, or going through some religious ceremony, or being born into the right family or nation. It was simply a matter of trusting Christ. It was such good news that many believed and came to faith in Christ, from both Jewish and Gentile backgrounds.
The trouble began after Paul left, when some false teachers worked their way into the community with a different message. They taught that in addition to trusting in Christ, a person also had to embrace the practices of Judaism—specifically keeping the Sabbath laws, eating kosher food, and being circumcised. These teachers came to be known as the Judaizers, because they were insisting that in order to be a real Christian, you not only had to trust Christ, but you had to, essentially, become a Jew. These false teachers were so persuasive, that many of the believers had accepted their teaching and were pressuring the Gentile believers to keep the law and be circumcised.
What began as a doctrinal controversy quickly became a social conflict, as Gentile believers were made to feel like second-class citizens in the body of Christ. That led to a spirit of elitism on the part of some believers and caused division among the Gentile believers, some of whom agreed they should keep the law and be circumcised, and others who insisted this was not the true gospel. The end result, as we can tell from the letter, is that these once-vibrant churches had quickly become torn apart by jealousy and judgmentalism. Love was lacking; their joy had vanished; and now, it appears, they had no peace.
The peace keeper
Isn't it frightening how quickly a community of faith can be derailed by conflict, and how easily a doctrinal or organizational dispute can turn ugly and hurtful?
One of the commentators I've consulted for this series teaches at a seminary in Singapore, and he describes a terrible season of conflict in his church there. It was an international church made up of both Asians and westerners. Some of the Asian members were resentful and critical of the Caucasian members, because they didn't really fit with the majority culture. At the same time, the more traditional Chinese members were suspicious and critical of the more westernized Chinese members and had even resorted to disparaging name-calling, suggesting they were Chinese on the outside but Anglo on the inside. The conflict became so intense that in a heated moment, the American pastor lost it and referred to one of the groups as "a bunch of hooligans." The Chinese believers didn't know what that word meant, but when they looked up they were pretty mad! It was an awful experience for everyone involved, and when it spilled over into the community, the church lost all it's credibility to minister the gospel.
But it was in the midst of that awful season that this scholar found himself teaching the book of Galatians, and he discovered there some answers for the conflict that he and his church was experiencing. The first part of the answer is found in Galatians 3:26: "You are all sons of God through faith in Jesus Christ, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus." The apostle Paul wants us to understand that Christ alone makes us children of God, and that in Christ we were one. Cultural differences, religious practices, social status, and physical characteristics no longer matter. Those barriers have been torn down; those distinctions that used to divide and discriminate have been abolished. We are united and equal in Christ.
The second part of the answer is found in Galatians 5, where Paul says in verse16, "Live by the Spirit," and in verse 22, "But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace … ," and in verse 25, "Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit." This oneness, this unity and equality that Christ has achieved for us, can only be experienced when we allow his Holy Spirit to govern our lives and relationships. In other words, if Jesus is our Peace Maker, the Spirit is our Peace Keeper. It is Christ's work that makes us members of his body. But it's the Spirit's work that helps us find our various places in that body and preserves our unity and harmony. Jesus is the Peace Maker. The Spirit is the Peace Keeper.
The upper room
We don't know exactly what went on in that upper room in the days after Christ died, but the gospels give us a pretty good idea. We know there was fear—that's why his followers were hiding out. Jesus had been executed; they could easily be next. There was also confusion. What had actually happened? Had his body been taken, or was he really alive? It also seems there was some disagreement among them: the women were convinced they'd seen him, but the disciples had a hard time believing the report. Even when two others came back from Emmaus and said they'd broken bread with him, the eleven still doubted. Then there was the matter of what to do next. Should they pack up and go home—back to their fishing nets and tax-collecting booth? Or should they carry on with their mission? But what exactly was their mission, now that Jesus was gone? And who was in charge? So it was a troubled crew of Christ-followers gathered in that room that day.
They could have done what churches typically do in times of conflict and controversy. They could have held a business meeting and taken a vote. They could have formed a sub-committee to investigate the empty tomb. They could have drafted a new mission statement or brought in a consultant to do some teambuilding exercises. But the truth is there was only one thing that could bring peace to their troubled hearts and relationships, and that was Jesus himself, alive, present, and leading them once again. Sure enough, when he stepped into the room, the first thing he said was, "Peace be with you." In fact, he said it twice. For that moment, their fears, their confusion, and their disagreements were gone. As long as Jesus was with them, and in charge, they had peace.
The problem was that Jesus couldn't stay. He was returning to his Father. He would no longer be with them physically, personally, to calm their fears and settle their disputes and direct their efforts. So he gave them a gift—his Holy Spirit—to be with them, and in them, always. Luke tells us that Jesus spoke to his disciples of the Spirit's coming. In John's gospel we read that Jesus actually breathed on them and said, "Receive the Holy Spirit." I believe along with many commentators that this was more than just a symbolic gesture or pledge, but that Jesus actually gave them the Spirit that day—the Spirit that would come on them in all his fullness some 40 days later on Pentecost.
However you interpret it, here's the point: Jesus gave them peace, and then he gave them the Spirit to keep their peace. It was the Spirit who would bring the rule of Christ to their lives and relationships and ministry for the rest of their lives, just as he does for us today. Like the Peace Keeper in a village, the Holy Spirit brings order and harmony and fruitfulness to the body of Christ, if, and when, we allow him to.
Left Christ out?!
Ken Sande is the president of Peacemaker Ministries. He was trained as an engineer and a lawyer, but has devoted his entire life to the ministry of reconciliation in the church. He tells the story of a church he worked with in which the elders and the pastor had a serious falling out. He writes:
They had been at odds for a year. They sent me a thick file of their emails and letters to each other. Something struck me as I read them. There wasn't the slightest reference to the gospel of Jesus Christ. There were accusations—what you should do, what you failed to do—and copious biblical references. But it was all human-focused and human failure.
When I met with them, I said, "There are real issues here, but how does God factor into his conversation? How has the fact that Christ died for your sins affected the way you are relating to one another?" There was silence in the room. After a couple minutes, one of the elders nodded. "We've completely lost sight of Christ in our argument."
Lost sight of Christ?! How do you lose sight of Christ? You're Christians! You're a church! How does that happen? You lose sight of Christ when you stifle the work of the Holy Spirit, when you carry on in your own strength, when you pursue your own agenda.
This pastor and elders weren't living by the Spirit. They were living by their own wits and wisdom, throwing Bible verses at each other like hand-grenades, instead of asking the Spirit to illumine the Scriptures for them. They weren't keeping in step with the Spirit. They were digging their heels in, refusing to move toward one another or to follow the Spirit in a new direction. They weren't allowing the Spirit to produce patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. They were allowing their sinful natures to produce discord, jealousy, anger, dissensions, and factions. It's frightening how easily this can happen in a church.
I can think of a few times our peace has been tested here—differences of opinion about our building project, different preferences when it comes to worship styles, and different perspectives on issues like baptism and women in leadership. As challenging as those issues were and are, I'm thankful we've emerged from those controversies in-tact and committed to our mission and to one another. I believe it's because ultimately we've determined to let Christ rule and to let the Spirit lead. We've sought the Lord's guidance through prayer and fasting, we've searched the Scriptures, we've listened to each other, and in the end we've submitted to one another in love. But there were moments when it seemed that our peace and unity were in jeopardy, and I'm sure each of us can recall moments when our thoughts, words, and behavior were less than Christ-like.
As we look to the future, knowing that these issues and others like them will continue to challenge us, we invite the Holy Spirit to strengthen our relationships with one another, to knit us together in love, and to fit us together as diverse members of one body.
Gillian Ross has captured beautifully the work we are asking God to do with each of us and all of us in her artwork entitled, "Pieced Together." It's a collage—a variety of fabrics, shapes, and images arranged so that they portray something together that they never be on their own—a whole body. Gillian writes, "We've all been created by God, each different and unique. But as his people we have something in common: we are one body, called to peace. To live in peace we need to learn to fit together. This involves finding our place, being understanding, and learning to give and take a bit at the edges."
There are a few things to notice about this work. The body is in the shape of a cross, and is centered on a cross. This reminds us that Jesus is our peace. It is his work on the cross that reconciles us to God and to each other, and makes us members of his Body, the church.
If you look closely, you'll discover that the ministry of the Spirit is also here, embedded in the collage. There is a dove, reminding us that God has sent his Spirit to be among us. There are some musical notes, reminding us of the harmony the Spirit produces. There's a crown, representing the rule of Christ, which we enjoy as we allow the Spirit to govern our relationships. There is the word "shalom"—the wholeness and well-being that only God's Spirit can bring. And there is fruit—the virtues the Spirit produces as we allow Christ to live in and through us.
Finally, notice that the ministry of the Spirit as portrayed here is subtle, almost hidden. You know, that day in the Upper Room, Jesus walked right in on their gathering. He didn't knock. He didn't wait to be invited. He walked right through the door, in fact! He took charge and said, "Peace be with you!" But the Spirit doesn't operate that way. The Spirit doesn't force himself upon us. The Spirit waits for the door to be opened—for the conditions to be right. Philip Yancey describes it as the "shyness" of the Spirit.
With these things in mind, let's be sure that we regularly open the door to the Spirit's work among us. As we gather for worship, let's to acknowledge the Spirit's presence in singing and prayer. When your ministry team sits down for a meeting, spend a few moments in the Scripture and invite the Spirit to have his way. And when, in the course of our life together, we bump into someone who sees or does things very differently than we do, allow for the possibility that the Holy Spirit is doing something in both us, taking off some of the rough edges, and piecing us together into a cross-shaped community called the body of Christ.
Bryan Wilkerson is pastor of Grace Chapel in Lexington, Massachusetts.