Unity without diversity isn’t really unity—it’s sameness. Diversity, whether ethnic or socio-economic or simply diversity of thought will, inevitably, bring conflict. It is impossible for a group of people who spend significant time together to go very long without some form of conflict arising. Apart from the truly rare malevolent intent, such conflict is nearly always due to miscommunication. Our childhood traumas can distort how we interpret others’ tone or demeanor. Our life experiences can color our perception of others and how they act or speak toward us. Our sinfulness causes us to elevate self over all others, making us the most-offended person in any conflict.
When conflict arises, we are faced with a choice: we can remain angry and resentful and perhaps even withdraw from the offender or we do what the Lord Jesus himself would do. The former is much easier than the latter.
In August Dan preached a three-week series on being the body of Christ. One particularly strong point from that series was that when a member of a body hurts, it isn’t just that member that hurts; the entire body hurts. The pain may well be localized (“I stubbed my toe!”) yet the pain affects the hands as well, for they are all connected as a unified whole.
Then we had a four-week series called “Politics & Christian Unity” in which we stressed that political differences must not divide us. Since a political party or political ideology is not our primary identity—who we are in Christ is—that cannot be a thing that divides us. As mentioned above, however, our unique life experiences and diversity of thought will inevitably lead to conflict. Someone’s toes will be stepped on, and that means the whole body hurts, even though the pain may be localized.
In the “Upper Room Discourse” in the Gospel of John we’ve seen Jesus place a tremendous emphasis on unity among his disciples. When he took on a role reserved either for one’s self or for a slave, that of washing dirty, stinking feet, he followed up this truly servile act with these words:
If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you.John 13:14–15 ESV
The word Jesus used for “ought” carries the idea of debt owed to one another. We are obligated to wash one another’s feet. We are constrained to do this. To say it another way, Jesus leaves us with no room to wiggle out of this responsibility. There is no “if” attached. Our Lord and Master condescended to wash their feet. For us it is no condescension for we are all truly servants. Such service to one another includes the service of washing the crud off each other’s feet, and I don’t mean literal feet.
As mentioned above, it is impossible for a group of people to spend meaningful time together without offending one another at some point. Feelings will be hurt, and sometimes deeply. Let me give you a personal example.
Recently I shared a deeply personal struggle with a friend. I confided in him, believing he was trustworthy with my pain. He later shared this with others—others I trust—yet I became angry for I felt both exposed and betrayed. I knew in my head that his intent was not to betray my trust, yet the feeling of betrayal was there. I lashed out in anger. Since he did not know he was betraying my trust all he knew was my seemingly unfounded anger. This anger directed toward him hurt him deeply. So there we were, each of us hurting, angry, and confused.
We met a few days later to talk about this. It became obvious that if he had known how sharing this would affect me he would not have done so and if I had known how my reaction would affect him I would have curtailed it. Neither of us wanted to hurt the other, yet hurt each other we did.
In any group of people who share life in any meaningful way, pain and hurt feelings and conflict is inevitable. Unless the group maintains a very superficial bond, conflict will arise. As followers of Jesus, however, we owe a debt to one another and that debt consists of washing one another’s feet. In this case, we both “stepped in it” even if we did so unintentionally.
The apostle Peter has some timely words for us.
Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins.1 Peter 4:8 ESV
Conflict is not a sign of disunity. If anything, conflict is a sign that people are engaging in meaningful ways. Betrayal can only happen when there’s trust. Feelings can only be hurt by those we care for. Again, we are faced with a choice when hurt or offended. We can either stew in our anger and rage against the offender or we can do what Jesus did. Jesus washed his disciples feet. To say it with Peter’s words, Jesus’ love covers a multitude of sins.
These sins Peter refers to are clearly inner-communal sins. They are sins committed against one another in a given community. In this case, Peter is speaking of the local church. Notice he says “above all”. Take this as most important in the local church! What is most important? We must continue loving one another, and not casually. We must love one another earnestly. This is because love covers a multitude of sins. The only way a group of people can walk in true unity is by loving one another, which means they will wash one another’s dirty feet. That is, a group can only be united if they love another earnestly and thereby gladly and willingly forgive the deep hurts and wounds that come with being human, by covering even a multitude of sins.
Pursuing this love for one another is an act of obedience to our Lord and Master who repeatedly tells us to do this. As the Spirit of God leads us and guides us he leads us into unity. We must pursue this with great purpose and with great intentionality.
New City, our Lord says we owe this to one another. We are indebted to one another. We must pursue unity and this pursuit is impossible without the forgiveness that love produces.