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General Maximus comes to Rome dirty and shackled. This is not the way it's supposed to be. Where's Rome's legendary pageantry to greet one of her war heroes—the heraldry, the burnished armor, the laurel crown? Where's the honor due him?

Maximus comes a slave.

That's the premise of the movie Gladiator. Through a maze of events, Maximus goes from celebrated warrior, favorite of one emperor, to despised traitor, nemesis of another. He becomes a fugitive, then caged slave, then unvanquished gladiator. His growing fame in the arena brings him to the sport's pinnacle: Rome's magnificent Coliseum to face her elite warriors.

The games open with a re-enactment of the battle of Carthage. The gladiators, all foot soldiers, are cast as the hapless Carthaginians. It is a stage for slaughter. They are marched out a dark passageway into brilliant sunlight and met with a roar of bloodlust.

Maximus, their leader, shouts to his men: "Stay together." He assembles them in a tight circle in the center of the arena: back-to-back, shields aloft, spears outward. Again he shouts, "Whatever comes out that gate, stay together."

What comes out that gate is swift and sleek and full of terror. Chariot upon chariot thunder forth. War horses pull, with deadly agility and earthshaking strength, wagons driven by master charioteers. Amazonian warrior princesses ride behind and with deadly precision hurl spears and volley arrows. One gladiator strays from the circle, ignoring Maximus's order, and is cut down. Maximus shouts once more: "Stay together!"

The instinct to scatter is strong. But Maximus exerts his authority, and they resist that impulse. The chariots circle, closer, closer, closer. Spears and arrows rain down on the men's wood shields. The chariots are about to cinch the knot. Right then Maximus shouts, "Now!"

The gladiators attack, and decimate the Romans. Commodus, the evil emperor, caustically remarks to the games organizer: "My memory of Roman history is rusty, but didn't we beat Carthage the first time?"

Whatever comes out that gate, stay together.

That echoes what Jesus prayed for us: "May they be brought to complete unity" (John 17:23). And he promises that the gates of hell will not overcome his church.

Whatever comes out that gate, stay together.

We know that. We long for it. We pray for it.

And we miss it, almost every time. The instinct to scatter is strong. Not only that, but what's worse, we often turn our weapons inward. "If you keep on biting and devouring each other," Paul warns, "watch out or you will be destroyed by each other" (Gal. 5:15).

Why are Christians so fractious? In 15 years as a pastor, I've seen a lot, and heard more: deacons in fisticuffs, screaming matches at business meetings, gossip-mongering that borders on lynching.

I know a church once teeming with 400 joyful members, feisty and plucky as Gimli. In less than six months they dwindled to a few bedraggled survivors, skittish and peevish as Gollum. Years later, they've still not recovered. The issue? ...

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Mark is an associate professor of Pastoral Theology at Ambrose Seminary in Calgary, AB, and formerly was pastor of New Life Community Baptist Church in Duncan, BC.

Related Topics:ConflictHumilityJoySpiritual DisciplinesUnity
From Issue:Keeping Conflict Healthy, Fall 2004 | Posted: October 1, 2004

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