Called to Unity
This sermonette was given at Ohio Wesleyan University on 11/14/16 as a part of the “All Campus Worship Night.”
Philippians 2:1–11 (NRSV, Anglicized)
“If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death —
even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,”
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.”
I began going to a United Methodist Church when I was three years old. It wasn’t until I was nine that I learned that there was more than just the United Methodist Church. I mean, I rode and walked past other churches, but I just thought they were my church copied and pasted. This changed because, when I was eight, I had made a friend. That may seem surprising, but it is true. His name was Alex Staup; he was funny, liked baseball, and was willing to sometimes share his toys with me. He is still these things, funny, likes baseball, and sometimes shares his things with me. This was enough for me to cling tightly to him. As is the nature of these things, I spent more and more time with Alex until, eventually, I was invited to spend the night at his house. It was a Saturday night, and we stayed up ridiculously late, like, until 11:00 or maybe even 12:00 playing and talking, pretending to be asleep whenever one of his parents came to check on us. The next morning, we were woken up to get ready for church. Now, I knew Alex went to a different church than me, I just didn’t think that was a big deal. I mean, didn’t every church have the old man who handed out candy? Didn’t every church begin promptly at 10:33? Church was a solemn hour of trying to sit still and trying not to fidget enough to get a sideways glance from the Pastor.
But here’s the thing. Spoiler alert. Plot twist. Alex was a Lutheran. I was not ready for the liturgical calisthenics that would be required for worship. I broke a sweat standing, sitting, kneeling, sitting, kneeling, and standing. I sang hymns that were not the same 10 hymns that were sung at my church. But the two biggest surprises came during communion. Now, we Methodists, we don’t take the whole “wine” thing literally. We only drink the sweetest and holiest Welch’s paired with delicious King’s Hawaiian bread. The first surprise came when the server of the sacrament handed me a dried out piece of cardboard. This was the body. The second surprise came when the Cup of Christ began to burn my throat and tears welled up in my eyes. I think I broke a blood vessel trying not to cough during the reflective organ music.
Now that I am an adult, I know that the things that divide us as Christians, the things that make us go to different churches, are deeper than what we do in worship. They are deeper than superficial preferences. They’re questions of why we do certain things, who can do those certain things, and how those certain things are performed. We are all searching for personal and social holiness and we have different ideas of how we can be working towards both and if either can be achieved. Our differences in theology have real ramifications in the world and how we interact with one another. Each of us brings a different lens of trying to see God. We sometimes wonder if other Christians are even worshipping the same God. I must admit, these unfair and cruel thoughts have crossed my own mind.
Yet, as Paul so beautifully illustrates here, Jesus Christ is a person of tension. He is fully divine but did not exploit his Godliness. He is the king, but he took the form of one who was marginalized. He is highly exalted, above all other names, yet he made himself obedient, even to the point of death, even to the point of execution as a criminal and a heretic. These things are great paradoxes. They don’t make sense. They are held in tension with one another and they are proof that sometimes they way God does things doesn’t make sense to us.
My friends, it has taken me a long time to realize that Christian unity does not mean Christian homogeny. We all have different ways of doing things, different meanings ascribed to the same words. Evangelism for those in Newman looks different than what it does for those in the DCV college group. Justice means something different for me than it does for Kiersten. But I do believe that we are sincerely doing these things to serve Christ. John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, is quoted as saying, “Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion?”
This tension, this diversity, is an asset, not an obstacle. Each of us as individuals, informed by our different faith communities, encounters Christ in a unique way. We encounter the Creator and the creation in a unique way. The Holy Spirit breaks through in our lives in unique ways. The beauty of this time together is not that we ignore our differences, but that we have an opportunity to share about how God is working in our communities, to see how God can be worshiped in different ways, to meet God in new patterns of thought that perhaps we’ve never experienced. We are not here to reach the lowest common denominator, but we are instead here so that we can live deeply in our own relationships with God, that we can experience the Transcendent together in different ways in the same room, that the rough edges of our own theologies will rub painfully against one another, not that we might sacrifice our theology, or that our opinions will be forced to change, but so that these edges may be smoothed, that grace could be expressed in more abundant ways as a reflection of the infinite grace that we ourselves have already received.
If you want to contribute to the unity of the Christian community, you must be willing to have integrity to your own beliefs and convictions. You must live out your Christian devotion in an effort to make disciples who make disciples for the transformation of the world, and you must do so in your own fashion. Once we can do this, we must live in community with one another. We must be willing to encounter and listen to others who experience God differently. We must be willing to feel the sharp pain of deep disagreement. Perhaps then we will experience God in new and creative ways. Perhaps then the Church will set on fire, like Pentecost, and people will come from miles around to watch it burn. It is only by being our best selves, informed by God’s revelation, moved by the Holy Spirit, and redeemed by Christ, that this beautiful, broken, fractured Church will come to embody the paradoxes of the Anointed One.
My family, we must be willing to feel the burn of another congregation’s wine. We must be willing to listen on issues and positions that we think are non-negotiable. We must love and respect those we disagree with. I know that there are more than a few folks in this room whom I have had loving disagreement with. In this, we must be of the same mind, have the same love, and do nothing out of selfish ambition or conceit. Only then will we be Church. Only then will we be like Christ.
I pray it is so,
I neglected to mention the dangers inherent in Paul’s words. There will be the temptation to use unity as a means to silence people we disagree with. To use unity so that those who are powerful get to define unity at the expense of the marginalized. But we cannot take this shortcut. We cannot accept cheap unity. We must be willing to lean into the pain of disagreement and create a diverse unity.
The world is hurting. The world needs the Church. Therefore go, and be Christ in the midst of chaos.