Philippians 2:1-13 September 27, 2020 Matthew 21:23-32
I want you to picture Lucy van Pelt and her little brother, Linus, from the comic strip Peanuts. Lucy and Linus are having a “disagreement,” but it comes to a sudden halt when Lucy gives a simple demonstration of UNITY. She says, “See these fingers? By themselves, they are nothing special, but when they combine into a single unit, they become a force that is TERRIBLE TO BEHOLD!!” Admittedly, it’s not a very positive example of unity, but it worked for Linus!
Historians and behaviorists have long been curious about a particular human ability—the power to unite. The power to unite…to reach beyond our separateness, our individual goals, and to work together on a common goal. This is especially seen when we are threatened by a common enemy. No matter what kind of squabbles we may be having in our family or in our organization or in our country, those things get put aside when we need to unite in order to survive!
It reminds me of the scene near the end of the film Independence Day (with Will Smith), where people and nations have put aside their differences in order to defeat the aliens that are trying to take over the planet! That’s one kind of unity. But what exactly is Christian Unity? Back in July when I chose our scriptures for today and created a sermon title, I was thinking that it would be fairly simple to talk about Unity. After all, we have multiple scriptures urging us toward Christian unity, including the record of a prayer Jesus prayed (in John 17). He asked the Father that all his disciples may be ONE. “May they be brought into complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”
- May they be one;
- May they be brought into complete unity;
- May the world know God because of that unity.
But when I chose today’s scriptures and topic, I didn’t know just how elusive the whole subject of unity is! There are some things that it is NOT:
- It is not homogeneity, where everyone is the same, sees things exactly the same, lives life and solves problems and operates in the same fashion;
- It is not the absence of disagreement or conflicting opinions;
- It is not having one voice, with everyone “singing in unison.”
Let me use a choral analogy here. Unity appears to be a whole choir singing the same song, BUT singing different parts. The choir starts and ends together, keeping the same tempo and rhythms, but some sing the melody while others sing harmonies or counter-melodies. In a choir, unity seems more like finding a way to make beautiful music even though we all have different voices, different parts.
Our reading today from Philippians strongly urges us to find a way to make that beautiful music. And Jesus, in our reading from Matthew, gives us a clue about how to do it. Let’s take a look.
Paul begins this beautiful passage with the word “IF.” “IF there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy—make my joy complete.” And here is how he describes “unity.”
- Be of the same mind;
- Having the same love;
- Being in full accord and of one mind (yes, but how?)
- Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit;
- In humility, regard others as better than yourselves;
- Let each of you look, not to your own interests, but to the interests of (THAT’s how we create unity.)
Wow. Now, friends, I know this all sounds IMPOSSIBLE. Just impossible. But we know that Paul had some really major conflicts with the rest of the early-day leadership when Christianity was just developing. He understood that the Gospel was for all people, not just the Jews. And that Gentiles did NOT need to become Jews before they could be followers of Christ. And he had to hammer it out with the leaders in Jerusalem before they all came to an agreement.
In the opening lines of today’s reading, he gives us a framework within which UNITY is possible:
- There needs to be some encouragement in Christ among us. (Have you ever done some nit-picking that contributes to discouragement?);
- There must be love (not so much a feeling as a decision);
- There needs to be some sharing in God’s Spirit (an openness to God’s leading and direction);
- There must be compassion and sympathy (making an effort to see things through the eyes of the other, to feel with the heart of the other.)
Paul says that, IF these things are present, THEN we can be of the same mind, have the same love, be in full accord. We CAN have unity in the Body of Christ.
Then Paul gets a little more specific, pointing to Christ as not only the SOURCE of that love and unity—but the one we must model ourselves after. He says that Christ Jesus let go of his exalted position in heaven, let himself be like a slave, born as a human. And he humbled himself and obeyed—all the way to the cross. Because of this, he has been exalted so that every tongue will confess, “Jesus Christ is LORD!”
When Paul says to have humility, to consider others’ needs more important than our own—he is urging us to BE LIKE CHRIST—and, as a result, we will be ONE.
In our reading from the Gospel of Matthew, we see Jesus being confronted by religious leaders who questioned his authorization to preach and to perform miracles. “By what authority are you doing these things?” And, of course, the simple answer was that the Father was his authority—that Jesus was simply being obedient to God’s will. He tells a story about obedience (and disobedience!) A man had two sons. Both were asked to go and work in the vineyard. One said, “NO!” but changed his mind and obeyed. The other said, “Sure, Pop!” but did NOT go and work—he disobeyed. Some of God’s children say, “Yes, Father” but do not obey God’s commands. But there are others who, despite our sinfulness, despite our willful rebellion, who finally DO what God asks us to do.
And, friends, one of the things God is asking you and me to do is to BE IN UNITY with other believers. Not to be the same, not to silently acquiesce when they are in error, not to try to match our ministry with theirs—but to be IN UNITY, to stand together in our common cause.
I want to finish up today by looking at a few wonderful passages that inspire us to live in unity. The first comes from Paul to the church in Rome (which would have been composed of both Jews and Gentiles): “There is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him.” The second is from his letter to the church in Colossae: “There is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!” And, finally, his most comprehensive statement of unity, found in Galatians 3: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”
Friends, Christian unity is God’s desire. When we grow discouraged at our disunity, we can focus on an idea found at the end of our Philippians passage, “It is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” It may seem impossible to create unity, but God gives us the ability to CHOOSE unity, just as we choose obedience. God is at work in us, enabling us to WILL and to WORK for God’s good pleasure!
Prayer: Lord God, there are such divisions in your Body. Because of our sinful nature, we are natural-born fighters, dissenters, disagree-ers. Lord, help us to CHOOSE to be made one in the Body of Christ. One body, obediently doing your will, finding our joy in being in full accord and of one mind. In the name of Christ our Savior, amen.