Will Willimon: One in Christ


Driving down to Atlanta to record this sermon for Day 1, I thought of the very first church I served. I was a student at Emory at the time. I drove out to the church on Saturday to meet with the lay leader. He met me at the little one room church, then named, "Friendship Methodist Church" (That's a misnomer if ever there were one!).

I got there before my host so I thought I'd go in the church and look around. But I was surprised by a big padlock and chain barring the front door. When the lay leader arrived I said, "Glad you are here to open the lock on the door."

"Oh, that ain't our lock. The sheriff put that there," explained the lay leader. "Things got rough here at the meeting last month. Folks started yelling at one another, carting off furniture they had given to the church. So, I called the sheriff and he came out here and put that lock on the door until the new preacher could get here and settle 'em down."

I gulped. My first church?

"I've never seen a more divided and polarized America. Make America Great? We need to make America unified again." That's what somebody said to me the other day. And I replied, "I'm probably not the one you ought to be talking with. I mean, for one thing, I'm not the President, I'm just a pastor. I've never served a united congregation, including my very first. In fact, I'd say that at least a third of the New Testament deals with division and polarization." The DISunited States of America. It's the DISmembered Body of Christ that's got me worried.

Well, Paul is writing to an early congregation, says some beautiful things about the Christ, the Christian life. Then Paul finally gets down to what's bugging him: Disunity. "Please! Think as one, love as one, be united and in agreement. Don't do anything out of selfishness. Instead of looking out for number one, watch out for the good of others. Act like Jesus!"

I teach at a university. A new student arrives and says, "I'm so excited about being a member of the Duke community. It's so good to be all together, united under a common goal - defeat of UNC in basketball!" And then we professors say, "Hey, wait a minute, kid. You appear to be ignorant of the deep differences between us. Come to my class, I'll educate you on all the racial, gender, economic, class, educational reasons for why you can't be related to me and I can't possibly understand you."

Studies of church growth show that churches in conflict, churches suffering divisions, don't grow. "People do not affiliate with a conflicted organization," observes one church consultant. Division, conflict, fighting factions are often a sign of poor leadership and a lack of congregational focus. Many of us pastors have little training in managing conflict. As somebody who's been a visitor in hundreds of churches, I can count on the fingers of one hand those who have said, "Welcome to a church that's of one mind, and one heart, and one opinion."

We're not sure what particular problems in First Church Philippi occasioned the writing of Paul's letter, but we can guess, reading between the lines: Disunity. Are you surprised? If you have been around the church awhile, you know that unity is always a work in progress for a congregation.

I remember hearing a church consultant say, "There's no such thing as a large congregation. There are only dozens of small 'churches' that happen to meet at the same location at the same time."

Now, group unity is a good thing. And yet some of you know how sometimes the quest for unity can be oppressive. In a church I once served, we were debating whether or not to have an additional service of worship. We had a traditional service; should we create a new service with contemporary music? "But that would divide our congregation. I don't like the idea of splitting us up. It's important for all of us to gather at the same time and worship in the same way," said some. Others countered, "Hey, we're already divided. We have different age groups, differing tastes in music, opposing theologies. Right now, having only one option for worship means that we have decided to let those for whom this is an inconvenient hour, or those who don't like the style of worship, to just be absent. Wouldn't it be better to admit that we're already divided and take steps to include those who are left out by our present arrangements?"

Hey, be honest. Sometimes, what passes for "unity" is that dissenting voices have been suppressed, disagreement has been papered over, and dissidents have been encouraged to just fade away quietly. "Unity" can be a matter of "Shut up and go along with the majority." Maybe that's why Paul doesn't say to First Church Philippi, "Get your act together. If you're not unified, nobody will join your congregation." Or "Be united or you'll never meet your budget."

Paul says, "You're Christians. Be united to one another in the same way that Christ has united with you."

Everybody know that in order to have a unified group it's important to think in unity, to be united in love, to work toward agreement, and to avoid one-ups-man-ship. But Paul says more than that. Paul says, "You adopt the attitude that Christ Jesus has toward us." Throughout his letters, whenever Paul gives some ethical injunction or imperative ("you ought"), he bases it upon Christian identity ("you are").

There's a lot we don't know about Christ. But one thing we know for sure is that he brought people together. He begins his ministry by assembling twelve disciples, people who had nothing in common with one another except that Christ had called them to walk with him. Jesus got into trouble for uniting despairing sinners and presumptuous saints. He saves us by assembling us, by putting us in a group, by teaching us to call those whom the world regard as strangers or enemies as "sister," "brother." Anybody who says, "Love one another...bless those who persecute you...pray for your enemies" has got to be somebody prejudiced toward unity, reconciliation, union, communion, community.

As a pastor, when I meet with a couple in my church who were thinking about separating and ceasing to become a couple, I had to be honest with them saying, "I'm glad to talk about your marital problems, and I hope I can be helpful, but just to let you know that, as a pastor, somebody working for Jesus, I'm prejudiced toward togetherness, unity. We believe all problems are easier to work out if you first promise to face your problems together."

Look, I don't know what American can do to be more united. That really doesn't seem to be a high priority for the present administration, but I am sure that truly Christian unity is achieved not by like-mindedness or similar political opinions but rather because we are joined together by one Lord, one faith, one baptism.

My own beloved denomination appears to be moving toward some kind of separation. Issues of sexual orientation and identity are dividing us. (As a pastor, I noted that if a couple starts talking about the possibility of separation, they usually separate.) I wish, when we had started this conversation in my church, we had started not with debate over the issue of sexual identity but by both sides, all sides, promising, "We first promise to stay together and then passionately to debate, argue, and fight - but like Christians."

So, Paul's got a problem on his hands in speaking to the problem of disunity. Notice how Paul ministers to the problem of divisions and factions in a church. He doesn't name or tackle the disagreements directly. He doesn't try to position himself on one side or the other, mounting arguments for and arguments against. Paul doesn't even attempt to find some elusive middle-ground or moderating position.

Rather, Paul quotes from what we believe to be a popular early Christian hymn. It's our scripture for today.

Though he was in the form of God, he did not consider being equal with God something to exploit.

But he emptied himself by taking the form of a slave...he humbled himself even to the point of death on a cross.

Paul doesn't talk directly about the divisions; rather, he sings about the glory of Jesus Christ. He doesn't focus on our differences, he focuses upon what we have most in common - God for us, all of us, loved, saved together, in Jesus Christ. Paul is bold to tell this divided congregation, "Adopt the attitude that was in Christ Jesus." Paul tells them that he wants them to inculcate the spirit of Christ, to think like Christ thinks, to do what Christ did and what Christ does.

Recently, I saw some research that indicates that your political affiliation - whether you identify as a "conservative" or a "progressive" - is more determinative of your deepest commitments than your religious affiliation. The labels "republican" or "democrat" mean more than the designation "Christian."

Well, it's a claim of the Christian faith that Jesus Christ makes possible that which the world considers impossible. Christ has called us not only to believe in him but also to follow him, even more, to emulate him, to engage in the same moves in our lives that characterized his. It is a claim of our faith that Christ not only commands us to live together, minister together as one, but also enables us to do what he commands. His Holy Spirit heals our wounds, bridges our boundaries, and closes our gaps. Your church and mine is called to be a showcase for what God can do.

The pagan world looked at the early church and marveled that here was a group of people that was not organized as the world organized itself - on the basis of family or gender, class and money. The surrounding Roman culture said, "Look how they love one another!" Alas, too often the world looks at congregations today it exclaims, "Hey, look how much they fight with one another."

Jesus Christ is, as Paul says, the true "form of God." We look at Jesus and we see God's true nature - that is to bring people together in his name. And we also see our assignment - to bring people together, divided by so many different political, and social, and gender points of view to do something different, congregating by something more significant than our sameness. We have come from many different places and differing locations, but we are all attempting to walk in the same direction - toward the one Savior who has come toward us.

Paul encourages the church to focus upon our originating cause, our great mission - to allow Jesus Christ to gather us, to overcome our boundaries and divisions and to be one in Jesus Christ. In other words, to show the world what Jesus can do.

Complete my joy by thinking the same way and having the same love, being united, and agreeing with each other. Don't do anything for selfish purposes, but with humility think of others as better than yourselves. Instead of each person watching out for their own good, watch out for what is better for others. Adopt the attitude that was in Jesus Christ.

Just before his crucifixion, Jesus prays not that the church would be effective or powerful, and successful, but rather "that they may all be one; even as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that thou hast sent me." John 17:21