Thursday, September 28, 2017

Paul's Plea for Unity

One of the things I learned in seminary was to hear the words of the "Philippian Hymn" as a breathtaking example of early Christology. What that means is that Sunday's epistle lesson (Philippians 2:1-13) is a statement about who Jesus is that is profound because of its complexity, its provenance, and its claim. Theologians suspect that Paul was using a hymn or creedal statement that was familiar to the early church. If so, that means that somewhere as early as 60 AD, followers of Jesus were already identifying him as the one at whose name "every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth." Forgive me if that doesn't sound remarkable, but remember that Jesus never spoke of himself in those exalted terms. Only one name is due that kind of worship (literally to fall down), and that is the name of the Lord. This hymn, therefore, is an example of how early Christians thought of Jesus as the one who had been given God's own sacred name. It took the church 300 years to decide for sure that Jesus was fully divine. To think that he was accorded this kind of clear exaltation within thirty years of his death is phenomenal. But this Sunday that doesn't feel very important.

As I reread Sunday's epistle lesson something in me allowed the hymn itself to fall into the background, and my focus was drawn to the introduction Paul provides to the hymn. I suspect that other preachers, like me, may have missed it the first time around, and I suspect that congregations may miss it as well.
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...
That's how Paul sets up the Philippians Hymn. Paul isn't merely conveying a familiar theological statement about who Jesus really is. He's using the commonly held understanding of Jesus' identity to remind the Philippians community to remain unified at all costs. "If there is any encouragement in Christ," Paul writes, " of the same mind and have the same love." How is that possible? How can a diverse Christian community like the church in Philippi possibly have one mind? It's possible because of humility, and Paul is telling his readers, "If Christ can do it, you can do it, too."

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus. Let the one who humbled himself by taking the form of a lowly slave--a form that was not natural to him--become the means by which you follow his example. Those who are baptized into Christ are baptized into that humility. Those who die with Christ know that true exaltation comes not by grasping for power in this life but by emptying oneself and claiming the exaltation that God promises us. Just as the one who endured the shame of the cross was exalted in the resurrection, so, too, are those who endure the humility of this moment raised to new life in Christ.

In other words, individuals don't matter as much as the group. Identity is based not on the parts but on the whole. Christ became human so that we can become divine, but the path that leads to our glorification takes us through emptiness and loss.

Last night, after the Cubs clenched the Central Division, I was flipping through the channels and found one of a dozen "talk shows" that is designed to achieve ratings by embarrassing President Trump. I watched it for a minute or two, but I couldn't stand it for long. It doesn't matter whether my politics are left-leaning or right-leaning. I find animosity and dispute for the sake of inspiring anger and resentment thoroughly unchristian. I remember thinking that talk show hosts who denigrated President Obama were trying to make money by fuelling hatred. The same is true of the anti-Trump sentiment that pervades popular culture. Sunday's epistle lesson is important for us.

I work and worship in a congregation full of Democrats and Republicans. Paul urges us to be of one mind because Jesus himself wants us to be of one mind. We must be one. That unity is not possible without the help of Christ himself. We can disagree about who should be our president and who should be our senator and whether we should repeal the Affordable Care Act or pass tax reform. We can disagree about those things and still have the mind of Christ. But we cannot be of one mind if we are not willing to humble ourselves, give up what matters to us, and commit ourselves to one another at all costs. We can love each other the same way that God loves us even if we disagree about politics.

Unity starts with humility. Humility means giving up one's self. That's only possible if we ask God to help us be emptied for the sake of Christ. Let go of the need to be right. Put away the kind of disagreements that denigrate the other side. Trust that there are more important things than your way, your party, your vote. The political party that put Christ to death wasn't right, but God didn't care. God's triumph is bigger than politics, but we can only see that if we seek the mind of the one who died before he was raised again.

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