Unity of the Church
September 24, 2017

Unity of the Church

Passage: Philippians 1:21-30

Years ago I was at some diocesan event with a bunch of Episcopalians. And at some point someone at the table made a passing reference to the apostle Paul and this woman (I have no idea who she was), went, “Pfff! Paul!” And that’s all she had to say. Her dismissive “pfff” was sufficient: Paul the misogynist; Paul the homophobe.

And I’ve got to say (to our shame), that popular Episcopal culture has largely gotten on that woman’s train. We’ve smugly dismissed Paul, without even knowing what we’re doing. For all that’s good in our church, we’re alarmingly ignorant when it comes to scripture. Most people don’t study the Bible regularly (or even irregularly, for that matter). The only scripture we hear is what’s read on Sunday morning. And I suspect that most people zone out when the New Testament passage is read. It’s usually a section from one of Paul’s letters – letters that tend to be long, drawn out, theological writings. And – given that we’re Biblically illiterate, and given that we’re only hearing a small section of the letter, and given our anti-Paul prejudice – these readings just get totally ignored.

But here’s the thing, you can’t dismiss Paul, even if you try. Almost everything we know and believe about the church, about the faith, about Jesus¸ comes through the influence of Paul. He was the church’s first and greatest theologian. And if we think we can dismiss him because we don’t like what he had to say about a couple elements of first century Roman culture, well that’s just ignorant. You can be pro-women, and pro-gay, and pro-Paul – but you need to pay attention to him.

So…that’s what we’re going to do. For the next four weeks the sermons will focus on the New Testament readings: Paul’s letter to the Philippians (not be confused with the Filipinos. To my knowledge, Paul had no correspondence with any Pacific island nation).

The Philippians were residents of the city of Philippi. It was a Roman city in modern day Greece, about half-way between Athens and Istanbul. Like many Roman cities, it had a handful of wealthy people, a lot of poor people, and a lot of slaves. We can assume that the church in Philippi reflected the same demographics as the city. The church there had been founded by Paul a few years before.

But now Paul is far away in prison. (Actually, it was more like a house arrest.) And in that culture, the state didn’t pay for your expenses while you were locked up; you had to have your own resources. So the church in Philippi had a little fund-raising campaign and sent one its members – Epaphroditus – to deliver it. And it’s obvious that when Epaphroditus showed up with the money he also updated Paul on what was going on in his church. Like St. John’s, the church at Philippi was doing all right. They weren’t in any major crisis. So in addition to saying thank you, the tone of the letter is one of encouragement and perseverance (and little bit admonishment where necessary).

When you read this letter, keep in mind that the Christian community in Philippi is still relatively young; they’re just starting out in their life of faith. So Paul uses this letter to introduce four prominent themes they’ll need in living out their faith:

The first is an appeal for unity – that they would regard themselves as a single, unified community, where all the social brackets worship together in harmony. That, Paul argues, will be the sign for the watching world that Jesus really is Lord of all.

The second theme is an appeal for holiness – that they would live into a genuine way of being human that is radically different than the humanness offered by the world.

The third theme is an appeal for renewed minds – that they would learn, and think, and grow in their understanding of the faith.

And the final theme is the paradox of being able to celebrate in the midst of suffering – that even in hardship, they would know a deeper, truer, life-giving reality.

You see what I mean – Paul’s letters are full of good, worthwhile stuff. Two thousand years down the road, he is still helpful and wise as we attempt to live into our life of faith.

So let’s look at this letter. Paul begins with a few general comments: He thanks God for them and their partnership in the gospel. He expresses his love for them and his desire that they would keep maturing in their faith. He shares some good news about his imprisonment – that he’s been able to share the gospel with the whole Praetorian Guard.

And then we arrive at the section of the letter we read this morning:

To me, living is Christ, and dying is gain….My desire is to depart and be with Christ…but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you (Philippians 1:21f).

What’s Paul getting at here? Well, just to be clear – he’s not suicidal. He’s not considering whether or not to end it all. He’s simply reached a place of profound longing for total union with Christ. There he is, sitting in prison, with plenty of time on his hands to contemplate the meaning of life, and it’s become very clear to him: I want to be with Christ; I want the completion of redemption; I want my life to be fully absorbed into God. It reminds me of my grandmother in her later years. She wasn’t even a Christian, but she reached a similar conclusion. With nothing to do all day but sit on her deck and watch the clouds make their way across the sky, she had a lot of time to ponder what this life was all about. And despite her atheist upbringing and her severe dementia, she reached some solid conclusions: there must be a god who made all this. This god must be good because creation is good. And I want to be with that god.

But unlike my grandmother, Paul was still healthy and fit. And though he muses about the attraction of the afterlife, he knows he is still called to this life – and not merely to keep surviving – but to keep living in such a way that he might care for those entrusted to him. He is an apostle. There are young churches still beginning to grow in their faith, and his call, his life, is to be given over to their flourishing.

And what does that flourishing look like? Well, that’s his next point:

Live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ…standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel (Phil. 1:27).

If the church is going to have any integrity in this world, any witness of substance, then we’ve got to be unified. Unity doesn’t mean uniformity on every issue. But it does mean an absolute commitment to loving and blessing one another as God loves and blesses us, and that we keep seeking out a truer and truer understanding of who God is and what it means for us live as image bearers of that God. This is certainly needful within any particular congregation, but it must also be true in the wider community.

And, I would say (also to our shame) that Gig Harbor has almost no expression of unity between its churches and – no surprise – the church’s witness to Gig Harbor is basically non-existent. We’re just an unaffiliated collection of organizations, inclined to believe in our own superiority, while running our individual programs. We might be doing truly good work in our own spheres, but there’s nothing about us, as a whole, that should make our neighbors stop and pay us any attention.

For the past year I’ve been part of a small group of Gig Harbor pastors who are trying to change this. At a meeting (downstairs in St. John’s Hunt Lounge!) we agreed that the first thing we pastors needed to do was simply to start meeting each month with the express purpose of getting to know one another, with the hope that we would grow in our trust and respect for each other. And I’m pleased to say it’s been working. I’m becoming friends with folks whose way of worship is totally different than what we do in the Episcopal Church. (Honestly, I doubt I would enjoy worshiping in most of their churches. I became an Episcopalian for a reason.) But I am totally enjoying my friendship with them, because we are experiencing real relationships that are grounded in a genuine, shared pursuit of the Kingdom of God. And the substance of real relationships always has the potential to outweigh the division of our ideologies and church cultures.

This past week at our meeting we started talking about what our next steps should be. We produced a draft mission statement that says:

We are a community of ministers from a diverse spectrum of churches who gather monthly to affirm and foster our conviction that, through real relationships, we will know ourselves as one church in Gig Harbor, joining in the mission of our One God.

And we decided, it’s probably time that our churches start doing things together. But not just joint worship services, which tend to be dreadful. We’ve got to figure out how to work together in substantive ways that will foster a unity grounded in the gospel that we’re all seeking to live out.

One of the pastors (from an Evangelical church!) suggested that we gather together in a public place to celebrate Martin Luther King Day. Even though our Gig Harbor churches are all basically white, we should join together and declare that Martin Luther King was a prophet for all America, not just black America. His message was an expression of the gospel of Christ that is just as relevant and needful for our country today as it was fifty years ago. Proclaiming the oneness of our community is absolutely the message of the one church.

I don’t know if we’ll do that particular event. But I’m grateful that something is starting. The church’s job is to reveal to the world that there is a different way of being human – and this way is modeled on Jesus himself. He is eternally one with the Father and the Spirit, and through the incarnation, he is eternally one with all humanity – sinner and saint alike. If we want to be like Jesus, then we must seek ways of believing and discovering – through real relationships – that there is a union between us all that is far truer than the fears and ideologies that divide us.