Sermon for the Winter Meeting of the Presbytery of the Inland Northwest
Feb. 12, 2011
"Seeking Unity Through Image-Bearing"
The topic I was given for this morning is "Our Unity in Christ." That topic seems more than appropriate for many reasons, of course. Many would not use the term "unity" to describe Christ's church today – and they would be correct. Inter- and intra-denominational division is tearing many segments of the Protestant church apart at the seams, and amidst this tension, many individual congregations are having great difficulty remaining unified and strong for the cause of Christ.
As an economist and one who studies competitive markets, I find it interesting and devastatingly ironic that as church attendance is dropping, church bodies are working harder than ever to differentiate themselves from one another, to define themselves more narrowly, in order, in their analysis, to retain their portion of an ever-dwindling pie. I wonder out loud whether this is healthy and how this affects unity within the church.
Our world is increasingly pluralistic, and the church and Jesus-followers have lost many important and once-common distinguishing characteristics, as ethical and behavioral norms within the church have become at least as varied as those observed outside the church -- begging the question of whether the church is indeed perceived, both from within and from the outside, as being holy.
This real and perceived disunity has only added fuel to the fire that is so eagerly set by many non-Christians and those whose goal is to disparage the work of the church and to distort Christ's image. Within our own denomination, battles are being waged over doctrine and church polity, important discussions are occurring and pivotal decisions are being weighed and deliberated. But my fear is that irreparable harm is befalling us as a collection of congregations; even worse, our witness for Christ is being damaged in the process.
And let me remind us that the curse of disunity extends far beyond the walls of this sanctuary, beyond sessions, and presbyteries, and synods, and assemblies, and denominations – there are organizations whose very existence is built upon the premise of serving the unified church, and whose identities are being threatened because of discord and disunity. These organizations, like Whitworth University, for example, depend in many ways on the unity and common cause of the church to thrive within their own distinctive and Kingdom-building missions.
Of course, the disunity we observe that threatens the church and its witness for Christ often contrasts so meaningfully with encouraging and life-giving expressions of unity that bring us together time and time again, as one in Christ, to co-labor with him and with one another in his continuing redemptive work in the world.
This is often best illustrated as Christians from around the world unite to care for those in great need, after terrible storms or floods or other calamities that stir our common spirit and put us to action as if discussions about proposed amendments to the General Assembly's constitution were the farthest thoughts our minds were considering. When Christians descend on a disaster scene, or arrive in a homeless shelter, a low-income neighborhood, or a far-off land, my assumption is that those whom we serve in Christ's name could also care very little about the topics that divide our denominations and our churches. Our witness for Christ is most powerful when expressions of the love of God are manifested in unity, when the image of Christ is borne with clarity and conviction, without division – that's when Christ's church is at its strongest!
Indeed, this presbytery is known for such work, and I commend you for it. Thank you for your important outreach, such as to the children of Liberty Park Child Development Center, the youth at Camp Spalding, or our missionaries, Ben and Emily Robinson (Whitworth alumni), in Cairo, Egypt.
So, please do not hear my words this morning as casting any illegitimacy on the work of this body, or on the important decisions with which it grapples, even today. Your work here is important, and I thank you for entering that work with diligence, care and charity. But I would ask us, for a moment, to consider the power, indeed the awesome responsibility, we are given to bear Christ's unifying image to a world that needs him so desperately.
Paul's letter to the Philippians is a wonderful gift and resource for us as we consider God's intentions for unity within the church. In its four brief chapters, Paul's pastoral letter to his beloved congregation at Philippi exhorts its readers to consider how their expressions of unity help to fulfill Christ's ultimate design and purpose for his church. Unity within the fellowship is one of the three major and complementary themes of Philippians – the other two themes being the worldly attack upon the church (from within) and its growing enmity toward the cross, and the eventual return of Christ to bring perfect unity once again to his Kingdom.
After his opening benediction and summary of his own prison ministry, Paul immediately exhorts his readers in 1:27 to "conduct [themselves] in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ". At once, Paul points to the priceless value, the immense worth, of the Good News that he was ordained by Christ himself to share, and to which his followers in Philippi were called in unison, and he foreshadows how disunity within the fellowship is a sin threatening the very heart of the church, a weapon destroying the church's effectiveness, and a weakness rendering it impotent against a hostile world.
And on the two major occasions when Paul calls the Philippian church to unity (in 2:2 and 4:2), he prefaces his command by recalling certain truths about the church. In 2:1, Paul reminds them that they are "in Christ," that the Father's love has been poured out on them and that, by Christ's Spirit, they have been given the gift of unifying fellowship. This intrinsically Trinitarian work (carried out by the supernatural communion and unity of the God-head) has made them unified in fellowship. To live in disunity rather than in harmony is to sin against the very work and person of God. In 4:1, it is no accident that Paul twice addresses the Philippians as his "beloved" and once as his "brethren." Before he calls the arguing factions within the Philippian church to resolve their differences, he reminds them of their true and intended identity: they belong to the same family ("brethren") in which the animating spirit is God's unifying love. In this sense, Paul argues, disunity is a deeply abhorrent offense and completely contrary to their calling to imitate their Creators, three in one, and to bear their Savior's image to a needy world.
In his second major and complementary theme in the book of Philippians, Paul describes a growing schism, a cancer, forming against and, importantly, within the church. In many ways, it's a time of great renewal within the church. In Chapter 1, Paul is encouraged about the "advancement" of the Gospel. People are speaking the word of God, Paul says, more courageously and fearlessly than ever before. But running against this great revival is envy and rivalry, Paul writes, that stands against the unity of the Gospel.
Some contend that those of whom Paul speaks in Chapter 1, who preach Christ out of selfish ambition, are false teachers, outside the church, preaching some form of heresy. Perhaps that is true. But Paul implies that these insincere parties are, in fact, within the church, and may be doing the legitimate work of Christ. For instance, Paul says that regardless of their motives, "Christ is preached and I rejoice," pointing to some effectiveness of their ministry.
It would be much easier for us to deal swiftly and harshly with these "trouble causers," to dismiss them immediately, and to judge their ministries as being wholly false and illegitimate. We could move on, sleeping well at night in our black-and-white world, knowing with certainty those who are for us and those who are against us. It's much harder to contend with these dividers when they are legitimate members of our fellowship, and when they may also, at times, be bona fide contributors to Christ's redemptive work, but with agendas that sometimes pull us away from that work. Friends, let us not so much be on the lookout for such people, but rather, let us continually question whether we, knowingly or unknowingly, are among their ranks. Nevertheless, these dividers within the church distract their followers, Paul contends, from the unifying, image-bearing purpose to which they are called in Christ Jesus.
In the third running theme in Paul's letter, he points to the expected and triumphant return of our Lord Jesus Christ. With an eschatological flourish, Paul points to the Lord's "coming day" six times. It is a day, Paul instructs, toward which the Father is actively and faithfully working. Nothing else, according to Paul, is more consonant with the glory of God than for every creature without exception to own Jesus Christ as Lord, so God is diligently about bringing that reality to the world.
To that end, then, Christian believers must be ready for that great day. So it is also a day toward which Christians must work. Since the day of the Lord is at hand, and because our Christian duty is to live in likeness to Christ, to bear his image, to become sanctified by transformation of mind and heart, to share urgently the grace, peace and justice of Christ, so as to have ready a harvest of righteousness for him at the wedding feast, we should be working with God toward that great day, as well. That requires -- no, demands -- unity, according to Paul.
Finally, amidst these themes of unity and unity's importance in the protection from distraction within the church, and in anticipation of Christ's return, is, of course, the one everpresent, unifying factor: the person of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. In 2:1-11, we are instructed, beginning with a powerful "therefore" at the beginning of verse 1, to take on the mind, the attitude, the likeness of Christ. To be his image-bearers in the church and among those the church serves. That is our highest calling: to give God the Father all glory as we imitate his son. Paul argues that this high calling becomes impossible to live out faithfully in disunity.
Fortunately, Paul doesn't leave us grasping for the "how to's'." Drawing once again on the theme of being united with and for Christ in vs. 2:1, he exhorts us to remember the common bonds of our love for one another, our common fellowship empowered by the Spirit, the tenderness and compassion we experience from one another and deliver to a broken world. In remembering and celebrating these gifts from God, we are then capable -- not of ourselves, mind you -- but through the power of being "in Christ," to seek commonality of mind, purpose, humility and self-sacrifice.
And finally, through God's ultimate gift to us in the person of Jesus, we are provided a model, and life, to follow as we seek to be united by his call to work with him to bring the harvest he desires and longs for when he comes again. By the grace and power of Jesus, may we each, individually and as a church, faithfully bear witness, in unity, to the one "who is exalted in the highest place and given the name above all names, so that every knee shall bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, all to the glory of God the Father."
My prayer for you this morning is "that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best, and may be pure and blameless until the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ – to the glory and praise of God." May we be faithful and unified as we bear Christ's image to a broken but redeemed world. Amen.