Thursday, February 23, 2012

Thoughts on Unity for Lent


"Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others." - Philippians 2:1-4

Notice that it all depends on being “united in Christ”.

One of the big challenges of every church, from the Philippians down to churches in the 21st century, is this idea of being united. Unity is not the same as uniformity.

In other words, look at it this way. Remember communist China under Mao Tse Tung? Remember how everyone was supposed to think alike? And everyone was even supposed to dress alike, in those Mao outfits that looked like cheap uniforms. Yes, that is exactly what they were, to produced uniformity. Regimentation. Lack of originality. Abdication of any spark of creativity.

That is NOT what Paul expects the church to be like (regimented, dull, uncreative). How boring and frankly lifeless it would be, if the church were like that.

Uniformity is NOT the same thing as being United in Christ. Being United in Christ is described very well in another letter of Paul’s where he talks about Christ being the head and all of those who believe in him being parts of the body of Christ.

We are more like a stadium filled with people who are dressed differently and maybe have different likes and dislikes but who when the national anthem is played all rise to our feet and sing it because we are faithful to our wonderful country. Only more so, since we are standing up and singing for and serving the Living Lord.

When we read a few verses ahead in this part of the Letter to the Philippians, Paul cautions against grumbling and arguing. Christian unity is often undone by these forms of verbal posturing. Paul wants to stop the arguing and grumbling that may be going on at Philippi.

You probably know of a church that specializes in complaining and arguing--maybe even making life difficult for other congregations in the same denomination. The kind of church whose leaders insist on their way or the highway. Paul's insights need to be applied there. Because the root problem from fault-finding and argumentativeness is always a stratagem to dominate the other person or group. Domination is not the same as the cooperative spirit found in unity. In fact, it destroys unity when people are busy making sure their concerns are addressed, all the while belittling or ignoring the interests of others.

Christians understand that we do not deserve to have our own way. We deserve condemnation. The good news is that God, in infinite and costly grace has, drawn us to himself by Christ's sacrifice, and now the Holy Spirit is working in us to accomplish God's good purpose.

Jesus came not to call the righteous but sinners to repentance. Jesus came not to change you from a unique person into an automaton, but from a lost person into a found person. Your personality, gifts and insights are all the more valuable when shared in the fellowship of the faithful. So, too, apart from that fellowship, they fade and turn cold. Any faithful Christian will acknowledge how foolish it is to break fellowship with others for selfish reasons.

“Self-justification and judging belong together,” said Dietrich Bonheoffer,”as justification by grace and serving belong together.”

Here’s the thing…

If what you are after is uniformity, then it is not very easy to encourage someone. All you are doing is criticizing them because they do not pass inspection. But if you are united in Christ, it is the easiest thing in the world to find that the person next to you, or from some other time and place, is your friend in Christ and you are part of him or her, and she or he is part of you.

Because we all love and serve the same Lord. Then, encouragement comes as easily as breathing in and out.

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