In Paul’s letter to the Philippians, our second reading we just heard read by Kathy, there is a strong focus on oneness and unity. He wrote, “be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.” And we know that this theme of unity can be found elsewhere in the letters of the New Testament. For example, in Ephesians 4 we read, “There is one body and one spirit, just as you were called to one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and father of all.”
One…One body…one spirit…one hope…one Lord…one faith…one baptism…one God. There doesn’t seem to be any subtleness that there is a desire for unity among these different congregations.
In a world that seems more and more fractured, and divided each and every day, this call for unity…it’s pretty appealing, don’t you think?
If we take a moment and think of all the different Christian expressions there are in the world, there are many ways that we separate ourselves Roman Catholic and Protestant, Lutheran and Non-Denominational, ELCA and LCMS, Former ALC or LCA, of Swedish or German Heritage…the list goes on.
All these different layers that define who we are seem to stand in stark contrast to this call from Paul to the Philippian church to seek unity. It seems that Paul is saying to those gathered in Philippi that they should set aside all those things that divide them, and should seek unity as a priority, above all else.
And Paul’s words in Galatians 3:28 that “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” seem to back that up.
And the church isn’t the only place where there is division in the world. If we zoom out from our lives and identities as followers of Christ, we can recognize there are other ways that division is present in our communities and world.
This division is often brough abut by our identities and experiences such as:
- Our racial identity
- Gender identity
- Socioeconomic class
- Citizenship status
- Education level
And there is a lot of time and energy that goes into these things that describe our differences.
Doesn’t it seem as if it would be a whole lot easier if we were able to set all of those things aside and only remembered that we are one in Christ, and that we are called to unity?
BUT…what if unity isn’t a synonym of uniformity, and diversity doesn’t equal division?
While Paul tells the Philippians to be “of the same mind” and even “of one mind” that isn’t where the letter ends.
He continues by writing, “Do nothing from selfish ambition, 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.”
Paul clearly places the idea of ourselves near others in verse four, and in doing so demonstrates that that which makes us individuals, does not need to put us in opposition to others. Individuality and unity are not mutually exclusive, but can and should exist together.
Paul is not calling the Philippians to uniformity as contrasted with division, but rather to unity informed and strengthened by diversity.
This move by Paul, it was a radical move in his day. According to theologian Ekaputra Tupamahu, about 400 years before Paul wrote to the Philippians, the Greek Philosopher Aristotle wrote his book, Politics. In that very influential work, Aristotle described how unity and diversity should interact in an ideal polis, or city. Aristotle was convinced that the wellbeing of the whole should have priority over the well-being of individuals. And so, unity was lifted up and held in contrast to diversity.
And Aristotle’s placing of the whole before the individual is an idea that has lasted long after his death. Martin Luther spoke about the oversized influence of Aristotle on Christianity in the 1500s, and even today Aristotle’s ideas are still readily found in our lives.
One example that many of us here were taught, is the idea that the United States should be a melting pot. That it is supposed to take in people from every background and melt them together, forming a homogenous unity that is stronger than it had been apart.
While the unity this melting pot aspires to can seem appealing at first, in truth this idea is only uniformity masquerading as unity.
But unlike many of us who are still influenced by Aristotle’s ideas, Paul flipped the script. Paul tells the Philippians to prioritize others. He doesn’t tell the church to neglect the interests of others, but encourages that they “look to the interests of others.” They were to recognize the interests of others, and name those interests as having worth. The Common English Bible translates verse four as, “ instead of each person watching out for their own good, watch out for what is best for others.
In confirmation this past week, we read the accounts of creation in Genesis and noted that in Genesis 1, God created humanity, that god created male and female, that is diversity in humanity, and named it very good. God recognized from the beginning that unity does not demand uniformity.
As followers of Christ, and as people who believe Paul’s writings can still speak important words to us today, this call to “watch out for what is better for others” must be held in tension with our human tendency to sin and place our interests before others. We are quick to do that which benefits us, or our family, or our community at the expense of whoever we consider to be the “other.”
Today, as a community we will participate in the sacrament of baptism. In baptism, God’s word and the water come together, and we are welcomed into this beloved community. As a community, we will covenant–we will promise–to bring the newly baptized with us as we give thanks and praise to God and bear God’s creative and redeeming word to all the world.
God’s creative and redeeming word is not a message of conformity but of transformation. It is a welcoming of any who wish to join us in sharing that the dominion of God is a dominion for those who we would discount. It is a dominion that God graciously shares with any who desire.
Paul calls us to unity, and as followers of Christ, unity should be our goal. But in a world that so often demands uniformity at the cost of being uniquely formed in the image that God called good, we remember that in our baptism we enter the beloved community.
Our unity, our identity is founded in Christ. And being created in the image of God, that unity surrounds the unique ways God creates each of us. Thanks be to God.