Saturday, January 31, 2015

Unity (Dialogue Sermon with Rev. James Holeman)

John 13:31-35
31When Judas was gone, Jesus said, "Now the Human One has been glorified, and  God has been glorified in him. 32If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify  the Human One in himself and will glorify him immediately. 33Little children, I'm with you for a little while longer. You will look for me--but, just as I  told the Jewish leaders, I also tell you now--'Where I'm going, you can't come.' 34"I give  you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, so you also must  love each other. 35This is how everyone will know that you are my disciples, when you love each other."

This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God

Philippians 2:1-13
1Therefore, if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort in love, any sharing in  the Spirit, any sympathy, 2complete my joy by thinking the same way, having the same  love, being united, and agreeing with each other. 3Don't do anything for selfish purposes but with humility think of others as better than yourselves. 4Instead of each person watching out for their own good, watch out for what is better for others. 5Adopt the attitude that was in Christ Jesus:

6Though he was in the form of God, he did not consider being equal with God something to exploit. 7But he emptied himself by taking the form of a slave and by becoming like human  beings. When he found himself in the form of a human, 8he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. 9Therefore, God highly honored him and gave him a name above all names, 10so that at the name of Jesus everyone in heaven, on earth, and under the earth might bow 11and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

12Therefore, my loved ones, just as you always obey me, not just when I am present but now even more while I am away, carry out your own salvation with fear and trembling. 13God is the one who enables you both to want and to actually live out his  good purposes.

This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God.

Both: The Church does not always speak with one voice.

Joseph: There’s a measure of the absurd in what we’re doing.

James:  We have been tasked by GAP to use a passage and give a sermon on “Unity.” 

Joseph: We’ve been partnered together because of how much we are alike

James: We’re both young pastors (in Presbyterian terms that means we’re under 50).

Joseph: But James and I are by no means interchangeable. 

James: For example…

Joseph: I grew up in the 90’s, 

James: Child of 80’s. 

Joseph: East Coast,

James: West Coast

Joseph: Southern 

James: Northwest, 

Joseph: Bow ties are cool. 

James: thinks it’s hilarious that he likes bow ties, Joseph and I are not unified, and the items we are voting on in Presbytery today highlight how un-unified we are as a denomination….”

Joseph: We are voting on some tough things later today. We each have come to this meeting with our own biases. I have every confidence that those biases are drawn first and foremost from a place of faith, rooted in scripture, and abounding in love of God and neighbor. 

James: None of us are here to ruin the church. We are not, however, of one mind with regard to what God’s will looks like.

Joseph: We are here to discern God’s will for our Presbytery. We are not unbiased, we all have a specific mind of what it means to build up the Body of Christ.

James: Today’s passage, particularly verses 3 and 4 remind us just how hard it is for us to actually be humble in our motives. In the NIV the verses read: “3 Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, 4 not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.”

“In humility value others above yourselves…” For us to really be united we need humility. We need to choose our sisters and brothers in Christ before ourselves. Eugene Peterson in the Message puts it like this- “Put yourself aside, and help others get ahead.” AND “Forget yourselves long enough to lend a helping hand.”

Joseph: The easiest way to get to unity would be to foster some sort of spiritual copy and paste. Wouldn't it be great if everybody thought and acted just like me? Then we could all be correct together! If we want unity, then everyone can just change to be exactly like me!

Doing things the easy way, where everyone else changes, is an exercise in selfishness. Choosing humility enacts our much more difficult calling to love one another as brothers and sisters in Christ. We struggle to “[not] do anything for selfish purposes but with humility think of others as better than yourselves.”

By we, I mean me. 

James: Me too! Choosing humility… easier said than done right? My guess is a lot of people came to today’s Presbytery meeting a lot like me. In some of the controversial areas we are voting on later today (like Marriage), we may not be sure how the vote will go. But we are fairly convinced that during the discussion at least one person will be right most of the time. ourselves….

Joseph: My guess is that very few of us are willing to have our minds changed as we discuss those controversial issues. It’s rare to come in with one bias and to leave with another.

James: But how many of us are coming to this meeting ready to vote against our own conscience, because we feel led by God to put the interests of others… unity first? How many of us have even had a conversation with God about that as a possibility?

Joseph: Verses 3 and 4 challenge us. "Don't do anything for selfish purposes but with humility think of others as better than yourselves. Instead of each person watching out for their own good, watch out for what is better for others." Ultimately, the problem is that we are too selfish to accomplish unity by ourselves.

James:  All it takes is looking at verses 5-11 to see how far Paul is challenging us to go in terms in humility. Jesus… JESUS… is the example Paul is calling us to follow. Jesus who was in heaven, glorified with God and the Spirit… choosing to empty himself to come to our mess of a world. And then choosing to allow himself to die by cross… understood at the time to be the absolute most degrading, demeaning, terrible way to die… and Jesus does it all for others… for you and me. He goes from the ABSOLUTE highest place you can imagine- to the ABSOLUTE lowest one for us. That’s the kind of humility we are called to have.

And I don’t know about you. But when I use that mirror (Christ) to examine my own motives on just about anything, I have to admit that I come up severely lacking. Even when I am at my best- I am not sure that my motives are completely pure. 

Joseph: We’ve got to use Christ as a mirror to examine our own our motives, even when we know we’ll come up short. God’s love and Christ’s saving actions on our behalf are the foundation of Christian Identity. We Presbyterians have long affirmed that we are not our own, that we belong to God. But sometimes we forget who we are, and act out of our selfish nature. We lose sight of the Christ-centered purpose Paul lifts up for us, and fall victim to our own impure motives. Then we try and justify ourselves, and the mental gymnastics begin. We selfishly look for the right reason for having done the wrong thing.

When I was in Seminary, I recall looking around at my fellow students and judging them: “Really? You think God called you to ministry?” I told myself that I was focused on the health of the Church, that we as a denomination need strong leaders and preachers to reclaim our identity as the Body of Christ. “Really? you think God called you to ministry?”

One day, as I sat in judgement over my fellow seminarians, a thought occurred to me as through the Holy Spirit had whispered it in my ear. “You know that some of them would say the same thing about you right?” I had set myself up as judge over what a true call to ministry looked like, and told myself I had the best interests of the Church at heart. But my selfish nature had taken my right reasons and accomplished a wrong deed with them. Selfishness can be finding the right reason for doing the wrong thing.

James: But that is not all- selfishness can also be doing the right thing for wrong reason.

Doing the right thing for the wrong reason… for myself this can be best described as those moments when I look at the choice I’m making and notice all the conjunctions… the “ands” that are a part of the decision….

Yes I want to come alongside and comfort my friend who’s grieving in this restaurant with me. I feel bad for them and help them AND look at how other people in this restaurant are looking at us AND I’m sure my friend is embarrassed she is making a scene AND isn’t this an inappropriate place for this…

Joseph: Someone asks me for cash. Of course I want to help them out, that’s the proper Christian response. AND I also have other things to do, AND I’m getting kind of a weird feeling from them.

James: So It’s time for me to visit some of my congregation members. It will be great to see how they are doing and help them feel cared and loved AND it’s been a while since I’ve done this AND I don’t want anyone to critique me AND wouldn’t it be great if the congregation REALLY noticed how much time I put into caring for them AND

Joseph: Pastor’s and church members alike, we’re all a mess. We do the right thing for the wrong reasons, we find righteous reasons for doing the wrong thing. We forget our Christian identity as servants of God and instead try and puff ourselves up, choosing arrogance over humility because we’ve forgotten who we are, and whose we are.

James: It seems we need to face facts. Humility and therefore unity are unachievable goals for us as humans. That’s what makes verse 13 SO INCREDIBLE…. SUCH GOOD NEWS!!  “God is the one who enables you both to want and to actually live out his  good purposes.” We can’t do humility and unity alone. But we are reminded that God is at work in us anyway. That God desires to give us the willingness, and energy, and ability to work outside our selfish nature. 

Joseph: Our nature, depraved, sinful, and selfish, is repurposed into our Christian identity only through the intervention of the LORD. "God is the one who enables you both to want and to actually live out his good purposes." God's claim on our identity leads us right back to the beginning of the passage. God's presence and work in us and through us turn "ifs" into assurances. "Therefore, if there is any encouragement in Christ," and there is, 

James: ”any comfort in love," and there is

Joseph: ”any sharing in the Spirit," and there is, 

James:”any sympathy," and there is.

Joseph:Our selfish nature does not rule our Christian Identity, God does. God has already taken care of our redemption, so we don't need to hold on to selfishness. God is already holding on to us. All of us, even the ones who disagree with us when the church does not speak with one voice.

James: The unity, described in verses 1 and 2 are NOT humanly possible. It only happens if and when we allow God in…  to mold us in a way completely contrary to our sinful/selfish nature. And if you are like me, we need to allow God into our hearts to do this work over and over and over and over and over again.

Joseph: Allowing God into our hearts over and over again does doesn't solve all our problems. Unity based on our Christian identity always leads to the cross, because it doesn't make sense in a world so shaped by selfishness. But it's not our problems or division that define us: God's love defines us. Unity through humility and Christian identity doesn't erase all our problems, it's a living testimony that even though we go to the cross, we go there because we are united by Christ's love for us, and our love for one another.

James: If we're not letting God help us to choose humility and unity, it's just lip-service. Our "Love one another" becomes just a farce.

Joseph: So let's come together to "carry out [our] own salvation with fear and trembling." We know that we do not save ourselves through selfishness, we are saved by God's mighty hand. Let's act like we believe it, and carry that truth out into the world, knowing that God's salvation is stronger than our fear, stronger than our trembling, stronger than our selfishness, stronger than our disunity. Let's claim our Christian identity and show the world that even if we are going to the cross, we are going there united in Christ. "God is the one who enables [us] both to want and to actually live out his good purposes.”

James: Our Identity is centered around Christ, who ”humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” Our unity is grounded in what God has done for us. When we fall victim to the disunity of our selfish nature, we are not being who God has created us to be, who God has called us to become.

Both: The church does not always speak with one voice.

James: And we don’t always agree with one another.

Joseph: Sometimes we’re selfish

James: Sometimes we forget humility.

Joseph: Yet God works through us anyway.

James: God keeps us united anyway.

Joseph: Therefore, we come together, diverse, disagreeing, and drenched in grace.

James: Around one table.

Joseph: In remembrance of Christ

James: To proclaim with one voice

Both: Jesus Christ is Lord. Alleluia, Amen.


  1. Thank you so much for posting this, Joseph. I wish I'd been there to hear it in person.

    1. Thanks Elise! I would have loved to have seen you there. First Morganton was well represented though!