Foundry United Methodist Church

Rev. DeeAnne Lowman, Associate Pastor

 

 

 

Does Agreeing in Love Mean I Have to Agree?

September 27, 2009

 

 

Philippians 2: 1-11


Dee

Rev. Dee Lowman

 

We are in the midst of a sermon series recognizing the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin.  He published his seminal work The Origin of Species 150 years ago and the issues of evolution still remain at the forefront of America's cultural wars.  We hope this series of sermons will provide thoughtful and thought-provoking ways to engage with the tensions of evolution and religion, and, in particular, Christianity.  We've talked about the Bible and science and how we don't have to choose one over and against the other. Dean shared with us his thinking about what God does do and how God does it.  Today we go further to address what we do about our different understandings as people of God. 

 

I remember my father's admonition to me whenever I would address something that I thought was inherently wrong.  He would ask, “Is it better to be right or to be loving?”  I have long since discovered that he was not referring to the great dilemmas of life, but rather to whether or not my sister and I could resolve an issue like whose side of the bedroom the TV should reside on.  The big questions and mysteries of the universe are more complicated, more challenging.  At least I think that now.  Holding fast to what we know or believe is easier when there aren't any other competing ideas. And it seems even more important when we feel we have to win.  Paul's evangelistic endeavors provided another story, another way of understanding the world and one's place in it, an understanding so unpopular to some that he found himself imprisoned for his convictions.  Paul, like Darwin and so many others throughout history, found himself at odds with a prevailing wisdom and the political powers of his day. 

 

The scripture passage that Jan/Oni read to us comes from writings of the Apostle Paul to one of his favorite new church plants, Philippi.  To say that Paul was very fond of the Philippian Church would be an understatement.  This church marked the first successful church plant in this new missionary field near Macedonia.  This church, this faith community, was his joy.  Upon his arrival there, Paul found a rich agrarian citizenry that was loyal to Rome and enjoyed all the legal benefits of the same.  This also presented an interesting evangelical challenge to Paul, as these folks weren’t Jewish by descent, and they were God-fearing Gentiles who dabbled in the cultic rituals of the empire.[i] Their response to his teaching was phenomenal.  They became his biggest fans, and his most generous contributors to his evangelistic efforts. This church was one of his greatest sources of joy in his ministry.

 

But all was not perfect, particularly after Paul left.  He found himself in jail, which many believe to be the place from which the letter was written.  Paul had heard that there was not complete harmony and unity among the believers there.  His letter had two clear, upfront purposes:  he wanted the church to be reassured that he was keeping the faith while in prison, and to commend his “child in Christ – Epaphroditus” to their care.  While this was a church community committed to the teachings of Paul and the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, they were also a cross-cultural community struggling to stay faithful amid the persecution that came from those who didn't hold fast to the teachings of Paul. Paul also took the occasion to encourage the church to keep being true to what he had taught and true to their God in Christ in the face of old, more familiar Roman understandings of mystery and the gods.

 

Paul isn't just asking the church members to just hold fast to what they believe; he wanted them to stay firm TOGETHER - “be of the same mind.”  Apparently Paul had heard that there was some bickering among his beloved community and he wanted them to not just stick to the essentials of the faith, but to stay committed to one another.  Don't be selfish, and be humble with one another.  Care about what others dear to you care about.  Paul reminded his church folk what the essentials were:  Jesus was with God, though he didn't claim that he was equal with God.  He took on a human form and lived among God's people as an obedient servant, and died on the cross.  He doesn't really talk about how they needed to live with others who differed in their own understandings of God and Jesus. But he does ask them to “[stand] firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel, and [not be] in [any] way intimidated by [their] opponents.”[ii] It seems to me that, while Paul was concerned about what they believe, he was equally concerned that they continue together as a community of faith, standing together united.

 

How we deal with our differences can reveal more about us than it does about what we believe.  The rhetorical nature of the title of my sermon is less about agreeing on what we believe and more about how we live together with our differences.  The Peace Church in the Mennonite tradition has transformed Paul's “agreeing in love” motto to “agreeing and disagreeing in love” - a way of committing to civil and honorable discourse in the face of disagreement. [iii] The church has adopted principles and commitments for addressing times and situations that could create disunity among the body of Christ.  One of these principles helps participants work through their disagreements constructively based on biblical understandings found in Acts 15 and Philippians 2:1-11:

·     Identify issues, interests, and needs of both (rather than take positions).

·     Generate a variety of options for meeting both parties’ needs (rather than defending one’s own way).

·     Evaluate options by how they meet the needs and satisfy the interests of all sides (not one side’s values).

·     Collaborate in working out a joint solution (so both sides gain, both grow and win).

·     Cooperate with the emerging agreement (accept the possible, not demand your ideal).

·     Reward each other for each step forward, toward agreement (celebrate mutuality).

 

None of these steps in the process guarantee or even require that all agree about everything.  It seeks to find the places of agreement and help clarify the positions and places about which people differ with respect and honor.  It is the hope that those engaged in the conflict will learn and grow in relationship with one another from a deeper understanding of the other's point of view. This is not a panacea.  This kind of conflict resolution takes time and a willingness to stay at the table and work toward true collaboration.  This is the most time-consuming of all ways of addressing conflict.  It is also the method that can present the possibility of remaining in relationship and moving beyond the conflict.

 

The unintentional founder of Methodism, John Wesley, liked to quote St. Augustine: “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.”  The key to real community, to truly holding a community in unity or bringing a group of people together with different ideas is to discover what is essential and what isn't.  What is most meaningful to the body?  What is it that is in our hearts –that we hold dear - that which is intangible, even hidden?  Like Saint-Exupéry's fox says in The Little Prince, “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly. What is essential is invisible to the eye.” In our relationships with one another, we need to uncover what is truly at the heart, essential to life in community.

 

Unity is never about what is a zero-sum game – right, wrong, winners, losers.  Every faith community, every tradition has had arguments that end in winners and losers.  The real question for us is how to move beyond win/lose arguments that require proof for victory to a place where we are willing to live in a community that is comfortable with and even embraces disagreement within the body.  Gandhi once said that “Unity to be real must stand the severest strain without breaking.”

 

How do we indeed stay focused on the essentials of our life together in Christ?  How do we avoid the deep divides of the non-essentials and dwell in the essentials?  What John Wesley said are the essentials are these three simple rules: do good, do no harm, stay in love with God.  That was it for Wesley.  All love, all grace, all unity flows from our commitment and our ability to do good, do no harm, and stay in love with God. While simple in concept, practice is the challenge for today's people.  Bishop Rueben Job, the author of the recent book, Three Simple Rules, outlines these three rules in greater detail for the United Methodist Church. In another less denominationally-focused edition of Job's book, the title is Three Simple Rules That Will Change the World. Challenging words.  Powerful words.  Hopeful words. 

 

I can’t end a sermon on this passage of scripture without talking about the elephant in the room – the last few verses.  How in the world do these words end up in the same passage as the lovely words about unity and agreeing in love?  I don’t think Paul meant for these to sound so contrasting, but they do.  We’ve talked before about the Thomas-Kilman models of conflict.  Thomas and Kilman defined 5 categories – 5 styles of dealing with conflict, all of which are valid methods depending on the circumstances.  There’s the turtle (the avoider), the teddy bear (the accommodator), the shark (the confronter), the fox (the compromiser), and the owl (the collaborator). 

 

Using the most appropriate method of engaging in conflict depends on two things:  the importance of the relationship and the urgency/significance of the task. In the earlier part of this passage, Paul is advocating working toward collaboration – a win, win situation if you will.  The apparent contrast comes in Paul’s description of what some have understood to be an eschatological event – when the reign of God comes upon the earth.  For Paul this was not only an event – a time in history – but it was imminent.  It was happening soon, perhaps if not in his lifetime then certainly in the lifetimes of those whom he helped to convert.   At the name of Jesus, every knee would bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. This would be the great agreement.  All would know the story and hope of the story of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.  Remember the conditions of Philippi – this was a Roman town.  People who Paul had evangelized were Roman citizens.  This language of paying homage to a king, a lord, would have resonated with these folks. But Jesus would be a different kind of leader. 

 

What may sound like confrontation to us were words of reassurance and encouragement to the people who were having their new beliefs in Jesus and their understanding of God challenged.  Paul may have seemed like he was “sharking” – this may sound like a threat to us in our time, but it was not intended that way.  We look back on these words and hear a high investment in the task – everyone believing in Jesus. Paul was saying simply that the words he spoke, about Jesus and the incarnation – these words contained the basis for the understanding of the Christian faith, and that those who believed in the incarnation of Jesus – in the “God coming and dwelling with us” idea could take that to the bank. Well, perhaps bank imagery isn’t the best choice of words in our current economic climate, but you know what I mean.  This relationship with Jesus was secure.  This understanding was solid.  This story of Jesus was something on which one could truly depend and live one’s life out of.  Paul wasn’t putting the task of conversion over a true relationship with Jesus.  Just the opposite.  If you choose this relationship, it is something on which one can depend.  This was an essential of faith – this future hope – for Paul and to those to whom he spoke and for whom he prayed.

 

For Foundry, the essentials for living are lived out in our care and inclusion of all persons regardless of age, sexual orientation, national/racial/ethnic heritage, our care for those without means to care for themselves, our commitment to help one another know and love God, and the creation of a place for God's people to be the body of Christ.  Agreeing in love… agreeing that love is at the center of our life together and that conflict is also a part of our life together.  Do good, do no harm, stay in love with God. 

 

 

 

 

 

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[i]     Interpreters Bible, Vol XI, p. 470

 

[ii]    Philippians 1:27b-28a

 

[iii]  Agreeing and Disagreeing in Love: Guidelines for Mennonites in Times of Disagreement, http://www.mennoniteusa.org/Home/Convention/Delegates/Disagreeing/tabid/510/Default.aspx