Church Unity: when everything is on the line


(Reading from Genesis 45:1-15, Psalm 133, and Romans 12:9-21)


            Our first reading for today tells us one piece of the story of Joseph.  Now, how many of you know something about the story of Joseph? What do you know about Joseph? Joseph is famous for many reasons.  We know about his famous coat, his dreaming and interpretation of dreams, his refusal to sleep with his master’s wife and on and on.  When I think about the nice, clean-cut, wholesome kind of people in scripture, Joseph is one who comes to mind.  Many of the men and women who God calls throughout the Bible have sordid pasts, but Joseph always seem to rise above the muck and mire that stain the rest of us, and today’s story is no exception.  Joseph is the kind of holy, God-follower that many of us long to be.  More on that later…

            Before we look too closely at today’s passage, I want to remind you how we got to this point.  When Joseph was a boy, he was his father’s favorite and, apparently Jacob had not taken any of the parenting classes that they offer today, because he made it clear to Joseph and his other eleven boys that Joseph was the favorite, and this did not sit well with Joseph’s older brothers.  On top of receiving the best of everything from his dad, Joseph was also a dreamer.  He dreamed about his brothers bowing down before him and, in his naivety, he told his brothers about those dreams, which only added to their hate.  So, they came up with a plan to kill him off and make it look like a wild animal had done the deed.  However, while they were debating exactly what to do with Joseph, a band of slave traders passed by and the brothers decided that they might as well earn something from Joseph.  So, they sold him into slavery.  He was taken to Egypt and he spent decades there first as a household slave and then as a jailbird before God placed him in Pharaoh’s court.

            Now, I have never been sold into slavery by my brothers, but I can’t imagine that I would feel particularly kind thoughts towards my brother as I spent my energy toiling for a foreign master and then as I sat in jail for a crime I had not committed.  I think I would probably stew on my anger.  I would probably grow more and more bitter at the betrayal and cruelty.  I would probably start by hating my brothers and move to loathing them and end up at a place of sheer rage as the years passed, even though the only person my ate would impact is me.  But not Joseph, and to be honest, that is why I am not real sure that I like the clean-cut, wholesome Joseph.  He may be the kind of holy God-follower that we long to be like on one level, but on another level, we want permission to hate.  We don’t really want to reconcile with someone who has betrayed us so deeply, or at least we want permission to avoid them and never speak to them again, but Joseph doesn’t give any of us that permission.

            Instead, Joseph brings his family together as they have not been for twenty-two years.  Joseph and his eleven brothers become the twelve tribes of Israel—an act that could never have happened without Joseph’s willingness to forgive and be reconciled to those who have acted so hatefully against him.  Throughout scripture the twelve tribes appear again and again, even Jesus has his place in the twelve tribes as the “Lion of the tribe of Judah”—Judah was one of Joseph’s older brothers.  So much is changed by Joseph’s willingness to forgive.  I cannot imagine the rest of scripture without it!

            Joseph realizes that forgiveness is essential, not for the other person, but for us.  He knew that forgiving his brothers released their power over him.  Jesus understood the power of forgiveness and wanted us to understand that we have been forgiven much by God and as a result are called to live in forgiveness towards those around it.  The parable that Jesus tells in Matthew 18 is powerful (Matt 18:21-35):

21 Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” 22 Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.

23 “For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. 24 When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents (remember, a talent is roughly a million dollars—this would be $10 billion!) was brought to him; 25 and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. 26 So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ 27 And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. 28 But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii(or a hundred dayes wages--$10,000 or so.  This is still serious money!); and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ 29 Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ 30 But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. 31 When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. 32 Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33 Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ 34 And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. 35 So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

We have been forgiven much and are called to forgive! 

Forgiveness was the place that Joseph started in the pursuit of unity.  He refused to give unforgiveness and bitterness and anger power over his life.  Forgiveness allowed him to be in the place to seek reconciliation and move towards restoring unity in his family.  Unity allowed his family to thrive even in the face of the ancient world’s version of an economic downturn—drought and famine.  Joseph’s family thrived when many others ended up selling themselves as slaves so they could eat!  Unity was powerful for Joseph’s family, and it is powerful for us today in the church.

Listen to how our reading from Psalm 133 goes expresses the importance of unity.  Let me read those words for you again:

1 How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity! 2 It is like the precious oil on the head, running down upon the beard, on the beard of Aaron, running down over the collar of his robes. 3 It is like the dew of Hermon, which falls on the mountains of Zion. For there the Lord ordained his blessing, life forevermore.

The psalmist tells us that living in unity is like oil on the head.  This comparison may sound a bit odd until we realize it is not just talking about any old oil or any old head.  Unity, the psalm tells us, is like the holy anointing oil upon the head of Aaron.  Aaron was the first high priest and the anointing oil was what bestowed upon him the right to be priest (Lev 8:12).  The oil was more than just a fragrant perfume, it was the very anointing of God for the ministry to which Aaron had been called (cf. 1 Sam 10:1).  Without the anointing, a high priest was only a high priest in name, not in reality; a king without God’s anointing was only king in name, not in reality.  And, a church without the anointing of God—well, a church without the anointing of God is just a gathering of people looking for good music and a few good thoughts.

            The message is strong: unity is key to having the anointing of God.  Unity is key to being the church.  By unity I do not mean that we all agree about everything, but I mean that we are a place of genuine care and concern for one another and we are a church where everyone is moving in the same direction.  Unity of love and unity of direction.  Without that kind of unity, the church is without anointing and will struggle to be the people of God to a hurting world.  Experience confirms this.  How many people do you know that want to join a church that is feuding?  How many people want to be a part of a family that cannot get along?  Who wants to go to the family reunion where brothers and sisters cannot say a nice word to each other?  I can’t tell you how many people have told me, as recently as within the last week, that they have walked out the church doors and not returned because of fighting within the church.  I bet you know some too!  My friends, unity matters.

            Jesus offers a word that is just as strong as the psalmist’s.  In his prayer in John 17, the one time in scripture where Jesus prays specifically for the church that would come after the disciples (that’s us!), Jesus prays this (17:20-23):

"I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, 21 that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, 23 I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. 

            Church unity, Jesus tells us, will lead to the world believing that God sent Jesus.  Nothing more or less than the success of the mission that Jesus called us to is at stake here, and frankly, my friends, the capital “C” Church is failing at unity.  As a world-wide church, we are failing.  As a denomination, we are failing.  The question I want us to wrestle with today is about us as a local church.  Here at Antioch/Williams.  How are we doing in being “one” in order to bring people to Jesus.

Time for some truth-telling:  When I arrived at this charge I had more than one person in the community tell me that they were sorry I had been sent here because our church community is known for conflict.  No one ever named names or pointed fingers, but they made it very clear that this church was not a place that they wanted to be.  I realized at that moment that it was going to be a challenge reaching the community for Christ through our church.  There is something about unity that draws people.  Unity means genuine community and without it, we struggle to see Christ.

Now, I am happy to say that the picture these members of our community painted of this church is not true.  Regardless of what has gone on in the past, this church is not a place of fighting and verbal attacks.  I hope that each of you here can own that and believe it.  We are mobbing towards unity.  I have been here for two years and, for the most part, we have been civil and caring towards each other.  I want to thank you for being people who are working towards unity, and my prayer is that we would continue to grow more and more in this area until the community around us cannot recognize this church from who they thought we were.  I pray that we will be so loving and so united that it will cause people to stop and wonder, and when they think back on what they think they know about this place they will realize, “you know what, God must be at work in that place, because they have gone from infighting to love and that can only happen by the grace of God!”

I can promise you that people will be drawn in, if we continue to grow in unity and in love.  As we said before a church united is a church that has unity of love for one another and unity of direction in following after Jesus Christ. 

            What would it look like for us to be united in love and united in direction?  How does a church who is united in love respond when someone is hurting or struggling?  What would this church community look like if we reached out to one another when we fall down?  Look around you.  Many of you can look around this congregation and see people who have reached out to you when you have fallen down, or people who have needed your hand to get back on their feet.  Those are the times when we have been at our best, united in love.  How can we grow in that love?  I suspect that you can also look around this congregation and see the empty seats of those who have fallen down and did not feel that this church was a place that could help pick them up.  Or, maybe, you see the empty seats of those who left after they were yelled at, or watched someone else get yelled at.  I hope that you have apologized to them on behalf of the church.  I hope it is also known that as long as I am the pastor here, I will not stand for abusing one another in the church—this is a place of love and care.

            We said that unity involves unity of love and unity of direction.  Unity of direction is tricky.  We had a great time coming together last year with our growth team to work on what it means to be Antioch/Williams United Methodist Church.  We did some good work together in order to decide just what it is that is our “labor of love.”  While we were able to identify some things that we said were important to us, we have not gotten very far in living out our labor of love.  For us to have unity of direction, we need to move beyond talk to action.  In the coming months, we will be joining with churches from across this state to look towards the future and declaring what our goals are for the next four years.  “Continuing to exist” is not on the list.  If we are not here for a reason, then there is no reason to be here.  I am convinced that God has us here, in this community to reach people who would not otherwise be reached by the Gospel and to touch lives that would not otherwise be touched.

            We will be talking more about what charting our direction as a church looks like in the coming weeks, but for today, I want us each, as individual to think about what it means to be people who seek unity of love.  We cannot be a united church without individuals who are committed to doing the hard work.

            Just like I mentioned at the beginning of this message—I am not always sure I like the example that Joseph gives us of forgiveness and love and reconciliation, because those things are against our nature.  They are hard.  We want to hate and harbor anger and grow our bitterness, but we are called to pave the way for unity, and my challenge to you is to listen to how God is calling you to work for unity in this church.

We are going to read through the Romans passage three times, pausing between each reading in order to reflect on which part or parts of the passage God pulls to the front of your mind.  Allow God to guide your attention to a word or phrase and mark it in your bulletin and reflect on what it would mean for you to live out this call of God.

9 Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; 10 love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. 11 Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. 12 Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. 13 Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. 14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. 16 Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. 17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. 18 If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, "Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord." 20 No, "if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads." 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Romans 12