The Road to Wholeness
Text: Philippians 2:4-11; Micah 6:6-8
Elder Bob Arnold
God gave us diversity and calls us to travel a road to wholeness -- a road we can travel in various ways. Religious mystics seek those rare occasions when they experience the peaceful, harmonious "high" of wholeness or oneness with God. Natural scientists seek a holistic understanding of the forces that govern the universe. Social scientists look for the unity that defines societies and civilizations. As citizens of the world, a nation, and city, we engage in politics to develop consensus and wholeness. Making Christ's body one in the midst of diversity has challenged the Church for 2000 years. In fact, it prompted Paul's letter to the church at Philippi.
However, we take the trip -- as religious mystics, members of a church, citizens, or scientists -- within a religious community or secular society, God's will is that we travel the road to wholeness.
Now let's be clear: diversity is good. We should thank God for diversity. God created the world and called creation good. Life would hardly be worth living were it not for the rich diversity of our world -- in people and in nature.
When we realize wholeness in the midst of diversity, however, that's a miracle. We call the experience love -- which is what we feel when we become aware of our oneness with what we thought was separate from us -- a person, a place, a thing, an idea. To be religious is to cultivate an appreciation of oneness -- to be open to the possibility of love.
While diversity brought together in wholeness is a beautiful experience, diversity can become a problem as it encourages separateness. Now separateness, too, isn't bad per se. If you loved everyone and everything or felt oneness all the time, you would never get anything done. Worse, you'd kill yourself. Driving down a road, you don't want to become one with anything moving in the opposite lane!
Yet sin begins in separating from the whole. In the Biblical story of Adam and Eve, our first parents are partners with the creator -- one with the cosmos -- until they eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Then they start making distinctions and evaluations. They become aware of their limited selves -- and are reduced to ordinary, mortal dimensions.
Although our separate sense of self -- our ego -- allows us to recognize the boundary between our body and the outside world so we can function and survive in a world of fire and water and wild animals and automobiles, it also has a negative side: It allows us to think we're better -- or less -- than other people.
If we think ourselves superior, we might seek to exclude undeserving people from our community and try to keep them from participating in our politics or economics. If we think ourselves inferior, we might seek to boost our self esteem through mind-altering substances. Or prove ourselves more worthy by hurting or oppressing others.
In the church, we find diverse theologies, diverse ways of worshipping God, diverse people from different cultural and economic backgrounds, people with different lifestyles. This diversity can be fertile ground for a rich common ministry. In my job as Associate Director of Emergency Response for Church World Service, for example, I am responsible for recruiting, training, and supporting volunteer organizers who help churches and other religious groups work together to restore disaster-affected communities. When people of Faith work together following a disaster, a positive new life can emerge from the destruction and chaos. It's an occasion to celebrate because for one brief moment for Christ there is no East or West. Christ's body is made one.
It is my experience, however, as one who works for an agency which seeks to bring churches together in common ministry, that the Christian community gathers in diversity rather than in unity or wholeness. We often find in our diversity a cause for separation and not working together.
Look at our denomination's adoption of Amendment B to its constitution. Amendment B would ban from leadership positions in our church lesbian and gay persons and others considered "sinners" because of the nature of their personal and sexual relationships.
There's a very real possibility our denomination could divide over the issue just as some important denominations in our country once separated over slavery. Certainly, some good people -- animated by God's call to serve the Church, who we desperately need in our Church's leadership positions -- will separate from us over this.
Amendment B was approved by only slightly more than 50 per cent of Presbyterian leaders who voted on it. The close vote reflected separations grounded in varied kinds of diversity: Diversity in sexual orientation, obviously. Diversity in theological opinions about sin and who is worthy in God's sight. Cultural and sectional diversity. Presbyterians in sections of the country where people live and work productively and cooperatively together with self-affirming homosexual persons tended to vote against Amendment B.
As people of faith, we are called, I believe, to help move the world forward on the road to wholeness. But even as the church, we clearly have a long way to go. In fact, that's why Paul wrote his letter to the church at Philippi -- to put it on the road to wholeness.
Why Paul Wrote to the Church at Philippi
In his letter to the community, Paul is responding to the Amendment B supporters of his day. Two thousand years later, we may not know exactly what was happening at Philippi, but we read clearly that Paul feared for the wholeness of the church for which he had a deep affection. The church at Philippi proved its missionary zeal by providing important financial support for his ministry and he wanted the community to remain whole and strong.
We can make some educated guesses about Paul's concerns for the church.
First, some of its members may have been listening to "opponents" of Paul's teaching that it is by our faith in Jesus -- the Christ given to us by the grace of God -- that we are justified before God and saved. Like Amendment B supporters, they threatened the wholeness of the church over issues related to the Jewish law such as how you trimmed your hair or beard, whether you ate ham or turkey, working on the sabbath. Circumcision was an important issue among Amendment B supporters 2000 years ago. Today it's homosexual behavior.
Second, wealthy, privileged people who had prospered in Philippi -- a great commercial city -- were part of the church there. They wanted to limit church leadership to those people with special economic and social status -- just as Amendment B supporters in the Presbyterian Church today want to limit church leadership to people of a narrowly-defined worthy life style.
Paul calls the church at Philippi to travel the road to wholeness. For those of us who have been caught up in 20th Century civil rights and liberation movements, he offers a startling vehicle for the journey: slavery! Paul wrote: "Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus." Just as Jesus chose slavery, humbled himself, and became obedient to God, so should the Philippians, according to Paul.
A word about slavery and liberation. Liberation that frees us from oppression of people and systems so we can live, work, and play as God intended helps create a whole world.
But in liberation, we can also separate ourselves from people and systems to which we need to be in some kind of relationship. Paul's Christ-minded slavery is really a mode for relationship-formation that can give us a very radical kind of freedom in which the wholeness God intended for creation is possible.
It is a road we are called as Christians to travel -- both for our own sakes and the sake of the world.
So what exactly is the road to wholeness. How do we achieve unity in the midst of diversity?
Paul urges the Philippians to "let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus." In calling members of the church at Philippi to be Christ-minded, Paul could very well have been thinking of the words from the Old Testament prophet Micah which clearly, directly, and succinctly summarize the Jewish law, or Torah -- "do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God." Paul understood Jesus as the fulfillment of Jewish law.
Jesus's life and ministry fulfilled the words of Micah. He did justice -- working at being lawful and right, which as he understood Jewish tradition meant loving God and loving neighbor. Jesus loved kindness. His love of kindness informed his doing justice. He showed compassion for people. Jesus's healing ministry exemplified his love of kindness. Jesus walked humbly with God throughout his life and ministry. He stressed the importance of prayer and sought God's presence in his daily activity. Sometimes, his prayer was just looking to heaven and sighing.
Christ Minded Slavery
As a slave radically obedient to God's will, Jesus traveled the road to wholeness in doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God -- even to the point of death. This is the road to wholeness because doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God move us from ego-centricity into mutual non-exploitive relationships with other persons and our environment.
Let's see how this happens on each lane of the road.
- Lane 1 -- doing justice. Doing justice requires relating to other people and working with them as trusted equals. Community organizers stress one-on-one relationships that build trust as the first critical step in bringing people together to work on justice issues. These trusting relationships not only provide the foundation for strong groups that can effectively seek to right injustices, but in them, people learn from each other what justice is all about and can progressively advance the pursuit of justice.
In the final analysis, too, justice issues revolve around inclusiveness. Think about the great civil rights and liberation movements. They seek to enable excluded people to participate fairly in the whole. In today's world, you don't have to look very far to see how people are systematically excluded from the whole.
Commenting on economic injustice, Jose Bittencourt Jr. -- a Presbyterian pastor in Latin America -- says that "being exploited is now a luxury, as it means not being excluded." People, groups, countries and regions of the world that can not be exploited for production are permanently discarded, he observes.
"What is most serious," he says, "is that the system is having the effect of making the poor feel guilty about their condition and they have an image of themselves as sub-human creatures. The system seeks to eliminate the very sense of human dignity among the excluded, to the point of making them see themselves as superfluous."
We see exclusion and its effects in all our communities -- our world, our nation, our cities, our churches, our families. Lack of self-esteem among people, for example, is a major problem cutting through society. It is evidenced in substance abuse, violence, lack of caring about others and the world around us, and a wide variety of other ills infecting our world.
The Church and its people are called to help put the world on the road to wholeness by doing justice.
- Lane 2: loving kindness. This means being open to other people -- being prepared to truly listen to what they are saying, to accept their feelings of oppression and intimidation, to understand their anger and fear -- then using this to inform our justice work.
No real justice work aimed at putting the world on the road to wholeness can be divorced from kindness. Yet it's not easy to do justice kindly. When you're absorbed in a justice issue that is important to you -- whether it's racial equality, peacemaking, an environmental cause, women's rights or gay rights, it's not easy to be kind to people who are working against you, creating obstacles, or even just being neutral or indifferent to your work.
However, listening to your enemies, trying to put yourself into their shoes, making an effort to communicate reasonably with them can hasten justice.
The Church and its people are called to help put the world on the road to wholeness by loving mercy.
Lane 3: walking humbly with God. You can't walk humbly with God without engaging the world. We find God outside ourselves -- in nature and in the people around us.
Walking humbly with God means seeking the presence of God in a worshipful way in everything we do. It is looking for God in both our sorrows and joys, in our day-to-day activities, at work and play. What we're really talking about is ongoing communion with God in prayer.
There are different types of prayer and they all engage the world outside ourselves. Even when you go to a closet to pray alone, you bring the world outside yourself to lift up to God.
Prayers of thanksgiving come from accepting life with the ever-growing awareness that life is God's gift. Prayers that beseech God's presence require being so engaged with the world outside ourselves that we experience an absence. Prayers of lament originate in concrete political and social circumstances. If they are not simply cathartic or self-indulgent, they flow outward into compassion for sufferers toward the oppressed and oppressors. Prayers of confession require us to face the truth about our world and ourselves. Prayers of intercession are a fundamental vocation of the church. We are to pray for the world in all its suffering.
The Church and its people are called to put the world on the road to wholeness by walking humbly with God.
Doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God put us and the world on the road to wholeness because they move us into special relationships with other people and our environment. Mutual, relationships in which we honor other people and nature in contrast to hierarchical, power relationships in which we treat people and nature as objects to be manipulated.
The End of the Road
So what lies at the end of the road?
Ultimately, in wholeness, past and future -- two of the greatest distinctions or separations in our lives -- dissolve into the present. We might well call this "eternal life" -- a life freed from the worries and anxieties that cause us to separate from other people and our environments. As we focus on the future rather than on God's will to travel the road to wholeness, we seek to control our own destinies, striving for power and security often at the expense of other people and the world around us.
In Philippi, many members of the Christian community had succeeded in establishing a measure of security for themselves by taking control of their lives, but at a cost: lack of caring, not taking time to build quality relationships with one another, manipulating other persons as objects. They focused on themselves as separate people in a hostile world. The result was a lack of wholeness evidenced in rivalries, vanity, selfishness, and animosity.
Freedom from slavery to the future leads to a community in which people can take risks -- led by the Spirit -- without fear of the consequences. This is the community Paul wanted the Church at Philippi to be.
Two thousand years after Paul wrote his letter to the Philippians, his road to wholeness applies to 20th Century Christians living in a world in which socio-economic structures encourage exploitation, marginalization, and systematic exclusion of people. Perhaps his message is even more important today.
In Christ-minded slavery -- doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God even to the point of death -- we participate in shaping the whole world God intended in the midst of diversity. This journey to wholeness isn't a simple overnight trip. Making quality connections with other people and our environment is an every day ongoing task. God calls take a few small steps down the road every day of our lives.
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