Holding Fast

SJF • Proper 22a • Tobias S Haller BSG
Paul wrote to the Philippians, Let those of us then who are mature be of the same mind; and if you think differently about anything, this too God will reveal to you. Only let us hold fast to what we have attained.
Comedian Emo Philips tells the story of a man who was crossing a bridge one evening, and came upon a man sitting on the ledge ready to throw himself off. The stranger went up to him and said, “What’s the trouble.” The other said he had given up on life and wanted to end it all. The first man asked, “Don’t you believe in God?” “Of course I do; I’m a Christian.” “Oh, so am I; protestant or catholic?” “I’m a Protestant.” “Me too! Which branch?” “Baptist.” “Me too! Northern Baptist or Southern Baptist.” “I’m a Northern Baptist.” “So am I! Which conference?” “Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptist, Great Lakes Region.” “Me too! Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1879 or Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912?” He answered, “Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912.” At which point the stranger pushed the man off of the ledge and shouted after him, “Die heretic!”

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Isn’t it strange how often the Christian Church is riddled with division instead of blessed with unity. When God looks for justice, he finds bloodshed; when he seeks righteousness, he finds instead the outcry of blame andcastigation. As you know, the fabric of our Anglican Communion is being pulled and tugged in every direction, so that some fear it is near to coming apart. I don’t intend to get into the issues that are causing these divisions — because of two sad truths. First, people sometimes seem to find things to disagree about just so they can have a disagreement. Second, the things people disagree about at one point in Christian history almost always come to be seen later on as unimportant or insignificant, so that sometimes you can hardly believe people argued about such things, and even persecuted each other because of them.

Maybe it is just that people are disagreeable at heart, and Christians are no exception. Christians have been disagreeable folk for as long as there have been Christians — in Saint Paul’s day they argued about circumcision and whether a Christian could eat meat from a pagan butcher-shop. Who worries about such matters today? At the Reformation a big deal was made about whether lay people could drink from the chalice and if it was appropriate to conduct worship in a language that the congregation understood. Today the major opponent of such things back then — the Roman Catholic Church — does both! So what was the problem? Hardly a matter of eternal truth, or it wouldn’t have changed. I guess this is where we hear the old excuse: “It seemed important at the time.”

Of course, divisions like this are not unique to Christianity. There have been squabbles and divisions within Judaism, Hinduism, and Buddhism. And the division between Shi’ite and Sunni Muslims lies at the heart of much of the trouble in Iraq. But Christians, my friends, we’re the ones who are supposed to be able to get along with each other. We’re the ones of whom it is supposed to be said, “See how they love each other.” Sosurely our disagreements should be all the more rare — and all the more embarrassing when they happen. When God looks to the church for the fruits of life in the spirit, why should he ever find instead the bitterness of a thorny brier-patch, and the withered wild grapes that yield no wine, no joy.

Saint Paul dealt with a number of difficult churches during his ministry. The squabbles of the Corinthians and the Galatians nearly drove him to distraction. The Philippians, on the other hand, although they dealt with some of the same issues, seem more or less to have been able to keep themselves from splitting up into various factions. And their secret lay in the fact that they held on to what was really important, as Paul says, holding fast to what they had attained in Christ — embracing the cross with all its shame, and as we heard in the reading last week, letting the same mind be in them which was in Christ, who instead of exalting himself, emptied himself.

Paul picks up the same theme this week — hold fast to what you have attained, which is a single-minded life in Christ. Don’t get distracted by those who set their mind on earthly things and make themselves enemies of the cross of Christ. Such people focus only on the outside, the physical, what Paul would elsewhere call “the flesh” but here even more pointedly calls “the belly”: their minds are set on earthly things; obsessed with their own needs, their own concerns, their own opinions — and in this case it amounts quite literally to navel-gazing!

We Christians are called to set our minds on a higher plane, on the spiritual level, on heaven — the place in which our true citizenship is found. By holding fast to that which is true and good and permanent, even if there is disagreement or if people think differently about anything, it will all be made clear in the end. Note thatPaul is not saying, Don’t disagree. He knows people better than to ask that! What he does say is, If you disagree, hold fast to God in Christ and he will help you see your way out of the disagreement in his own good time. Avoid making the issue of disagreement the center of your lives; avoid focusing on what separates, but rather to hold fast to Christ who is the true center of your lives — for he will reveal the truth at the right time. In the retrospect of the kingdom, we will see how trivial and temporary were all the things that tended to divide us; and that what has endured is what always mattered most. We will see that what seemed important at the time, in the long run was not important at all. Only Christ matters, and he is the center who will hold the church together.

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Anyone here who has ever braided hair knows that you can’t braid with just two strands — you need three to make a braid. If you remove the third strand the whole braid will come unraveled. Christ and the heavenly call in him is like that crucial third strand without which the church will fall apart. To use our gospel language, Jesus is the cornerstone, without which the house cannot be built, and which if removed will cause the downfall of that house. But if he is the building’s sure foundation, that house will stand against time and tide.

God has put us here on this good earth as his church, in order that we might do his will and bear fruit worthy of redemption. He has prepared the ground for us, and set us to the task before us. He expects a rich harvest, my friends, when he comes in glory. Let him not find us arguing among ourselves, or worse, conspiring to snatch at the harvest for our own, trying to possess and control the riches of his blessing as if they were our inheritance and birthright. There is one alone to whom the harvest is due, beloved; so let us not be swept up into dissension, distracted by conflict, but rather work to dedicate ourselves, holding fast in submission to him, the rock of our salvation and the center of our lives, so that the people of God may bend the knee as one, and bring in a rich harvest to the honor and glory of our Father in heaven, in the power of the Holy Spirit, through Jesus Christ our Lord.+