We often read the Bible far too passively. The Scriptures are full of strong emotion, but we can forget that when we read it. Today’s second reading is a great example of that. In the second reading, St. Paul is pleading with the Philippians. “If there is any encouragement in Christ, any solace in love, any participation in the Spirit, any compassion and mercy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, with the same love, united in heart.” This is not a passive reading. St. Paul is pouring his heart out. He is begging the Philippians. Notice that he starts by talking about the faith, “if there is any encouragement in Christ,” but by the end, he isn’t even talking about faith at all, just saying, “if there is any compassion and mercy.” He is begging them with everything in him. St. Paul is pleading with them that if there is anything worthwhile, not just in the Gospel but anything at all, to live in unity. This is not a small issue for St. Paul. Unity is a critical theme for him. He takes up the issue time and again in his writings, begging the churches to live in unity.
Unity is important for St. Paul because it was important for Christ. In the Gospel of John, Jesus’s final prayer at the Last Supper, the very last thing for which He prays before He and the Apostles leave for the Garden of Gethsemane, is for unity. He prays to the Father, praying that the Apostles may be one, just as He and the Father are one. He wants His followers to be united. Starting with Genesis and continuing through the entirety of Scripture, we see that division is the result of sin, while God seeks to create unity. Jesus’s mission was to conquer sin so that we can be reunited with the Father as well as with one another. And thus His final prayer before His Passion is for unity. St. Paul understood that unity was central to the Gospel and the mission of Christ, and that is why he pleads for it so earnestly in his letters. The Church cannot proclaim the unity that Jesus Himself came to establish if she herself is wracked by division.
Unity is also a big issue in our world today. Division affects our church, our community, our nation, and even our families. Depending on which poll you look at, over 80% of Americans think our country is divided. You don’t have to look hard to find statements from politicians on both sides of the aisle lamenting the divisiveness in our country and calling for greater unity. Now, here’s the confusing part. If everyone agrees that division is a problem, why isn’t that problem solved? Again, we’re talking about over 80% of people. You can’t get over 80% of people to agree on anything. I could create a poll asking, “Is the sky blue?” and I probably wouldn’t get over 80% to agree. So if 80% of people agree that disunity is a problem, why isn’t there more unity? Because it is easy to talk about wanting unity and then turn around and create more division. We are the second son in the Gospel today, who says that he will do his father’s work but doesn’t do it. How many times have you heard people lament the lack of unity in our world only to immediately say, “Those people are the ones causing all the division?”
So many people say that they want unity, but then actively create division. This happens in politics, but it happens in our families, in our community, in our Church, and even in our parish. I have often heard people say that they want more unity here in the parish, whether that is unity between the school and PSR, between the school community and the larger parish community, between younger parishioners and older parishioners, or between our English-speaking community and our Hispanic community. And yet, very often the people who say they want unity will then say that the way for unity to be achieved is for the other group over there to do something. I have often heard from English-speaking parishioners, “Father, I wish there was more unity between our Anglo and Hispanic communities. How do we get them to show up to our events?” I have never heard, “Father, I wish there was more unity between our Anglo and Hispanic communities. So I am going to go to their events.” I have often heard from families without school children, “I wish there was more unity between the school and the parish. How do we get the school families more involved?” I have never heard, “I wish there was more unity between the school and the parish. How do I get more involved with the school?” This happens in other contexts as well. We want unity in our family, but Uncle Joe is the one who needs to apologize. We want unity in our nation, but Republicans blame the Democrats for the lack of unity and Democrats blame the Republicans and neither do anything to actually work towards it. Division is always the other person’s fault, and building unity is always their responsibility. The Heavenly Father has sent us out to do His work of building Gospel unity, and like good sons and daughters we say, “Yes, Father,” but then we don’t do it, instead saying that someone else needs to do the work.
So how do we actually build unity? St. Paul tells us. “Do nothing out of selfishness or out of vainglory; rather, humbly regard others as more important than yourselves, each looking out not for his own interests, but also for those of others.” Do you want there to be more Gospel unity in our Church and our world? “Humbly regard others as more important than yourselves.” Disunity is ultimately the result of sin, and at the heart of sin is pride. Pride says that I am better, that my needs are the most important, that my opinion is the only possible one. And so St. Paul tells us that, if you want to build unity, you must humbly regard others as more important than yourself.
Humbly regard the relative who you are fighting with as more important than yourself. Humbly regard the neighbor who just gets on your nerves as more important than yourself. Humbly regard other groups in the parish – whether that is our Hispanic community or parishioners of a different age group or state in life – humbly regard them as more important than yourself. In the political realm, humbly regard those you disagree with as more important than yourself.
Sound challenging? It is. Gospel unity is hard, because it pushes against our fallen humanity that seeks to create division, to justify ourselves, to always be right at the expense of others. And yet, as St. Paul reminds us, this is the example that Jesus Himself gives us. After telling the Philippians to humbly regard others as more important than themselves, he then tells them, “Have in you the same attitude that is also in Christ Jesus.” Jesus, God Himself, humbly regarded us as more important than Himself. Let me say that again. God, the infinite, omnipotent Creator, humbly regarded us, His sinful, fallen creatures, as more important than Himself. He did that to such a degree that, as St. Paul reminds us God the Son stripped Himself of glory, assumed our human nature, suffered and died o n a Cross for all sake. God did that for us. God regarded us as so much more important than Himself that He died – God, the source of life, died – for us. If that is how God treats us, if that is the lengths to which He is willing to go in order to reunite us with Himself, then we must also do the same for each other if we want to foster that unity.
Here at this Eucharist, we participate in the very sacrifice of Christ through which He reunites us to the Father and to each other. In this Eucharist, Jesus once again humbly considers us as more important than Himself, willingly taking the simple appearance of bread and wine in order to come to us. Like the father in the Gospel parable, our Heavenly Father sends us, His children, out to do His work of building unity. We take what we receive here and the unity it creates and bring it to the world by imitating Christ in thinking of others as more important than ourselves.