When I was a young follower of Jesus, we sang a song:
We are one in the Spirit,
We are one in the Lord.
We are one in the Spirit,
We are one in the Lord.
And we pray that all unity may one day be restored.
And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love,
Yes they’ll know we are Christians by our love.
This is a great little chorus and has its theological basis in the prayer of Jesus in John 17 when he prayed for all believers. (John 17:20–23)
20 “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, 21 that all of them may be one, Father, just as you 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 I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: 23 I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.
For the decades since I first sang that song, the church has been singing for unity and what is the result? Churches fight, churches split, followers of Jesus get divorced, they sue each other in court. If I were Jesus, I’d be pretty upset that my prayer had not been answered.
If you ask people in the world what they think of the church, unity is not close to the top of the list of how it would be described. Church fights and church splits open up lots of room for satire. Mark Twain was a 19th century American author and this is what he wrote about unity in the religious world. He wrote about a man who conducted social experiments.
Among my experiments was this. In an hour I taught a cat and a dog to be friends. I put them in a cage. In another hour I taught them to be friends with a rabbit. In the course of two days I was able to add a fox, a goose, a squirrel and some doves. Finally a monkey. The lived together in peace; even affectionately.
Next, in another cage I confined an Irish Catholic from Tipperary, and as soon as he seemed tame I added a Scotch Presbyterian from Aberdeen. Next a Turk from Constantinople; a Greek Christian from Crete; an Armenian; a Methodist from the wilds of Arkansas; a Buddhist from China; a Brahman from Benares. Finally, a Salvation Army Colonel from Wapping. Then I stayed away two whole days. When I came back to note results, the cage of Higher Animals was all right, but in the other there was but a chaos of gory odds and ends of turbans and fezzes and plaids and bones and flesh – not a specimen left alive. These Reasoning Animals had disagreed on a theological detail and carried the matter to a Higher Court.
Religions don’t have a very good track record for respecting and loving each other. But those who profess to be followers of Jesus do not do much better. Church arguments and splits are so common, this piece of satire from Tom in the Box was created. The headline reads:
Forty-Seven Church Splits Finally Brings Doctrinal Perfection.
This satirical report gives the history of a church in Centerville, Georgia that split 47 times over the past 109 years so there are now 48 Presbyterian churches in a town of 5,000 people. The first split occurred because of an argument about whether the offering should be taken up before or after the sermon. Then there was an issue about having flowers in the sanctuary. This led to another split. What caused many of the splits is forgotten with time but one of the churches that split off, split again because of a disagreement about the new name of the church. Another fight had to do with the question if email could be checked on Sunday. Finally, after 47 splits, the church ended up being called: “The Presbyterian Totally Reformed Covenantal Westminsterian Sabbatarian Regulative Credo-Communionist Amillennial Presuppositional Church of Centerville”.
“I think we’ve finally got it right now” said Paul Davis, teaching Elder at PTRCWSRCCAPCC. “We now have a church with 100% doctrinal purity.”
PTRCWSRCCAPCC is hoping to grow and help reach out to the community.
“We’re up to 6 people on Sundays now” said Davis. “I know that numbers are not important, but we’re hoping to grow a little more.”
Psalm 133 is the fourteenth of the fifteen Psalms of Ascent and it focuses on the unity of God’s people.
How good and pleasant it is
when God’s people live together in unity!
2 It is like precious oil poured on the head,
running down on the beard,
running down on Aaron’s beard,
down upon the collar of his robes.
3 It is as if the dew of Hermon
were falling on Mount Zion.
For there the Lord bestows his blessing,
even life forevermore.
Unity is good and pleasant and the psalmist uses two images to describe how wonderful unity is. The first is
precious oil poured on the head,
running down on the beard,
running down on Aaron’s beard,
down upon the collar of his robes.
This is not an image we relate to very easily. When I visualize this, my reaction is, “What a mess! What do you do after the oil is poured over the head and spills down onto the clothes? You have to take a shower to get the oil out of your hair and then change your clothes and hope the detergent will get the oil stains out.”
But in the culture of Palestine, a good host would anoint the foreheads of his guests with a fragrant oil. This helped to preserve the complexion in the hot Middle Eastern climate and the fragrance was a benefit of the more expensive oils. When a king or prophet was anointed, oil was poured over their head. This was a sign of great blessing.
The second image is of the dew of Hermon falling on Mount Zion. There is snow on Mount Hermon and in the spring and summer there is frequent rain and the word translated dew means a gentle rain or drizzle. This rain produces lush green grass and crops but was not common in Jerusalem on Mount Zion. So once again, unity is compared to a great blessing of a gentle rain, nourishing the plants in Jerusalem.
Psalm 133 tells us unity is a great blessing. Allow me to pose and answer three questions about unity. Why is unity so important? Why is unity so elusive? What can we do to encourage unity?
Why is unity so important?
Parents are happy when they see their children playing well together. When my daughters were young and fought, I told them someday they would be best friends. I told them this so often they would interrupt me and tell me, “Yeah dad, we know. Some day we’ll be best friends.” But God’s desire for unity goes far deeper than his delight when we get along with each other. It goes all the way back to the eternal existence of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in a relationship of perfect unity.
It is because of the delight of the relationships in the Trinity that we were created. The doctrine of the Trinity tells us that there are three persons but one God. How can this be? For an eternity Father, Son, and Holy Spirit existed in a relationship where the needs of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit were perfectly met. The perfection of their relationship created a unity that is one God.
Because of this, the Triune God is outward focused. The Father focuses on the Son and Spirit. The Son focuses on the Father and Spirit. The Spirit focuses on the Father and Son. Each person in the Trinity affirms, encourages, builds the other persons in the Trinity. This outward orientation of the Triune God led to our creation with the desire that we would choose to be part of God’s family where we could experience the delights of the unity of the Triune God.
As the Triune God is one God, we are to be unified into being one people. This is where God’s delight in unity comes from and explains why the unity of his chosen people has been a driving force throughout Biblical history. It explains God’s reaction to all the conflict and sin among his chosen people.
200 years after Solomon died and the kingdom of Israel split in two, the southern kingdom, Judah, had an evil king, Ahaz. God judged him for worshiping Baal and sacrificing his sons in fire. The northern kingdom, Israel, attacked Judah and carried off their captives and plunder. (2 Chronicles 28:8–15)
The men of Israel took captive from their fellow Israelites who were from Judah two hundred thousand wives, sons and daughters. They also took a great deal of plunder, which they carried back to Samaria.
9 But a prophet of the Lord named Oded was there, and he went out to meet the army when it returned to Samaria. He said to them, “Because the Lord, the God of your ancestors, was angry with Judah, he gave them into your hand. But you have slaughtered them in a rage that reaches to heaven. 10 And now you intend to make the men and women of Judah and Jerusalem your slaves. But aren’t you also guilty of sins against the Lord your God? 11 Now listen to me! Send back your fellow Israelites you have taken as prisoners, for the Lord’s fierce anger rests on you.”
14 So the soldiers gave up the prisoners and plunder in the presence of the officials and all the assembly. 15 The men designated by name took the prisoners, and from the plunder they clothed all who were naked. They provided them with clothes and sandals, food and drink, and healing balm. All those who were weak they put on donkeys. So they took them back to their fellow Israelites at Jericho, the City of Palms, and returned to Samaria.
Even in the midst of God’s judgment against Ahaz he grieved at the fighting between his chosen children, Judah and Israel. The strongest condemnations of the prophets are reserved for Israel and Judah who fought this 300-year civil war. By comparison, Egypt, Assyria and Babylon get off easy. This war between God’s chosen people, Judah and Israel, was what was most disturbing to God.
The teaching of divorce, that what God has united should not be separated (Matthew 19:6), is another example of God’s concern for unity among his chosen people.
In Matthew 18 Jesus taught about how to discipline a brother or sister who sins. The process is meant to bring the one who sinned to repentance and to maintain unity in the body.
As I mentioned, the center of Jesus’ High Priestly prayer in John 17 is concerned with unity. (John 17:11)
Holy Father, protect them by the power of your name—the name you gave me—so that they may be one as we are one.”
One of the first issues Paul dealt with in his first letter to the church in Corinth was divisions among the church. (I Corinthians 3:1-4)
Brothers and sisters, I could not address you as people who live by the Spirit but as people who are still worldly—mere infants in Christ. 2 I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready. 3 You are still worldly. For since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not worldly? Are you not acting like mere humans? 4 For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not mere human beings?
It is because of his concern for unity that Paul was so upset with the Corinthians who were taking each other to court. (I Corinthains 6:7-8)
The very fact that you have lawsuits among you means you have been completely defeated already. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be cheated? 8 Instead, you yourselves cheat and do wrong, and you do this to your brothers and sisters.
The list of behaviors God opposes in the New Testament are opposed, in large part, because they work against unity. (II Corinthians 12:20)
For I am afraid that when I come I may not find you as I want you to be, and you may not find me as you want me to be. I fear that there may be quarreling, jealousy, outbursts of anger, factions, slander, gossip, arrogance and disorder.
These behaviors are opposed not just because they are bad but because they create disunity in a church community. These behaviors are not only harmful to the individual but to the whole community.
Unity is important because this is why we were created, to live together in the harmony and pleasure of the relationships of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. When we fight and separate, we break the heart of God.
Why is unity so elusive?
This is rather obvious. God is other-centered. God looks outward, considering the needs of others. Sin is self-centered, focusing in on myself, preferring myself above all others.
James asked the question: What causes fights and quarrels among you? (James 4:1–3)
Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? 2 You desire but do not have, so you kill. You covet but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight. You do not have because you do not ask God. 3 When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.
In spite of all the talk about poor self-image, our instinctive reaction to life is self-centered: How does this affect me? Will this make me happy? Why did this have to happen to me? What does she think about me? It’s my turn. Where’s my share? Nobody cares about my ideas. He hurt my feelings. I’ve got to have some time for me. I need my space. He’s not sensitive to my needs.
It’s not enough for us to be the center of our own universe. We want to be the center of everyone else’s universe as well. (From a blog by Leanna Shephard)
We get married and promise to serve each other and love each other and then not long after the honeymoon, we begin to fight for “my rights”. “What about me?” My wife gets irritated but instead of taking time to figure out she is tired I take it personally. I rise to the injustice of her irritation and fight an unnecessary battle because I am too concerned with protecting my rights to care for her and take time to figure out what is going on in her.
I drive the streets of Rabat and get furious with cars who refuse to wait in line and go around to get to the front of the intersection. But I am much more understanding of myself when I pull out into traffic and someone needs to slow down. They get irritated and I am upset that they won’t give me a little break. How I feel about a traffic scenario depends on how it affects me.
When I look at a group photo, my eye goes immediately to my face in the photo and then I determine if this is a good or bad photo of the group based on how I look. I complain when I have to wait in line. I listen to someone tell a story and look for the moment when I can tell my story without taking time to consider if someone else has a story they want to tell. I am incredibly sensitive to my own needs and casual about the needs of others. I gladly point out specks in the eyes of others while ignoring the logs in my own eyes.
The 19th century Scottish writer George MacDonald wrote about a self-absorbed woman.
She would be one of those who kneel to their own shadows till feet grow on their knees; then go down on their hands till their hands grow into feet; then lay their faces on the ground till they grow into snouts; when at last they are a hideous sort of lizards, each of which believes himself the best, wisest, and loveliest being in the world, yea, the very centre of the universe. And so they run about for ever looking for their own shadows that they may worship them, and miserable because they cannot find them, being themselves too near the ground to have any shadows; and what becomes of them at last, there is but one who knows. (The Wise Woman and Other Stories)
Self-centeredness, self-absorption is a deadly path that leads to death.
Why is unity so elusive? Given my sinful nature, unity would be possible if everyone agreed with me, everyone thought I was wonderful, everyone instantly saw the error of their ways when I disagreed with them, and everyone overlooked all my own irritating, sinful behaviors. Unity is elusive because of who we are. Our sinful nature works against unity.
What can we do to encourage unity?
Let me tell you what we are not going to do at the end of our service this morning. We are not going to stand in a circle, holding hands, and sing about our unity in Christ. The problem with that is that we move through that moment with our sinful, self-absorbed self. While the worship leader is leading us in prayer and song, I may be excited because I am holding the hand of a girl I think is cute. I may get distracted because the hand I am holding is sweaty. I may look across to the other side of the circle to someone I don’t like or someone who has offended me. I may look across the circle to someone I would like to get to know but who doesn’t seem particularly interested in me or who I think judges me. I look out at faces of people whose names I do not know and wonder how I look to them. We stand in a circle of unity and focus on each other’s deficiencies and our own self-conscious anxieties. We stand in a circle and sing, “We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord,” while being distracted by our own selfishness.
Let me suggest a much better way to encourage unity. This is how we will end our service this morning. As we come forward for communion, we will sing, “Worthy is the Lamb, seated on the throne.” Our focus will be on Jesus, not on ourselves, and that is how we encourage unity.
If you walk on a path toward a destination and everyone else walks on a path to the same destination, then the closer you get to the destination, the closer you get to each other. When we focus on Jesus and our heart’s desire is to draw near to him, then each step in our pilgrimage will bring us closer together. We will be drawn together in unity as we draw closer to Jesus. Unity is the consequence of drawing close to Jesus. And what we discover is that we have great affection for people we would otherwise not like. As I grow in my relationship with Jesus, the circle of those I am drawn to grows wider. We move beyond our personal preferences to a deep appreciation of the work of God in the lives of our brothers and sisters in Christ.
Because unity is so important to God, the Bible abounds with teaching that encourages unity. Paul wrote in Ephesians 4:2–4
2 Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. 3 Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. 4 There is one body and one Spirit
And to the Colossians he wrote: (Colossians 3:12–14)
Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. 13 Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. 14 And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.
Notice the direction the metaphors in Psalm 133 go. The oil is poured on Aaron’s head and runs down on his beard, runs down on the collar of his robe. The dew of Hermon falls on Jerusalem. Unity comes down from God. We do not build unity by putting our energy into liking each other more, the grace and mercy of God comes down on us and we respond by bearing with one another in love, forgiving those who offend us, clothing ourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.
We do not grow the fruit of the Spirit by focusing on the fruit. We grow our roots deep into Christ and seek the life he offers us. As we grow, fruit is produced. In the same way, as we grow in Christ, the qualities that encourage unity become part of our lives.
If we focus on our horizontal relationships, we may create a sense of community, but there will tend to be a culture of legalism that creates superficial relationships. Deep, meaningful relationships that move toward unity come when we draw near to Jesus and our hearts and minds are transformed.
I love the sense of community we have at RIC and want it to go deeper. I love it when I hear that people at RIC are developing friendships with each other. I love the connections that are made. This past Friday at our Friday Night Spaghetti Night it was delightful to see new friendships and connections being made. I noticed some people having long private conversations. Games were played. I am looking forward to more of the same this coming Friday night.
We are a highly transitional community. People come and go and this is actually a bit of an advantage for us. Because we have so few permanent members of RIC, we are open to new relationships. We move across national, racial, and denominational lines to develop friendships and I believe God blesses us because of this. The unity we experience at RIC is what God desires for all church communities.
So once again, as I do so often, I encourage you to open your heart to God. Be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Grow in your understanding of how much you are loved by Jesus. Be encouraged by the work of the Holy Spirit in you. Move into a deeper intimacy with God and then watch as you see your relationships transformed. Psalm 16:3 will become more and more meaningful to you.
I say of the holy people who are in the land,
“They are the noble ones in whom is all my delight.”
How good and pleasant it is
when God’s people live together in unity!