Aug. 17, 2016: Unity in the Spirit - Part 1
The psalmist tells us, “How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity! … For there the Lord bestows his blessing, even life forevermore.” (Psalm 133: 1, 3b NIV). In other words, there is something about the way we are “together” that unleashes unparalleled blessing that is even commanded by God.
Jesus refers to His divine glory as the source of this gift of unity. In specifically praying for you and me, He prays, “I have given them the glory that you [Father] gave me, that they may be one as we are one—I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity.” (John 17: 20-23). This is not an intellectual unity nor an academic consensus, but a unity of heart. And when this occurs, the Psalmist tells us that it opens up a sort of oasis in the desert, a place that is a gift from God where, in good times and in more challenging times, in the fullness of His presence, every spiritual blessing you can think of is fully available. I believe that God has built and continues to build such an oasis at Trinity. It is His gift, but at the same time it is a gift that, together, we need to intentionally and prayerfully maintain.
I was once asked to look after an early morning Communion service in a neighboring parish in the U.K. This 8:00 a.m. Communion service, with its liturgical setting, took place in a church adorned with Norman pillars that had kept the roof over the sanctuary for the best part of 1000 years. It was very difficult to gauge the size of the congregation because people would to slip into church unseen and then hide behind their favorite pillar for the duration of the service. I would look out and imagine that nobody was there. Only when I cautiously began the liturgy and about six disparate voices echoed their responses (each from behind their own pillars) did I know that I was not alone. One time they asked me if I wouldn’t mind turning my back to them as I led the service. I admired this 8:00 a.m. congregation’s commitment to worship, but I wonder if they were missing out on the fullness of the “oneness” that Jesus or the Psalmist had in mind.
The unity that we are being urged to pursue is also about all of us looking in the right direction—and that direction is “up.” This is about being bonded to one another in a shared yearning for the heart of God. This calls to mind a different church building in the U.K. In the earliest days of my faith I recall a Victorian red brick church at the far end of the town. This congregation had met for 150 years. And from within its red brick walls they had come to the conclusion that in order to be united they would only allow like-minded people to join them. They were determined that they would be united on their own terms and preferences, and in one sense they achieved that unity. The last two remaining families in that church were of one mind… until they had a falling out. The church closed its doors and is now a supermarket parking lot.
The unity that the psalmist is urging us to is not founded upon some “horizontal” axis where we look at one another and decide how united we want to be. If we do that then our “oneness” becomes settled upon either the lowest common denominator or, as with the “parking lot church,” we set the horizontal bar so high and we expect so much of one another that we very quickly become divided.
Unity does not mean uniformity. Neither does it mean unanimity. It is far deeper. Unity is a matter of hearts united within the heart of God.
The psalmist expressly says how good it is when God’s people live together in unity. Some translations of Psalm 133:1 use the verb “to dwell” and that really carries the full weight of the Hebrew. There is something very deliberate about the notion of dwelling together. “To dwell” is not the idea of some fleeting visit; rather, it is to make our home, the place where we raise our families, put down roots, commit to each other, serve, give. “To dwell” is to persist in our unity—we stick at it. The author of the book of Hebrews captures this persistence when he says: “Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing…” (Hebrews 10: 23-25). How many of us have come home from some Trinity gathering and either said, “I am so glad I persevered and went there this evening because what John had to say to me really blessed me.” or, just as importantly, “I am so glad I persevered and went tonight because I think I was there just for John.”