Psalm 133 begins with a refrain that will be familiar to many of our ears: “How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!,” but it is the powerful imagery of the latter two verses of this brief psalm that drive home the depths of the God’s desire for the people of God to live in unity. The psalmist flashes two quick, familiar images into the imaginations of his Israelite audience – first the anointing of the priest Aaron, with the precious oil flowing down his head, coursing through the hairs of his beard and dripping down unto his robes, and the second image is that of the dew of God’s blessing falling upon the mountains of Zion – that place that Israel associated with eternal and abundant life. These vivid images reminded Israel that living together in unity is the life to which God has called them, and indeed calls us as the people of God today. This deep longing of God for unity is echoed in the prayer with which Jesus leaves his disciples in John 17: “that they may be one, as we are one.”
God desires the unity of all humanity (and though it may boggle our imaginations, all creation as well) and is nurturing that unity in God’s people who embody it in their life together, beginning with Israel and continuing to the present in the church. The era in which most of the New Testament was written was a period that presented a major challenge to the unity of God’s people – namely, the doors had been thrown open so that God’s people were no longer defined primarily by ethnicity. Indeed, a good chunk of Paul’s epistles were devoted to helping those of Jewish and Gentile ethnicities to share a unified life together within their church communities. Indeed, in the New Testament reading for this week in Romans 11, we see Paul reassuring the Jews that God has not rejected them by calling Gentiles to be reconciled into the people of God. It is striking that the way toward unity that Paul offers in the following chapter (Romans 12) begins with the offering of ourselves as living sacrifices, or in the similar words of Jesus discipleship begins with denying ourselves.
Reading these texts in the days that followed the bitter mess in Washington over the issue of raising the debt ceiling was a gust of fresh air. Several years ago, journalist Bill Bishop wrote a book called The Big Sort, in which he argues that Americans are tending to move and relate in increasingly homogeneous circles and the result is that we are losing the capacity to converse civilly with those of different backgrounds (politics, race, economics, etc.). In the recent unwillingness of lawmakers to work together to address our nation’s economic problems, we see Bishop’s point played out on a large scale. In the midst of such rhetorical hostility, we are reminded of our call in the church to be a people marked by our unity. Indeed, this is – and has always been, as today’s psalm reminds us – the hallmark of God’s people, the witness of God’s reconciling work in the world. Although God desires the unity of all humankind, unity is not simply an abstract ideal that we work to see embodied on the largest possible scale. Rather, our local church communities are crucibles in which we slowly and often painfully learn to talk and to work together across the particular social divides that emerge in our midst (race, age, economic class, political preferences, etc.). These sorts of conversations must begin with the assumption of self-denial; we are not seeking our own individual good or preferences but rather the good that God desires, that which reconciles, heals and restores. As we allow God to bring forth the fruits of reconciliation in the midst of our congregation, then and only then can we start to imagine what reconciliation might look like on a broader scale in our neighborhoods, our cities and beyond.
Stability, our commitment to a particular church community in a specific place, is vital to nurturing any sort of unity; it is a witness that our commitment to one another in the unity of Christ runs deeper than any social divide or disagreement that we might have. In the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus, all humanity has been reconciled. However, the challenge is to see this reconciliation embodied throughout all of God’s world. This embodiment is a slow process, and we have to unlearn the hyper-mobile habits of Western culture and stay put in a church long enough to submit ourselves to God’s healing and reconciling work, which does not happen abstractly or in a vacuum, but rather in the everyday relations we have with the particular sisters and brothers that God has given us in our local church communities.
The societal trends toward homogeneous communities and the practices of consumerism played out in “church-shopping,” raise the question of how unity is nurtured in largely homogeneous churches? First of all, I’m inclined to believe that there’s no such creature as a completely homogeneous church. Our differences may be more subtle (age, smaller gradations of economic disparity), but they are differences nonetheless and God longs for us to be reconciled across these divides. Secondly, the way in which God leads us is toward deeper levels of reconciliation. Questions will inevitably arise such as are there neighbors in our place who are different from us and are they welcome in our church community? Or, if our church has a practice of planting new churches, is planting a church in a place of greater diversity an option?
Brothers and sisters living together in unity is indeed a beautiful and a hopeful image. May we allow God to nurture reconciliation in our church communities and from there to imagine together what the unity of God’s people might look like on increasingly larger scales!