How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity!
It is like precious oil poured on the head, running down on the beard, running down on Aaron’s beard, down on the collar of his robe.
It is as if the dew of Hermon were falling on Mount Zion.
For there the Lord bestows his blessing, even life forevermore. (Psalm 133:1-3)
I am amazed and honored to be part of Gather Church. This is a pretty amazing bunch of people. We sing together, we pray together, we mourn together, we serve together, and God knows we laugh together.
But my goodness aren’t we a diverse group? What a slice of humanity we are! We all bring what we can to the mix — some of us bring time, some bring money, some bring transportation, some bring strong backs, some bring great good humor. Some of us are trying to figure out where we fit in, if at all. But if this isn’t a family, I don’t know what is. For some, it’s the only real family we’ve ever known. And we truly need each other.
We’ve each been affected by good choices and by bad choices. We’ve been affected by the economy, by drugs, by crime, by jail time, by rejection, by disease.
I suspect that each of us in this room was affected by other churches before we got here, and by the church we’re part of now. Some of those influences were negative; some were positive.
And the fact that we are right here right now reflects choices we have made about where we want to worship, where we want to learn.
Gather Church is unique, isn’t it? Unique because of where and when we meet. Unique because of who we are with. Unique because of what we do.
But you know what? Our way of loving Jesus is not the only way.
Some churches focus on sending missionaries across the world. Some focus on building new churches. Some focus on avoiding worldly influences. Some focus on political and social change.
Every other church in Centralia and across the world is just as unique as Gather. There are millions of things that distinguish each congregation from the other.
Yet, with all these differences, God calls us to be united.
Ephesians 4:3-5 — “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism.” (NIV)
That’s what I want to talk about — unity.
Paul encourages us to do whatever it takes to hold onto the unity that binds people together in peace. He does not ask us to create that unity; that has already been accomplished through the work of Jesus and the Holy Spirit. Rather, he calls believers to guard that unity, because that unity is founded on God’s oneness and His work in the world.
But we look around us and see obvious divisions, so many different denominations among those who call Jesus Lord. We look different, we sound different, we act different. Where is there any kind of unity?
Let me offer you this perspective:
In mathematics, dividing by zero makes no sense at all. If you try it on a calculator, say you divide 2 by zero, or 45 by zero, you get an error message. Mathematicians refer to numbers divided by zero as undefined — there is no answer.
But in logic, you can look at it differently. If you take two objects with nothing dividing them — fused together, if you will — you have one object. If you take 45 objects with nothing dividing them, you have one object.
I started giving this some thought early in my marriage to Miss Marcia. Having survived two earlier marriages, I had seen some of the things that can separate two people: lack of maturity, differing world views, opposing passions, conflicting interests.
So I determined to make this relationship work — we both did — and I am delighted to report that Marcia and I are closer now than ever before. I married my best friend ever, and never looked back.
We are still very different people, but as we live and work together, our differences become less and less important than our togetherness. We work toward that state of being divided by nothing.
Now when we look at the Christian church — the universal body of believers in Christ — you could say there are millions of differences separating us. In this room, even, there are no two people who believe everything exactly the same. With that in mind, we can say there is no unity.
Some people might look at Gather Church and say we’re so diverse, so splintered, how could we ever accomplish anything? But we do figure out how to make it work. Amid all this diversity, it’s something greater that brings us together.
The same way, we can look at how the global church is splintered. We worship in different languages and cultures, in different styles. We do share many rituals, but look at the different ways we baptize and take communion, for example. How many different kinds of music do we listen to and sing?
You’ve got to admit that what goes on inside church buildings is different all over town. What looks to us like Christian fellowship here at Gather looks to many other Christians like irreverent bedlam. And conversely, the way that some other church bodies worship might look to us like still life.
What kind of unity is that?
A young fellow was walking across a bridge and saw a young lady standing at the rail admiring the view.
“Lovely day,” he said.
“Yes, a glorious day,” she replied.
“God does good work.”
“Oh, He sure does.”
“You a believer?”
“Yes, I’m a Christian.”
“Me, too! Small world! Protestant or Catholic?”
“Me, too! What denomination?”
“Me, too! Northern Baptist or Southern Baptist?”
“Well, ME TOO! Northern Conservative Baptist or Northern Liberal Baptist?”
“Northern Conservative Baptist.”
“Well, that’s amazing! Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptist or Northern Conservative Reformed Baptist?”
“Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptist.”
“Remarkable! Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptist Great Lakes Region or Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptist Eastern Region?”
“Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptist Great Lakes Region.”
“Well, Hallelujah! Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1879, or Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912?”
“Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912.”
He then said, “Die, you heretic!” and pushed her over the rail.
That’s what it can look like when you go setting conditions for unity. It may not be what we think it is, and trying to find it may just point out our differences.
There are certain religions where the goal is to have everyone believe and worship exactly the same. Even some churches that call themselves Christian have that goal.
But is that the unity Christ calls us to? Does he mean for us to think exactly the same? What is meant by being “one in the Spirit”?
Is it calling Jesus Lord?
On the one hand, “Those who call on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” (in Acts 2 and Romans 10)
But on the other hand, Jesus said: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’” (Matthew 7:21-23)
Is Spanish, that phrase “I never knew you” — “Yo nunca les conoci” — means “I never met you.”
How does Jesus distinguish among us who call him Lord?
Matthew 25: 31-46 — “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.
“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’
“They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’
“He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’
“Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”
Thinking about livestock, we know what sheep look like, and we know what goats tend to look like, but there are breed of each that are difficult to distinguish.
Same with people who call themselves by Christ’s name. The shepherd is the one who knows. We can only guess. We see only the outward actions and appearances. Those are what divide us.
Even our actions can look the same.
I Corinthians 13:1-3 — “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender by body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing.”
Love is what distinguishes us. Our hearts, our common direction, those are what unite us.
In Hebrew, Psalm 133 — “How good and pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity” — is “Hine ma tov u’ma-nayim shevet ach-im gam ya-chad.” It is traditionally sung at Shabbat feasts, or Sabbath celebrations, when we lay down all the things of the world and wait on Him, listening for Him to communicate with us.
Here’s the best part: “Ya-chad” means absolute unity, more than just peace and harmony. It’s our attachment to God, our unity with Him, not just with other people. That is the ultimate “divided by nothing.” That is being “one in the Spirit.” As we become more united with Him, we become less divided from each other.
— Steve Brown
(This was delivered as the message during the Nov. 7 service at Gather Church.)