Living in Unity — A Sermon for Pentecost 5B



Psalm 133

  Psalm 133

The 133rd Psalm is one of my favorite passages of Scripture, because it speaks to one of my passions in life. That passion is the pursuit of Christian unity. It’s a blessing to hear the words: “How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!” This is especially true when the course of history seems to be pulling nation and world further and further apart.

The Psalmist reminds us that there is a better way, a way of unity. Perhaps this is why I was moved so powerfully the other evening, as the Madrigal Chorale brought their concert to a close by singing Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World.” Yes:

I see trees of green…….. Red roses too
I see em bloom….. For me and for you
And I think to myself…. What a wonderful world.

Yes, what a wonderful world we live in, a world of God’s creation.

Our Disciple identity statement offers a vision of wholeness taking hold in a fragmented world. This is a movement that begins at the Lord’s Table where all are welcome and extends to the ends of the earth. Our identity statement is another way of describing our polar star, our call to pursue unity not only among Christians, but ultimately with all of humanity. Our calling to unity is rooted in a broader call to join in God’s mission of reconciliation and redemption.

I share this passion for unity and wholeness with Edgar DeWitt Jones, who is in many ways the founding pastor our congregation. He gave a speech many years ago to the International Convention of the Christian Churches (Disciples of Christ) that focused on the Disciples’ relationship to the Federal of Council of Churches. He had recently been elected as President of this Council representing twenty-three denominations, and he reminded his Disciples kindred that “the union of all the churches was, and is, the plea of the Disciples. For this were they born. For this cause they came into the world.” There is a sense of urgency to Jones’ message to the Disciples. He also lived in difficult times. The effects of the Great Depression were still being felt and war with Germany and possibly Japan seemed likely. He believed that the church’s mission in this world depended on its unity.

Some things have changed since 1938, which have diminished the urgency to engage in the kind of ecumenical work that Jones embraced. Since we’re living in a post-denominational age, denominational boundaries and traditions no longer seem to be important. So, maybe that original vision Jones mentioned has been achieved, and we can move onto other things. That may be true, but the ecumenical vision of Campbell, Stone, and Jones still resonates in my heart.
The 133rd Psalm is numbered among the Songs of Ascent. These are songs pilgrims sang as they made their way to Jerusalem for festivals. Picture in your mind this countless throng of people making their way to the sacred city. In the course of their journey they get to know each other, and begin sharing stories and songs that bring them together in a common purpose. They may have started out alone, but the journey brings them together as sisters and brothers.

There is a modern parallel to these ancient pilgrimages that goes back to the ninth century. You may have heard of the Camino de Santiago de Compostella. It’s a five hundred-mile route running from France to the purported tomb of St. James in northwest Spain. It takes about a month to walk the route, but it’s not so much about the destination as the journey. I have at least one friend who has made the journey, and Diana recently told me she was interested in making the journey. I’m not sure I’m up to it, but these kinds of pilgrimages have been taking place for millennia. So let us join together in the pursuit of our unity in Christ as “we’re marching to Zion, beautiful, beautiful Zion; we’re marching upward to Zion, the beautiful city of God.” May we sing songs of praise and thanksgiving along the way.

The Psalmist not only believes this unity is good and pleasant, but it also brings with it a sense of divine abundance.

“It is like the precious oil on the head,
running down upon the beard,
on the beard of Aaron,
running down over the collar of his robes.”

This is the oil used to anoint Aaron as Israel’s priest, and it’s not just a dab of oil, like we might use to make the sign of a cross. Think of the alabaster jar of ointment that the woman broke open over Jesus’ head as he dined in Bethany in the days before his death on the cross. Not everyone approved of her gift. There were some who thought it was wasteful, but Jesus commended her because she was preparing him for burial (Mk. 14:3-9). The context is different, but both of the Psalm and the woman’s gift are signs of God’s abundance.

We also see this abundance revealed in the word about the dew of Mount Hermon, which falls on the Mountains of Zion. It’s important to remember that Mount Hermon is located in the north, and Zion in the south of Israel. It’s possible the Psalm is calling for unity between separated nations. How good and pleasant it would be if Israel and Judah were again reunited. There is a similar hope today among the ten million Koreans whose families have been separated since the end of World War II led to the division of Korea into North and South. Many live in hope that peace can be achieved and families and nations can be reunited. Something similar is true of families separated at our southern border. How good and pleasant it is when parent and child are reunited. These forms of unity are signs of divine abundance.

My commitment to the cause of unity is rooted in my diverse religious background. As I’ve shared before, I’ve been Episcopalian, Pentecostal, Independent Christian Church, Baptist, Presbyterian, Evangelical Covenant, and finally Disciple. Back when I was a student at Northwest Christian College, I first learned about the Disciples and its plea for unity from my history professor, Dennis Helsabeck. Dennis introduced me to the Campbells and Stone and their vision of unity. He also introduced me to the Restoration plea, but that’s for another day. Ever since I was introduced to the Disciple commitment to Christian unity I’ve been drawn to the vision Thomas Campbell laid out in the Declaration and Address:

That the Church of Christ upon earth is essentially, intentionally, and constitutionally one; consisting of all those in every place that profess their faith in Christ and obedience to him in all things according to the Scriptures, and that manifest the same by their tempers and conduct, and none else; as none else can be truly and properly called Christians.

Campbell recognized that the church exists in “particular and distinct societies,” but he believed that there shouldn’t be any “uncharitable divisions among them.” This is a grand vision that we’ve struggled to fulfill, but it’s still worth pursuing. This is where Barton Stone’s vision of unity being our polar star comes in. It sets the course for us to follow.

I once preached a sermon for an ecumenical gathering that took this passage as its foundation. We were celebrating the inauguration of Christian Churches Uniting in Christ, which is the successor to the Consultation on Church Union. We gathered to celebrate the Lord’s Supper as one community in Christ, without denominational distinction. Unfortunately CUiC’s witness has faded with time, but the cause of unity is still with us. This cause can take different forms, one of which is the call to face the challenges of our nation’s racial divide. This is one of CUiC’s core principles, and it’s one that’s needed in the age of #BlackLivesMatter and the uptick in anti-immigrant nativism in our country.

We can take this vision a step further. Derek Sunderman, in his commentary on this passage, connects the words of Psalm 122:6, which is a prayer for the peace of Jerusalem, with Psalm 133. He writes: “We pray for the day when Jewish, Muslim, and Christian inhabitants may say together ‘how very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity.” [Fortress Commentary on the Bible, Kindle loc. 19256-19267]. To that, I say amen! It will be very good and pleasant when we live together in unity, whether in Jerusalem or here in the United States.