Living in unity

Scriptures: Genesis 45:1-15; Psalm 133

A. W. Tozer gave this illustration in his book The Pursuit of God. If you have one hundred concert pianos, and you tune the second piano to the first, and the third piano to the second, and the fourth piano to the third, and so on, until you have tuned all one hundred pianos accordingly, you will still have discord and disharmony. But if you tune each piano to the same tuning fork, you will have unity and harmony.

So too, in the body of Christ, when we each tune ourselves and our lives to Christ, we will have unity. I think that we can all agree that unity is good and pleasant, as it said in the psalm. I think we can also agree that it is rare, in the church and everywhere.

I heard a story about a visitor to a mental hospital for the criminally insane. The visitor was shocked to see that only three guards were supervising more than one hundred dangerous inmates. He asked his guide, “Don’t you fear these people will plot escape and overpower the guard?” One of the guards answered, saying, “Don’t worry about that. Lunatics never unite.”

If you know much about church history, you might conclude that the church is full of lunatics. In fact, you don’t really need to be a historian to see that the church has a hard time with unity, with brotherhood, with staying together as a family.

Just scan the Yellow Pages under the heading of Churches, say in the Quad Cities, and you will find hundreds of names. You have perhaps Eastern this and Western that, even northern and southern things. Reformed, Orthodox, and Evangelical. Foursquare and Full Gospel. Universalist, Adventist, Unitarian, Sabbatarian, Trinitarian, and Regurgitarian. OK, I made the last one up. But the rest, you can find in the Yellow Pages.

Add to that the fact that even within their own little subgroups, many Christians can’t get along. In congregations across the world, people are bickering and backbiting and quarreling and quibbling. It seems impossible for the church folk to learn how to live together in unity, to be brothers.

But Scripture makes it clear that the church is called to unity. In Acts 4:32 it says about the early church, “All the believers were one in heart and mind.” What a powerful description of the church as a unity community.

Let me note that when they were one in mind and heart, that did not mean uniformity. It did not mean that they all were cookie-cutter Christians and everyone was exactly the same as everyone else. They all had different gifts. They all had different personalities. But they all had one purpose, and they all had one mission.

The purpose: what is the chief end of mankind? [Congregation joins pastor in answering] To glorify God and enjoy Him forever. Which is what they wanted to do. And the mission is to share the good news about Jesus Christ, and to take care of each other, reflecting the Kingdom of God.

So why do we have such a hard time getting it together? Perhaps one answer is found in our text. “How good and pleasant it is when brothers live together in unity.” If you weren’t an only child, you probably think that “brothers” and “unity” don’t belong in the same sentence.

Brothers fight. Sisters fight. Sibling rivalry is alive and well in most families. I have shared with you before that I love my brother dearly but he and I seem to get along much better the further apart that we are, although I certainly enjoy visiting him occasionally.

Take a look at the first account in the Bible of two brothers living together. It’s a story of murder. Think of Joseph and his brothers, which we heard in the reading today. The only kind of unity we see among them is when the rest of them agree to get rid of Joseph. And even then, one of the brothers was planning on rescuing him, he was just too late.

Brothers and sisters disagree, argue, fight, and sometimes just fail to get along. There’s conflict. In fact, whenever there’s more than one person in the room, there’s a potential for conflict.

Much of world history shows that living together like brothers is made up of power struggles and wars. So if we ever hope to sing, “How good and how pleasant it is when brothers live together in unity,” we obviously need supernatural help.

Psalm 133 gives us two word pictures to show us what true unity is like. Verse 2 says it is like precious oil poured out on the head, running down on Aaron’s beard, down upon the collar of his robe. We’re going to have to set the context for that a little bit, because I don’t know about you, but the image of somebody being drenched in oil and it running down into his clothes, that’s really not all that appealing to me.

But unity is like oil in that unity blends all. This verse gives a snapshot of the day when Aaron was first anointed as high priest over the new nation of Israel. The oil was that was poured over his head probably contained several strong spices, like myrrh, cinnamon, calamus and cassia. In fact, they list what the spices are that were supposed to be mixed in the oil.

These spices were blended together in a base of olive oil. In Scripture, olive oil is often used as a symbol of God’s Holy Spirit. The olive oil blends these spices together in the way that God can blend us together. When you blend the spices in with olive oil, it creates a sharp taste but it’s one that is tangy and tasteful, compared to the bitterness, perhaps, of some of them alone.

Humans tend to be what you could call “spicy.” Our various strong flavors can clash with each other, and only the oil of God’s Spirit can blend us together.

Notice that when Aaron was anointed with the oil, it was no little drop of oil. This was not like christening, a little cross across the forehead. He was drenched with it. It was running down into Aaron’s beard and upon the collar of his robe. The oil covered everything. (And I don’t suppose they worried about how to get it out.)

Unity also covers all, like oil. If we’re going to maintain unity within the church, we don’t need just a little droplet of the Spirit. We need a good drenching. We need God’s Spirit to pour down over us and to cover us completely.

1 Peter 4:8 says, “Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers a multitude of sins.” In the same way, God’s Spirit can pour over us and cover those rough edges of sin that make us rub each other wrong. Only God Spirit can give us the grace to overlook each other’s faults, so that we can live together in good and pleasant unity. And when that happens, the whole world will take notice.

When Aaron stood there with the anointing oil running off his beard and flowing down into his garments, the whole temple was filled with the scent of the sacred perfume. The aroma was inescapable, and everyone noticed it.

We see a picture of that in Isaiah, when he talks about his vision of seeing God on His throne and the smoke filling the temple, and the scent of the incense.

When we come together as a church, the sweet smell of unity should fill the building. If it does, that aroma will not be contained here. It will flow out and fill the community around us, and people will be drawn to Christ by the sweet aroma of unity. They will know, and they will be drawn to it. So much of the world is divided these days. To see folks that are truly in unity – not uniformity but unity – is a very attractive pull

Now the second word picture that’s in there is that unity is like dew. Mount Hermon is an impressive landmark that stands out against the dry plains north of Jerusalem. They’re not next to each other. It’s not the same mountain. They are separated by a couple hundred miles.

Mount Hermon was known because of its lofty heights that frequently provided cooling winds and the clouds sometimes brought refreshing summer mists. Mount Hermon was green, when Jerusalem was not. If you look at Jerusalem now, it is. The Israelis have worked very hard, but it’s all irrigation. They have to draw it in from the Jordan. There’s still very little rain out there, and there’s no dew on top of Jerusalem.

The dew of Mount Hermon, as with dew, comes only after a still, quiet night. If it’s stormy, windy, things like that, the dew won’t form. Tranquility is needed for this dew to form.

And in the same way, this gives us another picture of the work of the Holy Spirit. It falls on us while we rest. Unity descends like dew as a gift from God. Our part is to ask and receive this gift. But too often we think we can somehow make it happen by our own human efforts.

It reminds me of a Peanuts cartoon. In one cartoon strip, Linus is watching TV when Lucy comes in and demands that Linus change the channel. Linus asks, “What makes you think you can walk right in here and take over?” “These five fingers,” Lucy responds. “Individually they’re nothing. But when I curl them together like this into a single unit, they form a weapon that is terrible to behold.”

Linus looks at her fist, walks over to the TV, and says, “What channel do you want?” Then he turns away, looks at his own fingers, and says, “Why can’t you guys get organized like that?”

Most people try to get organized for that same reason. They want power. Sadly, sometimes the church can act the same way. Too often, you hear about power struggles between Christians and within a church.

But power is not our goal. It is not our purpose. It is not our mission. Our goal and our calling from God is unity, and community. It is unity that pleases God, not power, not success, not size, not clever programs. It is unity and faithfulness to the call that God has placed in our lives. Faithfulness in loving one another. Faithfulness in exercising the gifts God has given you for His service and on His behalf.

That’s why the early Church rejected all the normal ways of getting organized. You can read Acts. They rejected totalitarianism, and the absolute authority in the hands of a dictator. They rejected anarchy, complete individualism where it’s every man for himself. They even rejected pure democracy, majority rule, which we are familiar with in the USA, although we have a modified version on it.

Instead of these models, the early church practiced what could best be described as “Spirit-directed unity.” Richard Foster does a good job of describing Spirit-directed unity in his book Celebration of Discipline, which I’ve mentioned before is a good book and you should read it.

He writes, “Unity, rather than majority, is the principle of corporate guidance. More than mere agreement, it is the perception that we have heard the voice of God. We do not seek compromise, but God-given consensus.” Though I would say compromise does play a role at times.

We use, here in this denomination, elected elders. But in the session, that is how we try to make decisions. We ask God to guide us, and we look for God-given consensus so that we can go forward in unity, as one people. God wants our church to be a true unity community, a family of brothers and sisters. We are children of God.

It can be very challenging. I’m pretty sure I’ve shared this story before, but there was a time in the church that ordained me when they had a very contentious issue. They needed to get new boilers for the air conditioning and heating system.

There was a split, literally, in the church, among the people, about whether to get a loan, a mortgage, and then pay it off over time but have to pay interest and get the presbytery involved, or to simply pay for it in cash by liquidating some of their assets in stocks and savings and things.

As Presbyterians do, they took a congregational vote on it, by secret ballot. And when the results came back, those that wanted to liquidate assets and buy it outright had one vote more than those that wanted a mortgage, with four abstentions.

The pastor came up to the pulpit after the vote, and he said, “We have prayed through this. We have prayed before this. We have prayed during this. The Spirit of God has spoken. So now the job of the church is to pull together as one, to follow through on what God has called us to do.”

And what was amazing there was the rapidity with which they refilled those savings accounts, refilled those investment accounts, because the people who had wanted a mortgage wanted to have savings. That’s why they wanted the mortgage in the first place. So they gave, to refill those accounts.

And those that wanted to liquidate, in order to not have to owe anything, didn’t want to have any kind of debt. And they saw that as a debt, having lowered the savings. So they, too, donated to refill those accounts.

It’s a practical example of how the unity can work together. A very tight split. But they pulled together when a decision was made.

If we do so, then we can enjoy the promise given at the end of Psalm 133, “For there the Lord bestows His blessing, even life forevermore.”

You see, unity results in life. People are not going to look for salvation in a church that is filled with squabbling, quarreling, complaining people. People are drawn to the Lord when they enter a church and smell the sweet aroma of unity.

This doesn’t mean we don’t hold each other accountable. It doesn’t mean if you’re hurt you just swallow it and don’t share with the person who hurt you so that you can be reconciled and once again be unified as brothers and sisters.

One pastor of a growing church put it this way: “The secret of church growth rests on three things. Love God. Love each other. And love the lost.” Little else matters.

In the Gospel of John was see that just hours before he would be arrested, Jesus made this request for all those who would believe in him. He prayed, “May they be brought to complete unity, to let the world know that you have sent me, and have loved them even as you have loved me.” he said.

Our congregation can be a part of the answer to that prayer. We can be a unity community, a family of God, of brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ that exemplify his love to the world at large.

But let’s remember that we cannot do it on our own. You can’t force unity, not true unity You can’t create unity by your own efforts. So what can you do? You can pray for unity.

Pray first that God will work in your heart. Then pray that He will work in the hearts of others to bring about the kind of supernatural unity that will show the world the love of God. And then go out to serve, in that unity, sharing that love with others.

In order to enjoy the good and pleasant unity that God offers, every one of us needs to be covered, even drenched, with the oil of God’s Spirit. Then the unity of the Spirit can fall on our church like dew from heaven. And the Lord will be glorified, and we can enjoy Him forever.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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