That They May All Be One
Rev. Thomas Cary Kinder
The Congregational Church of the United Church of Christ,
May 1, 2016 Sixth Sunday of Easter
Psalm 133; I John 4:16b-21; John 17:20-26
“How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity.” That first verse of Psalm 133 has been cherished for three thousand years, but the second and third verses are less understood today. This is tragic, because they transform the Psalm from merely a fond dream into a moral, ethical and spiritual imperative that is essential to our survival. It has never been more important that we understand what this Psalm demands of us and find a way to fulfill it.
Psalm 133 is called a Song of Ascent. It was sung by pilgrims who ascended the mountains of Zion to worship in the temple in Jerusalem. They came from many countries and spoke different languages. They were kindred, all part of the Hebrew tribes, but living together in unity was not a given.
Today Jews tell a joke about themselves. They say, “Four Jews: five opinions.” In ancient times there were many different Hebrew sects, like Christian denominations, and probably many different opinions within each. Every time they gathered it was possible that they would experience disunity, because human nature loves to look for differences. Yet the Psalm reminds us that our higher, divine nature looks at all we have in common, and it feels heavenly when we do that and see our oneness.
The second verse of the Psalm says that living together in unity “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.” It is almost impossible to see at first what this image has to do with living together in unity.
It helps to know that Aaron, brother of Moses, played the role of high priest, and that a priest was ordained by having precious oil poured over his head, and in this case the blessing was extravagant.
The third verse shifts to another image. It says that living together in unity “is like the dew of Hermon, which falls on the mountains of Zion.”
First there is the image of an abundance of oil poured on a priest’s head, and then dew poured on the holy mountains of Jerusalem. It is still hard to see what these have to do with unity, but they are generous and holy things.
The last sentence is the key that unlocks the meaning. It says, “For there the Lord ordained his blessing, life forevermore.” Living in unity is not just a pleasure, it is a calling that God ordains us to have. The word ordain means to set things in their rightful place. God calls us to live into the super-abundant, never-ending blessing of unity the way an anointed priest is ordained to live into the ministry. Unity is like dew or rain that falls on the mountains of Zion. Unity is life-giving. Unity is holy. Unity is right.
Today we live in a society that is tragically divided. It is hard to see how the richest 1 percent will ever live in unity with the 99 percent so far below them. It is hard to see how white supremacists and people of color can live in unity. It is hard to see how Christian fundamentalists will ever live in harmony with Muslims, and how Muslim fundamentalists will live in harmony with Christians, even though our kindred religions both descended from Abraham. It is hard to see how the human race can live in harmony with the earth, which we are destroying as if it were our worst enemy, even though it is not just our kindred but our mother.
It is difficult to see how we can fulfill our God-ordained calling to live in unity, and yet it is not impossible if you stand back far enough. Astronauts see how small and alone Earth is in the expanse of the universe. They see that human existence is fragile, and that we need to learn to live in peace as one human family and take care of this beautiful, perishable planet. Astronauts have something like a God’s eye view. They see we must learn how to live together or we will die apart.
Jesus gave us the supreme basis of unity, to love our neighbor as if our neighbor is our own self. He said, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” Christ-like love is different from other kinds of love. It is a self-giving, unselfish love. It sees that the other truly is our own self, that we are united already, just as we are.
Christ-like love is unconditional and compassionate and all-embracing. It is extended to sinners before they repent and improve, and to enemies before they surrender and make peace. It trusts that love is the best thing that can be done to improve any bad situation, that the force of humble love will bring about whatever good can be accomplished, even in the face of violent hate. To love like Christ is to love first, and let it teach us what else needs to be done.
The United Church of Christ takes as its motto the prayer that Jesus made in today’s passage from John, “That they may all be one.” Jesus asks God this “so that the world may believe that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” Our unity shows the world the love of God and the presence of Christ.
It is not a unity based on uniformity. As the Jews say, we also could say. “Four UCC members: five opinions.” We are gloriously different. Look around this sanctuary any Sunday morning. You will see old and young, Republican and Democrat, traditionalist and advocate of change, introvert and extrovert, male and female, and if you could read our minds you would probably find as many interpretations of the Bible as we have people here, and then some.
We cannot hope to find unity by always agreeing and avoiding conflict. That will never happen. Conflict is a natural and essential part of life. The best hope for unity is to love our way through our differences and disagreements. Our hope is to learn how to use the skills of healthy communication to preserve beloved community so that we walk together in unity even as we disagree.
Today’s scriptures show how we can reach across what divides us. The gospel of John says, “I ask…that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us…that they may become completely one.” True, unshakable unity comes from dwelling within God and Christ, and having them dwell in us.
This is not a selective qualification, but a universal human condition. Every person dwells in God. Each heart has within it Christ’s presence, even those who do not call themselves Christian.
The first letter of John explains how this can be. It says, “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.”
This love is not something we have to accomplish or create. It is the grace that God sends to us through Christ and the Holy Spirit. It is the grace God breathed into the dust of all humanity at the Creation, into people of every race and nation and religion. God’s love is in us already, and it unifies us already.
We do not have to abide in the same political party to have the unity that God ordains, we do not have to abide on the same side of every issue, we have only to abide in love, only in God, and see that all who love are our kindred. That is the path to the good and pleasant life, and blessing forevermore. God wants this for us so badly. Christ gave his life that we might have it. Let us open our hearts to accept and abide in this love as one, aware of our unity, in silent prayer…