Would it be sacrilegious if we added a couple words to the first verse of Psalm 133? “How good and pleasant (and rare) it is when God’s people live together in unity.” Maybe I have been a pastor too long or maybe it’s being 13 months on the other side of the start of a pandemic during which—to riff on a line I read once from Kathleen Norris—a whole lot of people in the church behaved about as badly as grownups know how to do. Signs of unity of late have been rare indeed. The wreckage and the carnage of souls and spirits that resulted from profound disunity are everywhere. Burned-out pastors, pastors who quit, friendships within congregations that got shipwrecked on the shoals of arguments over masks and distancing . . . the list goes on and on.
Yes, it is good and pleasant to spy unity among God’s people. So why is this unity frequently so difficult to achieve? Well, perhaps we can chalk it up to the devil’s work. The more precious something is to God or to God’s people, the harder the devil and his hosts will work to corrupt it, disrupt it, make people fly off the handles over the silliest things. I am reminded of C.S. Lewis and his classic work The Screwtape Letters: whatever “the Enemy” (that is God in Christ) values, Screwtape advises the apprentice demon Wormwood to work extra hard to blow things up in that area.
Even Psalm 133 shows why unity is so vital. The imagery of anointing with oil and the promise of life forevermore demonstrate how vitally important this good and pleasant prospect of unity is. In the New Testament Jesus also tells the disciples in no uncertain terms that the world will continue to see Jesus even after he is physically gone from this earth IF the disciples are one as Jesus and the Father are one. But as we know only too well, that has turned out to be a very big “if” indeed.
Still, the lyric promises of Psalm 133 are striking. Below are some observations by my colleague Stan Mast in his last sermon commentary reflection here on the CEP website.
What does Psalm 133 mean by “life forevermore?” One scholar is sure that this is not a reference to individual eternal life, as such a thing seems foreign to Jewish hopes. Rather, Psalm 133 is promising that unity will bring the “ever continuing vitality of the community.” Unity brings the blessing of communal longevity to the people of Israel. That makes sense, and we can make a nice application to the church without too much of a stretch.
But let’s not give up too quickly on the other, individual interpretation of “life forevermore.” If it means eternal life, how can it be that unity brings that blessing? What about John 3:16 and so many other passages that link everlasting life to faith in Jesus? When we think of God’s plan of salvation, we don’t usually think of unity as being central to that plan. In church circles, we talk about God blessing churches that have great biblical preaching; I recently read an online piece about America’s mega-churches; all of them are led by a scintillating preacher. God commands his blessing where folks hear the Word preached in the power of Spirit. Or we focus on fervency of prayer, or a passion for outreach, or a commitment to social justice. Rarely do we talk about the importance of unity in the church.
But what about the prayer of Jesus in John 17:23? “May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” Unity is central to God’s plan, because his plan, according to Ephesians 1:10 is “to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ.” Unity brings God’s blessing because it anticipates and participates in God’s great plan to re-unite a creation fragmented by sin. The church is the beginning of what God is doing in the world; it is the first fruit of Easter. Unity does not save us; only Jesus and faith in him can do that. But unity is a crucial part of God’s saving plan. So of course he commands his blessing on a unified church where brother and sisters walk and worship and work together. Such a church brings the blessing of life forevermore to the world.
Psalm 133 doesn’t tell us how such unity can be achieved. That’s where the other readings for this second Sunday of Easter are helpful. John 20 shows us that it is an encounter with the risen Christ that brings fearful, doubting disciples together. Acts 4 displays the importance of meeting together for worship and fellowship, but not just happy worship and comfortable fellowship. The worship must be focused on the preaching of the Risen Christ (verse 33) and the fellowship must be characterized by sacrificial involvement in other people’s lives (verses 32 and 34-35). I John 1 and 2 continue the emphasis on the Gospel of the Incarnation and Atonement in an atmosphere of honesty about our flaws. We can’t be in unity if we’re always covering up, the way Adam and Eve did. Confession of sin and absolution through Christ are central to unity. “If we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin (I John 1:7).”
If Psalm 133 presents us with a daunting goal, the New Testament verses just referred to ratchet this up into the stratosphere of importance spiritually speaking. After a year of COVID and all the damage it has done to the reputation of the Church as well as to the wellbeing of individual congregations, the Church in general has so very much to repent of as we move into Eastertide 2021. But as we repent, we must also ask the Holy Spirit “revive us again.” Because after what we have been through and in many places what we are still going through, it would be beyond just “good and pleasant” if the world—if we ourselves—could see more unity in Christ’s Church, in that gathering so precious to Jesus he calls it his very Body.
If Psalm 133 sings the blessings of familial, ecclesiastical, and national unity, the current divisions in the United States show the curse of disunity. This country is under more danger from disunity than it is from North Korea and Russia and China put together. They might bluster and plot, but if we don’t come together, we’ll destroy ourselves. As Lincoln so trenchantly put it, “If a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand.” He was, of course, quoting Jesus in Mark 3:25. How can God bless American or your church when we don’t live in unity?
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, April 11, 2021
Psalm 133 Commentary