There are many places within society where people come together with the same spirit. Sporting events are places where people of all backgrounds join together to cheer their team on. Concerts are another common example.
There are other events that draw people together in unity, either nationally or internationally and some of these events are not good occasions. War often draws a nation together or a group of nations like in World War 2. Disasters are another event that often cause normal barriers between people to fall away so that people can work together to return a community back to peace and wholeness.
In the world, there are glimpses of unity in spirit, but within the church, a defining characteristic is supposed to be unity of the Spirit:
“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”John 13:34-35 NIV
The theme of unity of the Spirit is clearly stated by the apostle Paul:
Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. 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; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.Ephesians 4:2-6
Unity within the church is a constant theme throughout Paul’s letters to the church and starting in the book of Acts, you can see that the church struggles to figure out how to remain united. Paul’s letter to the church in Rome is centered on the unhealthy division between the Jewish believers and the Gentile believers.
I have preached a number of messages over the years on the theme of unity in the church and today, I’m going to talk about it again, because unhealthy divisions within the church continue to be as big an issue as it ever was and this has been one of the biggest reasons that world as a whole does not believe the message of the church. As Jesus says in John 13, everyone will know we are Jesus’ disciples by how we love each other.
What does it mean to keep the unity of the Spirit? And what does it mean when the church is not united?
Unity within the church, is not about being the same, or thinking the same or dressing the same or even talking the same language, but it is about understanding each other so that we can work together toward the same goal with the same vision, namely the great commission. The main way that we humans do this work is through what we call covenants. Unity in the Spirit is kept by covenant relationship.
Covenants, Promises, Testaments, Contracts, Agreements, Partnerships… Marriages
All these words are synonyms. They all have similar meanings. Why so many words for the same thing? It’s because agreements, partnerships, covenants and anything like them are essential for humans to survive and thrive in the world so we have lots of words to describe the same idea. Without covenants, we would always be at war and we would become like animals instead of being humans.
In the first two chapters of Genesis, there are a couple of covenants, or promises, that are established, one of which is marriage:
Then the LORD God made a woman from the rib he had taken out of the man, and he brought her to the man. The man said, “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called ‘woman,’ for she was taken out of man.” That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh.Genesis 2:22-24 NIV
The marriage covenant is one of the most foundational understandings of unity. Marriage is among the first covenants and it is constantly used as a metaphor for God’s relationship with Israel throughout the Old Testament. Jesus, in the gospel teachings, reaffirms marriage and denounces frivolous divorces, and Paul also reaffirms marriage and also uses it as a metaphor for the church’s relationship to Jesus. We, the Church, are the bride of Christ, married to Jesus, both distinct from Jesus and one in body with Jesus.
In the Genesis 2 account of marriage, the author is telling us that there is a deep mystery to this unity and becoming one flesh. Adam starts off as a single individual, he is one body, and God creates a division in Adam, or humanity, to create Eve. This first division leads to a pattern of divisions where the son leaves his parents, also, the daughter would leave her parents. They are two distinct people. The two are leaving their parents and this is a good thing and expected. It is a division, but a good division. The two create a new oneness, a new unity a new single body in two parts. It doesn’t make sense, but that’s ok because it’s a mystery. They remain as two, but they work as one. How? Through the marriage covenant, normally a promise to show love to one another.
Millie and I are definitely different people. We are in different places in our faith journey. We think differently. We behave differently. We dress differently. And somehow, we are supposed to be one. It is something that we figure out as we learn to keep the promises we made to each other when we were married, or another way of saying it, when our promises become fulfilled in reality (our words become manifest).
You don’t need to be married to understand what it means for two to work as one or to be united. Even in scripture, one of the most profound covenants is between friends: king David and king Saul’s son Jonathan. The two should have been rivals for the throne of Israel, but Jonathan proved a true friend and among the most humble in the world by making a covenant with David who he knew would be king instead of him. Another even deeper friendship in scripture is between Ruth and Naomi found in the book of Ruth. Ruth’s words to her mother-in-law echo both marriage and God’s covenant with Abraham when Ruth leaves everything she knew behind and accepted all the unknown ahead:
But Ruth replied, “Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the LORD deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me.”Ruth 1:16-17 NIV
Which covenants in your life are the most important to you? In our church family when new members join, we all sign a church covenant. Do you remember your promises? Even I, who worked on the revision of the covenant, can’t remember all the parts. Yet even this covenant is a lesser covenant compared with the promise you made to Jesus which we commemorate whenever we celebrate communion:
In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.1 Corinthians 11:25-26 NIV
We remember our promise to Jesus together as a church family at communion. When we eat the bread and drink the cup, we reaffirm Jesus’ Lordship over us and our promise to join Jesus in his mission to bring about God’s vision for the world. Covenants are central in our relationship to one another and Jesus. Keeping them is essential for remaining faithful and being united as one body.
Starting in the 1980’s it became popular to license software to people. When you purchase software, you do not become the owner of the software, you pay to gain permission to use the software. As you can see in this picture, you had to agree to the license before you ever read it. When you break the seal, it tells you that you are agreeing to the license. To read the license, you need to break the seal and install the software. They don’t do this kind of agreement any more mostly because in a US court, you could not enforce such a silly agreement. Agreements are in general good things, but if you ever read a license agreement, you will notice that it is written in English, but you will not be able to understand it’s meaning since it is written in a legalese version of English. It is designed, intentionally, to be confusing. Human agreements tend to be one-sided usually in favor of the larger corporation.
People have been making covenants and partnerships since the beginning. Covenants whether religious or not religious have similarities. It’s where they contrast that we need to take notice.
One such agreement can be seen in Genesis 11 at the founding of Babylon. A couple of weeks ago, I preached on Babylon the great, and again today, Babylon provides a picture of how unity in the world contrasts with unity in the church.
Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. As people moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there. They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.”Genesis 11:1-4 NIV
These people want to be united instead of scattered and they make an agreement. There mission is to make a tower to the heavens, the vision they have is to have a great name for themselves through this tower. On July 18, I preached on the theme of Babylon the great, and so I won’t go into details about all the reasons on why what was happening in the founding of Babylon was not good, you can see the sermon on our YouTube channel. When God comes down to take a look at the tower, he puts a stop to it’s construction by confusing the language of humanity, no longer united in language, the people divide and leave their vision unfinished. In Revelation chapter 18 it describes Babylon’s fall. The foundation of Bablyon’s covenant is about building up greatness in it’s structures that benefit a few people at the expense of other people namely through slavery.
Notice how the covenant of Babylon contrasts with God’s covenant with Abraham.
The LORD had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you. “I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”Genesis 12:1-3 NIV
God’s mission is to bless all peoples on earth and the vision is that Abraham will become a great nation through whom this blessing will pass.
Notice that the vision of Babylon and God’s covenant with Abraham are similar in that both have a vision of greatness. It is how greatness is achieved through mission that we see differences. Babylon wants greatness through it’s structure, the tower, but these structures eventually come at human cost, namely slavery. God wants greatness by blessing humanity and choosing Abraham to deliver that blessing. While Babylon is about structures, God is focused on people. Also notice how God’s call to Abraham mimics marriage in Genesis 2, God is telling Abraham to leave his people, like leaving your parents, and in the process enter his covenant relationship.
A house divided against itself cannot stand
In the last couple of decades political pundits have expressed, and there is general agreement in this, that there is an increasingly deeper political divide within the US. In the past, citizens were more likely switch which party they voted for compared to now and in the past it was more common for politicians to work across party lines. These days, more families tend to have rules for family gatherings where they avoid political discussions because they get too heated. What is noteworthy is that these divisions are being encouraged by the politicians.
So Jesus called them over to him and began to speak to them in parables: “How can Satan drive out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. If a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand. And if Satan opposes himself and is divided, he cannot stand; his end has come.Mark 3:23-26 NIV
In Mark 3, Jesus is responding to the leaders from Jerusalem who accuse Jesus of driving out demons because he is possessed by the spirit of Beelzebub, the prince of demons. Jesus responds by essentially saying that this idea is ridiculous and if it were true, then all their troubles would already be over, which they weren’t.
Jesus’ point: Satan is in unity within his own house and in his mission and vision. If Satan was divided against himself, we would not see the troubles we have today. Satan is causing division within humanity. Whenever unhealthy divisions persist for too long and become too deep the structures that surround us inevitably fall apart, the house cannot stand.
In the Old Testament, adultery, the most serious offense for breaking a marriage covenant, is the metaphor used to describe Israel’s failed covenant with God. Adultery leads to divorce which creates broken homes. As Jesus says, a divided house cannot stand. The metaphor of adultery also applies to the church (in Revelation 2) and is normally associated with false teachings or diluted (adulterated) allegiances.
In Romans 12 Paul told believers not to conform to the pattern of this world yet what we see is that the disunity within the church in the US is matching the political divide within the US. The church has always struggled with unity and despite the apostles best efforts, the church has ended up dividing into hundreds of denominations. Some of these divisions were violent, like in the Reformation in the 1500’s. Most divisions are not violent, but still often painful.
In the 1960’s Millersville Mennonite suffered a split which created Blue Rock Mennonite and saw other members leave to other churches. While many relationships have healed since then, there are still memories of pain. I only know a little of what happened to cause the split in the 60’s, but the consequences of the division are the same that I experienced in the church I grew up in. The result is that many young people who experienced the pain of division eventually stopped attending church and it proves the words: A house divided against itself cannot stand.
In Genesis 11, God confuses the language of humanity and humanity became divided into the nations. Thousands of years later in Jerusalem the disciples were in a room when suddenly the Holy Spirit came on them. The event is called Pentecost. Pentecost is like the reversal of the tower of Babel story. At Pentecost, Jews from other nations were coming to Jerusalem for the festival.
Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.Acts 2:2-4 NIV
Pentecost is a reversal of the tower of Babel, yet not quite a reversal. At Pentecost God doesn’t create a unified language and he doesn’t cause other languages to disappear, instead the Spirit enables the church to be understood in other languages as needed. At Pentecost the scattered Jews are coming together, and as they gather and join the newly formed church the people still keep their distinct identity and their language but it is by the Spirit that they are able to understand each other and be united both in vision and purpose.
As you read the New Testament, you should note that Gentile believers were not told to conform to Jewish ways and Jewish believers were not told to conform to Gentile ways. They would keep their distinctiveness. Paul tells us don’t be conformed to the pattern of this world. The church is supposed to be filled with differences and it is by the power of the Spirit that we find our unity and also our transformation. Essentially, we don’t conform, but we are transformed.
Pentecost makes the point that the power of the Spirit is required to make unity within a church where there is so many differences. When the church divides in unhealthy ways it is mostly because the church is conforming to the pattern of the world around us and our attention is taken away from the Spirit of God.
For the church to remain faithful, united and one with Jesus we must pursue the direction of the Holy Spirit. The direction of the Holy Spirit will almost always be to fulfill the great commission. A portion of LMC’s missional vision says it fairly well: We encourage every congregation to prayerfully discern an answer to the essential missional question, “To Whom is the Holy Spirit sending us?”. It is in fulfilling Jesus’ mission for the church that we will be united.