|Psalm 133: The Unity of Godís People
January 10, 1999
Hall-of-Famer Yogi Berra won three American League MVP awards during his remarkable career as a catcher for the New York Yankees. Most baseball fans can visualize ó if not remember ó the ecstatic scene as he ran from behind home plate and leaped into the arms of Don Larsen after catching his perfect game in the 1956 World Series. Even if you donít like baseball, youíve heard Berraís "Yogi-isms" cited in all sorts of contexts. "It ainít over ítil itís over!" is one of the best known.
After playing for the Yankees, Berra managed the team to the World Series in 1964. Then, with the team struggling in the 1980s, ownership called him back to run the team again for the 1984 season. He went a respectable 87-75. Then, only 16 games into the 1985 season, owner George Steinbrenner summarily fired him when the Yankees were at six and 10 for the new season.
Hey, it happens all the time in major-league baseball. A manager is to a ball team what a preacher is to a church! If the team isnít playing well, the easiest short-term fix is to fire him rather than shuffle management or impugn the team! Nobody is surprised when it happens. In Berraís case, though, there was a particularly unpleasant feature to his not-terribly-unexpected firing.
Instead of showing some degree of personal respect for a man of Berraís stature in the game with which his name is forever associated, George Steinbrenner ó known as "The Boss" and a legend in his time for his stormy relationships with both managers and players ó appeared to go out of his way to insult Yogi. There was no face-to-face visit. There wasnít even a phone call to inform him of the change being made. He sent someone else to deliver the word. Thus began a feud between the two men. Berra has not been at Yankee Stadium for an Old-Timers Day or any other official function in 14 years.
It made headlines last week when Steinbrenner and Berra made peace. Spurred by New York radio station WFAN, The Boss flew in from Florida, met with Yogi and his wife, Carmen, for 15 minutes at the Yogi Berra Museum, and apologized. "[The handling of his firing] was a stupid thing on my part," he said. "It was a monumental mistake on my part. Sometimes, it takes a long time to get things right. Yogi is a highly principled man. I messed up."
Standing next to Berra during a WFAN interview, Steinbrenner said, "Iím just happy he feels itís time to put this behind us. Iím glad heís said, ĎGeorge, I forgive you.í"
"Fourteen years, Iíd say, is long enough," said Berra. "Itís over!"
The term "brotherhood" is sometimes used of athletes or soldiers ó as well as citizens of Old and New Testament Israel. In sports, the goal is team play. In law enforcement, it is closing ranks. In Scripture, it is spiritual unity and love. Thus Zechariah 11:14 has Yahwehís prophet performing a symbolic act to signify "breaking the brotherhood between Judah and Israel." Peter commands his readers: "Love the brotherhood of believers . . ." (1 Pet. 2:17). And Psalm 133 affirms the importance of lived brotherhood when David writes:
How good and pleasant it is
when brothers live together in unity!
It is like precious oil poured on the head,
running down on the beard,
running down on Aaronís beard,
down upon the collar of his robes.
It is as if the dew of Hermon
were falling on Mount Zion.
For there the LORD bestows his blessing,
even life forevermore
If it made headlines for two famous sports figures to end a long-standing feud and be reconciled, what an effect it would have on the world if those who make up the family of God on earth could learn to get along! The continuous fragmentation of the church has been the scandal of the ages. Set against Jesusí prayer for the unity of those who trusted him as their teacher-leader "so that the world may believe" (John 17:21), Satan has used the sin of disunity to cause countless souls to be lost forever.
When our children were small, we sometimes took trips together as a family. The longer the trip, the more dangerous they were! "Dad, sheís on my side!" "Am not! Am not! Am not!" Or, "Mom, heís looking at me!" "He stuck out his tongue at me first!" The trip could be as short as going to church or as long as visiting Mammaw and Pappaw.
Not every trip was like that. Itís just that the ones that turned out that way are perhaps "more memorable" than some of the other ones. How "good" and "pleasant" it was when we could ride six miles, 125 miles, or 300 miles in unity.
I wonder if God has ever felt like a Mom or Dad on a trip? Here are the children on their journey to heaven, and they are fussing and picking at each another! The unity and love of the Body of Christ are challenged by the pettiness, shallowness, and impertinence of our conflicts. Most of the things that divide Christians are not worth fighting over. Worship preferences, ministry predilections, organizational models, interpretations of difficult texts ó these are certainly not worth subjecting the Lord Jesus Christ to vilification and his church to additional unwarranted fragmentation.
Steve Brown claims that when thoroughbred horses face attack from predators such as wolves, they stand in a circle facing each other and kick out at the enemy with their back legs. Donkeys, on the other hand, do the opposite. They circle up facing the enemy and use their hind legs to kick each other! When Christians who are surrounded by a world of unbelief and moral corruption act like, well, vulgar donkeys rather than reverent thoroughbreds, the outcome is reasonably predictable.
One Body With Many Members
To a church plagued with division over preacher loyalties, differences of interpretation about eating meat that had been used in sacrifice to idols, and pettiness leading to frivolous litigation in public court, a Spirit-guided apostle wrote this:
The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body. So it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body ó whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free ó and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. . . . The eye cannot say to the hand, "I donít need you!" And the head cannot say to the feet, "I donít need you!" . . . Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it (1 Cor. 12:10-13,21,27).
If we were to take this seriously in our modern setting, we would have to understand that God has challenged us to seek the unity of the Body of Christ in a most deliberate, most serious way. We would not leave things to chance and happenstance. We would not be content to wait for unresolved grievances to work themselves out over time. We certainly would not treat one another with contempt and disrespect.
At a personal level, people who know how good and pleasant it is for brothers to live together in unity would aggressively attack the hateful barrier of racial prejudice in the church. For the moment, I am not even talking about challenging the world around us to address its racist institutions and attitudes. I am talking exclusively to Christians about the racism that still exists in our hearts, our churches, our schools. We must learn the meaning of an insight that came to Peter while he was visiting a Gentile home for the first time in his life. "I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right" (Acts 10:34-35).
Then there are related personal matters like misunderstandings, hurt feelings, and gossip that touch the lives of Christians. Do we deal with these things as unbelievers do? Or do we deal with them as brothers and sisters in Christ who are committed to maintaining the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace? (cf. Eph. 4:3).
In our families, it is good and pleasant to experience unity as well. Christians canít always stave off divorce, but they have a motivation and resource unbelievers donít have. Parents and children in Christian families wonít always be close, but they have a hope for intimacy because of Christ that is missing in other dysfunctional families. The presence of Christ and the desire he creates for unity among his people is always a positive factor at work in any situation of alienation.
At the level of our church function, we must continue to affirm our oneness. In addition to the personal and family issues just raised, we must enlarge our corporate ability to function as one body with many members, one healthy organism with many functional parts. God has gifted his church with all the abilities it will need in any generation to accomplish the things he wants done. Sometimes we make the mistake of "showcasing" a few gifts such as preaching or music or administration and neglecting other equally necessary functions.
To help us address this problem at Woodmont Hills, a new class called "Discovering Your Place" will be offered in February. It will be about the spiritual gifts with which God equips his church and how each believer can discover his or her area of giftedness. It will be a wonderful opportunity for some of you to find your place in the ministry of this body. The larger a church is, the greater need it has for workers. The more opportunities it has for people to give productive service to the Lord. The more slots it has to fill with people who can make a meaningful contribution to its mission. So be watching for that class, and plan to enroll in it.
Finally, we must look beyond this one congregation and our own American Restoration Movement to the oneness of the larger Body of Christ. When a quartet or chorus sings in harmony, there is a single song being heard. Even though different persons in the group sing different notes, there is no dissonance. This is exactly Paulís point at 1 Corinthians 1:10 when he said: "I appeal to you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another so that there may be no divisions among you and that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought" (1 Cor. 1:10).
To be "perfectly united in mind and thought" does not mean that everyone at Corinth or in Nashville will share the same understanding of every Christian theme or biblical text. It does not mean that they will have identical church polity or theology. The context speaks of a divided church that was making different personalities its central concern ó Paul, Apollos, Peter, and Christ. An army canít march in unity while listening to different cadences and a symphony canít play in harmony with its instruments tuned to different notes. Christ alone must call the cadence for his people. All our churches must be tuned to the same "middle-C" of the gospel. That done, we can sing our different notes and still be in harmony. The Spirit of God is doing such a work in the church of our time.
A Ministry of Reconciliation
As Jews from all parts of Israel and the world traveled from their various places toward Jerusalem three times a year, they sang the 15 "Songs of Ascents" found in the Psalms. When they sang this one, it must have pricked some consciences and brought the challenge of being reconciled to someone traveling in the larger group. It might have been an old friend now considered an enemy. It might even be a member of oneís family ó or someone who was formerly a mate or mother-in-law.
Everyone who was a descendant of Abraham was called to enter Zion with shouts and joy to the Lord. But those elements of their praise could easily have been mere pretense without the challenge of this song. What a sweet fragrance ó like the precious oil used to anoint Aaron ó spread through the pilgrims when reconciliation took place. And what joy it produces yet when the Lord is allowed to bestow his blessing on a people united in his Son!
Conflict is inevitable among Christians. Because the church is made up of redeemed sinners, there will be times of contention and discord, disagreement and pulling back. But we must value the unity of Godís people above winning or getting the last word. And we must certainly resist the temptation to form cliques or nurse grudges. It is a sign of the presence of the Holy Spirit that a believer cannot be at ease with such situations and will seek reconciliation.
To be sure, it is better to be divided in order to stand with the truth of the gospel than to be united in error. But the battles that have divided our churches (i.e., millennial theories, Sunday School, instrumental music, childcare homes, etc.) do not distinguish themselves as being central to the gospel. They have to do with methods and tastes and interpretations. They have had even more to do with inflated egos and quarrelsome personalities.
But the call of Psalm 133 is not a call for people to find unity in rejecting the authority of God or the truth of his word. It is a call for those who love him, honor the authority of his word, and put themselves under its influence to the degree they understand it to stand in unity with all others of like mind.
In addition to a simple doctrinal foundation on which Christian unity is based (cf. Eph. 4:4-6), the Bible makes it clear that spiritual oneness is equally conditioned by certain necessary attitudes that one brings to her brothers and sisters. "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" (Eph. 4:2-3). Before anyone can justifiably claim that another is in "doctrinal error" (i.e., denying the truth of the gospel), he must be sure that the implications of these conciliatory attitudes have been given full sway in the situation.
Ken Burnsí television series on the Civil War tells that when the fiftieth anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg came around in 1913, the few Civil War veterans still alive decided to reenact one part of that famous battle ó Pickettís Charge. So the Union veterans took their places along the ridge, and the Johnny Rebs began marching across the field toward them. Then an unplanned and amazing thing happened.
As the old men of the North began to move down the hillside toward their former enemies, a great shout went up. But instead of engaging in hand-to-hand combat as they had a half-century earlier, they threw their arms around each other. They stood on what once had been blood-soaked ground and embraced one another. Frederick Buechner recounted this story and commented:
As we lie in the dark looking back over one more day of our lives coming to an end, we might ask ourselves which of the obscure little wars we all engage in could end the same way if only we had eyes to see what those old men saw as they fell into each otherís arms on the field of Gettysburg.1
When the Persian Gulf War of 1991 ended, a bright yellow ribbon on the porch of a Detroit house promised a heroís welcome for a young soldier of a war very different from the one fought at Gettysburg and Shiloh. Within a few hours of his homecoming, though, that young soldier was dead. He had been shot to death on the street in front of his own home. Newspapers carried the story, and people were shocked and grieved. But that wasnít the end of the story. It turned out that the soldierís "widow" and her brother were charged with his murder.
Lives are lost in war. And people are sometimes the victims of crime in their own neighborhoods. But we donít expect a soldier to survive the dangers of combat and then return home only to be killed by his own family.
The church should be a safe place for the people of God in a world that is filled with spiritual perils. So how great is the disillusionment when someone flees to Christ only to be hurt, betrayed, or destroyed by his or her own spiritual family. But that sort of disillusionment will continue to surface if we do not learn to love one another and live in the unity of the Fatherís love, the Sonís redemption, and the Spiritís empowerment.
Steinbrenner apologized, and Yogi said, "Itís over!" Is it time for you to bring closure to some old issues?
1Frederick Buechner, "News of the Day," Christian Century, July 17, 1996, p. 720.
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