Baptismal Meditation delivered by The Rev. Timothy C. Ahrens, Senior Minister, The First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Columbus, Ohio, April 27, 2003, Easter 2, dedicated to Alyssa Michelle Batchelor on her baptismal day and always to the glory of God!
(First in the Series "Psalms of Zion: Songs of Praise")
Psalm 133, John 20:19-31
Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of each one of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our salvation. Amen.
"Behold, how good and pleasant it is for brothers and sisters to dwell in unity" (Psalm 133:1). If we were to synthesize all 150 of Psalms of David into this phrase only, we would be blessed enough.
With these words of ascent, Psalm 133 opens a song of praise. Words about the goodness and pleasantness of unity are music to my ears in times when I feel the stresses and strains of disunity in our nation and in our world. Like a call from the heavenly city of Zion, a holy beckoning from the realm of God, I hear in these words a heartfelt acknowledgment of the goodness of unity. The blessing of these words points out that it is more beautiful, more delightful, more perfect to dwell in unity and love than to proceed in life as God's separated ones. Unity and love are the way of the Lord.
The Psalmist doesn't tell us how to get from disunity to unity. He provides no program or roadmap; no master plan or even breadcrumbs as holy markers along the trail to unity. Rather, he describes the scent, the look, and the atmosphere of unity. Love and unity in the family of faith is like precious anointing oil poured upon the heads of the faithful, running down through the beard of Aaron - the appointed high priest. Love and unity in the family of faith is like dew falling on Mt. Hermon - the snow-capped beauty of the northern Palestine - on a warm summer day.
Fragrant oil of blessing and the simplicity of dew falling upon a high and holy mountain form touching images of unity. These bucolic images offered in our urban context seem distant and disassociated from our everyday reality. Especially in Columbus, Ohio, I have not recently seen dew falling upon the mountains (although I beheld the dew of Templed Hills this weekend - but, no mountain dew). And the rich image of anointing oil flowing is far removed, though appealing.
Just as it is difficult to imagine dew and flowing oil, it is also challenging to experience the dwelling place of unity in the city. Struggles over economic resources, battles in forums on education, issues over expenditures in neighborhoods and center city, over housing and health care, over who shall lead and who shall follow - all this and more make unity seem like the dream of some long gone Hebrew poet and songwriter. Quite frankly, I would love to dwell in unity for the cause of justice in this city, so we had no need and no purpose for the BREAD Organization and people gathering in our corporate call for justice and righteousness.
Must dwelling in unity be so elusive for urban people? I don't believe so. I believe unity is possible anywhere, anytime and among any people when two things happen. First, to dwell in unity, we must come to know who we are and whose we are. Second, to dwell in unity, we must believe and live into the phrase, "In essentials, unity; in nonessentials diversity, and in all things charity."
Knowing who we are is the essential ingredient to becoming fully actualized human beings. Then, knowing who we are in relationship to whom we belong completes the movement. We belong to God, whom we encounter most fully in Jesus Christ. When we have figured out who we are and Whose we are, life comes into personal focus and unity of spirit.
But, we also need the second step of figuring out through prayer and faith development what core values we hold that are essential in being one. I would have to say there are a few essentials. The first is our baptismal promise and covenant: "Jesus Christ in my Lord and Savior." This is essential to Christian faith - how you come to realize this and live this truth is always unfolding. But the essential truth of this covenant promise supercedes all belief for us. Also, living the Sermon on the Mount and words of love for God, self, and neighbor are other essentials to faith. Justice, mercy, grace, and love are essentials, too.
But, I believe there are many nonessentials. Although most of our struggles happen in the area of nonessentials, most all is nonessential. In the nonessentials, we need to allow diversity. But, whether essential or nonessential, we need to be loving with one another. We need to be kind to one another. We need to be gentle with one another.
The struggle for unity was one with which Jesus tangled as well. Just before his death, in John 17:21, Jesus prays to God in heaven, " . . . my prayer is that they may all be one, even as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, so that they may all be in us, and the world may believe that you sent me." The church through the ages has struggled to find unity in Christ - in spite of his appeal to his father in heaven. Our failures have more often been a reflection of the failures of the church's leaders than the failures of its people. I can't tell you how many thousands of times I have heard folks in the pews trumpet unity and ways to bridge differences while our rules, our "books of discipline," and our theological nonessentials hold us back. Father forgive us for our failure to dwell in the good and pleasant unity of your son's love.
In 1843, the Church of Scotland had split almost down the middle on doctrinal differences. The two churches continued in uneasy separation from that date until 1929 - almost 86 years of division. Then, on a certain day in 1929, the two churches came together again. In two immense symbolic processions, the churches converged on St. Gile's Cathedral in Edinburgh, moving through the ancient streets which each body singing the metrical version of Psalm 133. (From Erik Routley's Exploring the Psalms, Westminster Press, Philadelphia, PA., 1975, p. 88).
Perhaps Jesus' greatest hope for unity in the church and for the world, can begin again in this great and simple hymn of promise and praise. "Behold, how good and pleasant it is for brothers and sisters to dwell in unity" (Psalm 133:1). Thanks be to God! Amen.
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