Psalm 133 has always been one of my favourite psalms, not only for the lively tune to which we most often sing the words, but also for its theme: the unity of God’s people. The oil running down Aaron’s beard and the dew of Mount Hermon may be foreign images to me, but I still understand the preciousness of unity, the deep delight that unity brings.
Our hearts cry out for unity because we are created in God’s image–created for communion with him and with others. All our longings for unity are grounded upon that purpose for which we have been made–the rest, as Augustine says, that we cannot have until we find our rest in God. This union is expressed in the Song of Songs, using nuptial imagery to describe the most mysterious and wonderful of unions–the church-bride with Christ-the bridegroom.
Our relationships are meant to mirror this unity. One of the first signs of sin’s curse, after Adam and Eve hide from God, is their blame-shifting and finger-pointing. Their beautiful relationship, of which Adam had sung, “this is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” is torn asunder.
Because of the way sin breaks and poisons relationships, any unity that we do experience is through God’s grace. More clearly: it is a gift, not from ourselves. It is not something that we can manufacture. This is not to say that we cannot or should not do anything or work towards unity. Instead, it is the blessing of God given to those who walk in humility and love towards those around us. It isn’t a face of agreement and civility, but the result of the way we treat one another. If we focus on unity as the core dynamic of our churches, we are putting the cart before the horse. God will give unity to those who love him and love one another—not love as lip-service but love as concrete, humble action.
When we have unity at the core of our goals for our churches, it is easy to respond to each other with unity in mind, rather than love. When someone raises a concern, or expresses a complaint, or makes an accusation against another, the most natural response is to mark that person as a troublemaker, stirring the pot and disrupting the unity that was previously felt. To move towards their goal of unity, the leaders may counsel silence or quick and foundationless reconciliation.
But we presume God’s grace to think that a church can demonstrate unity if she has failed to listen to, protect, and seek the health of her members. That church may have a measure of visible unity, but it is a false face, the product of polite people unwilling to rock the boat.
True unity mirrors the self-giving love of the Triune God: Father, Son and Spirit each turned towards the others in the deepest delight and beatitude. When we protect the visible unity of the church above the safety and health of individual members, we are not turned towards each other in love, but towards ourselves in self-defense.
Just as we cannot hope to seek reconciliation with the Father apart from the justice of the cross, we cannot seek unity in our churches without justice. When we push through to “unity” without justice, we trample those who have been hurt. We seek to attain salvation without dealing with our sin. Grace, as Deitrich Bonhoeffer said, is not cheap. Grace only comes to us because of the tragedy of Good Friday and the darkness of Holy Saturday.
If we really desire unity among God’s people, safety and justice ought to be some of our top priorities. Safety is not the elimination of risk, but the creation of a space in which people are protected as much as possible from harm, and their needs attended to. I think of Jesus’ metaphor, taken from the Old Testament prophets, of the shepherd and his flock. One of his greatest promises to us is the safety that he promises within his fold. A good shepherd protects his flock from wolves, and makes sure that they have the grass and water that they need. The Reformed churches of my experience are keenly alert to the wolves that come in the form of false teachers; we need to be equally alert to the wolves that come in the form of abusers, spiritual, physical, or otherwise.
And when we are not successful, when someone has been hurt and the safety of the fold compromised, justice must come before unity. Pursuing justice recognizes that we are still in a world under the curse, where people turn against one another and hurt one another. Pursuing justice does not presume unity, but works to make things right so that unity can result.
“How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity!” David sings at the beginning of Psalm 133. David knew the blessing of united relationships. He also knew intimately of the heartache, disfunction, and destruction that came as a result of his own abusive behaviour. And as the prophet Nathan declared to him, this could not be rectified simply by marrying Bathsheba. He needed to confess his sins, to repent of what he had done. Even then, he still experiences consequences, as Bathsheba’s baby dies and what David did in secret, his son would do in broad daylight.
Unity is a beautiful, delightful gift. May God give it to each of us, as we seek to protect, love, and serve each other.