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Sermon: Unity


St. Paul’s – Brookings

Fr. Larry Ort

Acts 4.32-35; Psalm 133; 1 John 1.1-2.2; John 20.19-31

The psalmist says, “Oh, how good and pleasant it is, when brethren live together in unity!” The Hebrew na’im, translated as ‘pleasant’ also connotes ‘lovely, good, attractive, friendly, joyous” (deClaisse-Wolford, Nancy. The psalmist tells us it is like fine oil that runs down upon the head, upon the beard, but not just any beard -- upon the beard of Aaron. Here the psalmist is recalling Moses’ anointing of Aaron, his brother, as the Lord commanded, to be High Priest (Leviticus 8.10-12). The psalmist also compares living together in unity to the refreshing dew which falls on Mt. Hermon, and closes the psalm by saying, “For there [life together in unity] the Lord has ordained the blessing: life forevermore” (Psalm 133.5; BCP).

In the Epistle of 1 John, the author (presumably John the Apostle who refers to himself as “the Elder”) is addressing a lack of unity among believers. It appears that a group of dissenters had split off from the Christian fellowship. Their disagreement centered around the nature of Jesus Christ and the nature of the Christian life. They held that Jesus was not truly human, but rather was spiritual, or divine, and therefore without sin. They further believed they were perfect, no longer subject to sin (Gupta, Nijay.

This epistle opens in a distinctly different manner than any other epistle in that it is lacking the usual salutation. There is no indication as to who is writing, to whom it is written, nor any extension of grace and peace. The epistle begins with a bold declaration which addresses the heresy that Jesus Christ was a purely spiritual being:

We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life-- this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us-- we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete (1 John 1.1-4; NRSV).

In short, John says, our Jesus was a flesh and blood Jesus, one with skin and bones for we saw his hands and his feet. Believe this that we may have unity and fellowship together; believe this so that our joy may be complete. “Oh, how good and pleasant it is when brethren live together in unity!”

This bodily Jesus was also an aspect of the resurrected Christ we encounter in the Gospel of John: “Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’ Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ Jesus said to him, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe’” (John 20.27-29; NRSV). John was intent to show that God became incarnate, that God entered human form in the person of Jesus Christ.

St. Paul also assures us that Christ has experienced life as we have: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrew 4.15; NRSV). On this basis, Paul says, we are to “approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4.16; NRSV).

Having addressed the nature of Christ, John now sets forth several conditional statements which apply to Christian living. He begins by noting that “God is light and in him there is no darkness at all” (1 John 5b; NRSV), then he asserts:

  • “If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true” (vs. 6). We can only have fellowship with Christ when, and if, we are walking in the light, for as Jesus said, “I am the light of the world.”

  • “If we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin” (vs. 7). When we walk in the light, we fully know what the psalmist is saying for we know and experience “how good and pleasant it is, when brethren live together in unity!”

  • “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (vs. 8). As Romans 3.23 tells us, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (NRSV). At the end of each day, it is well for us to examine our life’s activities and to acknowledge where we have fallen short, where we have failed to love others and God as we are called. Having done that, John next assures us,

  • “If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (vs. 9).

  • John closes these conditionals with a word of caution: “If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us” (vs. 10).

Having set forth these conditions as a corrective to their mistaken view, then John takes a gentler approach as he writes, “My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2.1-2; NRSV).

These lessons draw upon the Easter narrative. They serve to remind us that Jesus Christ was with us in body and spirit, that the resurrected Christ had bodily attributes, and they acknowledge the redemptive work of the cross and the resurrection. In Jesus Christ we can walk in the light and have true fellowship, the fellowship of love with one another. In the early Christian community described in Acts 4, we see “those who believed were of one heart and soul” (Vs. 32). In that they believed in the imminent return of the risen Lord, they did not hesitate to sell their possessions and distribute them as any had need. Although we do not know when Christ will return, we are still called to witness through our loving actions, and those loving actions promote unity. “Oh, how good and pleasant it is when brethren live together in unity!” Amen

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