Good morning, brothers-and-sisters in Christ. It’s good to see your faces this morning. Even though I only see part of your face!
Though we have started meeting physically again, things are not the same as before. Both leaders and members alike have to figure out how to be a church in the midst of COVID-19.
Once you start discussing this topic with many people, you will discover there is a wide variety of opinions about the virus. For example, some are comfortable meeting in church today, while others are not. As a result of different opinions, it can be easy to criticize each other—to say someone is too paranoid, or someone is too careless.
For this reason, my message today is about unity among fellow believers. Whether the issue is COVID-19 or some other topic, how can we disagree respectfully and stay united as the body of Christ?
I would like us to read Psalm 133, which says that the unity of God’s people is very precious. After that, I will suggest three things we can do to be united as a church.[Read Psalm 133]
Unity of God’s people in Psalm 133
Right away, you can see that this is a very Jewish song. It refers to customs and places important to Jewish people. The first verse is straightforward, saying that unity is a wonderful thing. The next two verses use images to describe unity.
In verse 2 is the first image. Unity is like precious oil running down on Aaron’s beard. In those days, people from the tribe of Levi, whom Aaron belonged to, had the job of being priests for the entire nation. All the tribes of Israel went to worship God at the temple in Jerusalem. It was an important Jewish custom that united the 12 tribes of Israel. There, priests like Aaron played the role of gathering God’s people together in worship. They performed rituals such as giving sin offerings—that is, sacrificing animals to God as a symbol of sorrow and asking for forgiveness.
Oil could symbolize a few things. First, the blessing or anointing of God upon Aaron to be a priest, mediating between God and man. Second, oil was sometimes put on a person’s head to refresh them, especially oil with perfume. So, Psalm 133 is saying that unity between God’s people is a blessing, a calling from God, and it is refreshing and pleasant.
Verse 3 has the second image. Unity is like dew from Mount Hermon falling on Mount Zion. Mt. Hermon was the highest mountain in Northern Israel and had unusually heavy dew. Mount Zion, on the other hand, was dry and parched. So, unity is like having the blessing of water in a dry land.
Psalm 133 ends with a seemingly random line: out of Mount Zion, eternal life comes. What does it mean?
Mount Zion is found in Jerusalem, which I mentioned before is the place of temple worship. The book of Hebrews tells us how Jesus fulfills the last line of this psalm. Just before his arrest and execution, Jesus entered Jerusalem. He knew what was going to happen to him. But Jesus went purposefully to his death because it was his mission. By dying on the Cross, Jesus played the role of a high priest. To atone for the sins of mankind, Jesus offered his own body as a sacrifice to God. So out of Jerusalem, forgiveness and eternal life comes through Jesus’s death.
His death reconciles us to God. It was not just for the Jewish people, but for every tribe and nation in the world. Those who believe in what Jesus did are united by their faith. And his death not only reconciled us to God; his death was also to reconcile people to each other.
Shortly before his death, Jesus prayed this long prayer which is recorded in John 17. Let’s read a few verses from John 17. See verses 20 to 23:
“. . .I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one—I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”
As fellow believers, let’s seek to enjoy this unity in the Lord. Not just because it’s wonderful and refreshing to share a common vision, but also because the Lord himself wants us to be united.
What can we do to strengthen our unity as a church? Recently I read a Christian article online (on the Gospel Coalition website) with helpful suggestions on how the church can stay united in the midst of COVID-19. I would like to share these with you, because the principles are useful for other situations too.
There are three qualities we should practice, which will keep us united as a church:
1) a non-judgmental attitude,
First, a non-judgmental attitude. We can stay united by refraining from judging fellow Christians who have different opinions from us. In Romans 14, Paul writes about how to handle disagreements on issues that are not central Christian beliefs—in other words, issues that are “gray areas”.
In Romans 14:13, Paul says, “Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in the way of a brother or sister.”
For example, when people say that they don’t feel safe coming to church because of the virus, do we judge them by saying they are too paranoid, or lazy, or lacking faith? On the other hand, if you are staying home, do you judge people who attend church by saying they are not careful enough?
As followers of Christ, we are called to be gentle, respectful, and gracious.
The second quality we need is humility. Self-sacrificial humility promotes unity.
Paul writes in Philippians 2:3, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves.” For the sake of others, do we sacrifice our comforts and ideals when necessary?
For example, some of us love to sing loudly to praise God, which is a good thing. But during this season, is singing loudly the best thing to do? Perhaps we should be considerate of our neighbors, who may be afraid of being infected by unseen droplets.
Humility also means to admit that we could be wrong. Sometimes, we are so confident about our own views that we react with anger towards people who don’t share our view. Let’s remember that our knowledge of the virus is limited, and that we don’t know everything. Even if you are right about everything, that doesn’t mean it’s OK for you to despise others.
Finally, the third attitude we need to be united in love is patience.
Let’s be patient with our leaders, because they are feeling the stress of dealing with this complex situation. Our church leaders are faced with a new challenge that has no easy answers. None of us have experienced COVID-19 before, so let’s be gracious to each other as we learn to adjust our thinking and our practices to this new world.
We also need to be patient with the safety measures that are being implemented. It will be a long time before we can return to our previous, normal life. In fact, we might never completely return to that old life.
It’s not comfortable to sing with a mask. It’s sad that we can’t stay a long time after church to chat. But remember that in the bigger scheme, our life on earth—including the time with COVID-19—will not last forever. It’s just a short time compared to eternity, during which we will enjoy full companionship with God and each other.
For those who have put their faith in Jesus, we have confidence that no matter what happens in this life, our future with Jesus is certain. We will see God renew this world; we will experience the meeting between heaven and earth; we will know joy, healing, and complete unity.
In closing, the good news of Jesus calls for the unity of people across all races and nations. As God has forgiven us, let’s be merciful to each other. As Christ has sacrificed himself for us, let’s be considerate of others’ needs. As God is patient with us, let’s be patient with each other. Let’s pray.