Every single person sitting in this room and every single person that walks the face of the globe has limitations. Some of those limitations are actual.  You can’t, regardless of hard you try and how much you train and how high your vertical leap, jump and touch the moon.  That’s an actual limitation.   The majority of the limitations that confine us aren’t actual limitations, they’re perceived limitations.  They’re thought processes, they’re lies that we believe.  There’s ways that we’ve trained ourself and things that we’ve done over and over again and they’ve built up a pattern that eventually led to a limitation.  What’s fascinating is that sociologists and scientists have been studying what happens in somebody’s life that they actually have the ability to overcome a limitation.  In all the study they’ve done, they’ve isolated one factor that allows people to overcome the limitations that they have in their life.  One factor that’s underneath all the stuff that’s going on in your life that would actually have the ability, the key to unlock, many of the limitations that currently hold you down.  In all the studies they’ve done, this one thing has shown all the more clearly the more they’ve studied it.  Henry Cloud wrote a great book that came out recently that really drove this point home.  His argument in that book and what scientists and sociologists are finding is the one factor that has the ability to help you overcome the limitations that you currently have in your life is……other people.  It’s that voice of a friend calling and saying, “You can make it!” It’s that encouraging phrase that somebody says — I believe in you!

It’s interesting that when we’re born we’re born with the need for connection.  Scientists have known this for a long time.  Babies are born with this innate and immediate desire to connect with their mother.  They connect with their mother for physical nutrients and food, but they’ve also studied babies in orphanages who have all the food that they need and yet, they enter into this condition they call “Failure to Thrive Syndrome.”  It turns out that you need far more than just food and bread to survive.  You need the touch of other people.  Babies who don’t get this (touch) don’t develop the way they should and not only is their emotional and spiritual growth stunted, but their physical growth is stunted too.  It turns out we’re integrated beings.  At the core of who we are, the core of our very humanity, not only the desire to connect with other people, but the need to connect with other people {is there}.  We never grow out of that Failure to Thrive Syndrome.  When we don’t have the connections we need, we cannot be who God has called us to be.  They’ve seen this in a number of different areas they’ve studied.  They studied a group of people who set out to reach some goals — whether it was weight-loss goals or educational goals or spiritual growth.  What the found was that the people who achieved the goals they set were the people who surrounded themselves with communities of people.  They did this double-blind study, recently, where they took elderly people who had experienced either a heart attack or a stroke and put some of them in a group with other people to talk about the experience, to process the experience and to walk together.  They isolated the other group.  They found that the people who were in community with other people had a far greater rate of not having another heart attack or stroke.  It turns out that the community of people that surrounded them actually started to change their physical makeup. Fascinating!  They’ve done studies that would say that people who are involved in a community—not a community of faith necessarily, but their lives are connected with other people—have stronger immune systems, can recover more quickly from illnesses that they obtain and get, and they are stronger in general because of the community they’re connected with.  Isn’t that fascinating?!

As we read through the Scriptures, Genesis 1 and 2, we have this poem of creation and God’s creative work.  In chapter one, the author says God creates and it’s good.  He says that six different times.  On time number six, He creates humanity and He says it’s VERY good.  If you fast forward to chapter 2, verse 18, God looks at Adam in the garden and says that it’s not good for Adam to be alone.  It’s not good for humanity to be alone.  We take that to mean people should get married….we read that at marriage ceremonies.  And indeed, Adam and Eve were husband and wife, but the verse is about so much more than marriage.  It’s about what it means to be human.  That it’s not good……think about what the poet in Genesis 2 is saying…..it’s not good for Adam to just be connected to God.  He needs other people in his life also.  It turns out that just connection to God is not enough for the way that He’s created us in our very core in our DNA.  What we do when we gather together, or being part of a community, has influence on our biology.  It has influence on our spirituality.  It changes everything about us because it’s God’s design for us.  {Will you look up at me for just a second.}  I’d argue this morning that there’s some things that are going on in your life, some limitations, that if you were to invite some other people in, that God would use them to catapult you into what He has for your life.  That’s my hope and that’s my prayer.  You can all think of a time when you felt like you were at the end of your rope or when you achieved something great, something that you didn’t think you were going to be able to do.  My guess is, on the other side of whatever that finish line was there was somebody there who was encouraging you.  There was somebody there who was waiting for you.  There was somebody there who believed in you who said, “You can do it!”  Connection to other people isn’t just something that’s beneficial, isn’t just something that’s good, it’s something that’s absolutely necessary on a fundamental level of what it means to be human.

So the psalmist writes about this in Psalm 133.  {If you have your Bible, turn there with me.}  It’s a Psalm of Ascent.  It’s a song that the nation of Israel would sing as they left their homes and journey towards Jerusalem. They did this three times a year to celebrate the pilgrim feasts; feasts that were celebrated in the city of Jerusalem.  This is a Psalm of David.  Eugene Peterson refers to the Psalms of Ascent as the dog-eared Hebrew songbook; songs that they would sing as they were walking along the way.  Imagine as the liturgist calls out the first phrase of this verse and everybody else joins in:  Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity!  It is like the precious oil on the head, running down on the beard, on the beard of Aaron, running down on the collar of his robes!  It is like the dew of Hermon, which falls on the mountains of Zion!  For there the Lord has commanded the blessing, life forevermore.

If you look at the very first verse, this is David’s thesis, his argument in this song, his invitation.  He says: Behold, how good and pleasant….  {Good would mean it’s good for everybody, it’s good for the whole world.  Pleasant would mean it’s good in our soul.  So it’s good out there and it’s good in here.  When what?} ..when brothers and sisters (people) dwell in unity.  David would have had a little bit of something to say about dwelling in division.  David had a little bit of an estranged relationship with his father-in-law.  He was playing the harp and his father-in-law busts out a spear and throws it at him!  {You think you have a bad relationship with your in-laws!!}  His sons — one of his sons kills the other son.  He gives birth to Solomon and Solomon gets the empire and Solomon’s kids divide and eventually divide the entire empire.  So when David writes Psalm 133, he’s writing both out of an invitation to come and taste and see God’s goodness in community, but he’s also writing to say listen, when we dwell in disunity, when we dwell in division, it actually robs us of the very thing that we were created for.  You know this and I know this….it takes a ton of energy to operate in disunity, doesn’t it.  I know and you know…..you’ve gone to bed thinking about moments and people and times where there was division.  Yes?  We all have because it’s so central to what it means to be human.  Here’s how we’ll say it this morning:  Division has this unique ability to zap our energy, to drain our energy, but unity (walking together) actually increases our vitality!  It reminds us what it means to be human.  It fills us up.

Unity is our design.  It also runs contrary to our nature, which is why if you pick up any New Testament letter that’s included in our Scriptures, you will find the impetus placed on unity within the church.  From the beginning of time, people have been pushing against God’s design because of sin and we’ve been moving towards division rather than unity.  Paul will write to the church of Corinth:  I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment. (1 Corin. 1:10)  Have you thought about why he needed to write that?  It’s NOT because the church was moving along and things were going great.  It’s because, just like this church and just like every church that has ever existed on the face of the planet, our natural tendency goes against and contrary to our innate design of needing unity and community and it moves towards division.  So the New Testament is absolutely ruthless about calling people to more.  Within the community and within unity we find what it means to be human, we find vitality for our soul, but division has the opposite effect on us. Absolutely wipes us out!  It takes us down!

This psalm isn’t going to unpack for us how to live in unity with each other—although I’d like to add in a few things about that in the end—this psalm wants to paint such a compelling picture of unity that you and I would say, “We’ve gotta chase after that!  We have got to be a part of that!”  We cannot settle for division because unity is so good and so life giving and it’s so beautiful.  But it’s also so hard.  It’s demanding.  It demands that you allow yourself to be known, valued and loved and it demands that you know, value and love others.  It demands that you are eager to maintain the unity of the spirit. Isn’t it interesting that Paul would write that (in Eph. 4:3) that you need to maintain unity?  Why?  Because we are always on the brink of disunity.  That’s the natural thing.  So we’ve got to fight for this, we’ve got to want this.  What King David does is he paints this compelling picture, this hedonistic quest that we get invited on into unity.  Listen to the way Eugene Peterson writes about this: “There can be no maturity in the spiritual life, no obedience in following Jesus, no wholeness in the Christian life, apart from an immersion in, and embrace of, community.  I am not myself by myself.” How contrary it runs to our Western individualistic society, yes?

So listen to this picture that David paints.  In Psalm 133:2, he’s going to have two pictures that sort of run two metaphors that unpack for us what it looks like and what it means to live as the people of God.  He says:  It

I read a story recently about this young rabbi who took over leadership in a synagogue.  There was this division in the synagogue.  There were some people who wanted to sit during prayer and then there were some people who wanted to stand up during prayer.  The people who wanted to sit during prayer were convinced that they had it right.  They were convinced that their tradition was the tradition that the synagogue had operated on from its inception.  The people that wanted to stand were convinced of the same thing (for their side).  This young rabbi couldn’t figure out what to do with this congregation, so he actually found the rabbi that was the founder of the synagogue and he went to visit him in a nursing home.  He said to him, “I need you to answer a question for me.  Did people sit down to pray at the very beginning at this gathering?”  He said, “No, they didn’t.”   He said, “Great, okay.  So, that’s the tradition….people stand up during prayer.”  He said, “No, that’s not their tradition.”  The young rabbi looked at him and said, “Listen, I need some help here.  I have people in this congregation and it is absolute chaos!!  Some people think we should sit and some people think we should stand and they are at each other’s throats!”  The old rabbi looked at him and says, “Yeah, that’s the tradition!” From the beginning they’ve been divided!

All brevity aside, it breaks my heart that the message that the church often gives doesn’t, in the way that Jesus asked us to, affirm that Jesus is Lord.  It actually sometimes does the opposite.  It sometimes pushes people further away, because there’s time where we just can’t seem to get along.  Erwin McManus said:  “I guarantee you that any community that can answer the question, ‘Can’t we all just get along?’ with a ‘yes’ will have the ear of every significant organization in our society.”  Hey, we’ve seen it happen!  The early church unified—-Jews and Gentiles together, slaves and free together, people who had nothing else in common coming together around one name and when they did that they changed the entire world.  Because a unified community speaks an amplified message and it demanded to be heard.

I saw this video a while back and thought it painted this picture well.  {Video plays of birds flying in formation and Ryan speaks over it.} I was watching these birds fly and thought to myself, “If that was one bird, none of us would look at that with any sort of amazement whatsoever.  In fact, we’d probably be pretty bored.”  The reason it’s a compelling picture is because it’s a group of individual birds moving in unity together.  That’s why there’s a message attached to this. That’s why it’s a compelling picture.  That’s why we look at it and are drawn in a little bit.  That’s why it matters.  If it were one bird it wouldn’t matter in the least.  Did you know that when we are in community together, the energy and the power and the influence that we have is far greater than the sum of our energy and our influence as individuals?  That when we gather together one plus one equals more than two {1 + 1 < 2}.  It validates this message that Jesus IS King!  That’s what Jesus said.  I wonder, if unity is a message what are people hearing from us?  What are people hearing from you?  Zoom out a little bit more—what are people hearing from the church in general?  {Friends, look up at me for a second.}  They’re hearing something and a unified community speaks an amplified message.

Here’s how that passage speaking about Aaron continues (Exodus 30:30).  You shall anoint Aaron and his sons, and consecrate them, that they may serve me as priests.  This oil not only carried with it an aroma, but it prepared them, it made them holy and allowed them to enter into the temple and into the tabernacle to serve God.  The oil prepared them to be of service to the king.  In the same way, unity sets us apart for the Lord’s work.  Did you know the New Testament considers you a priest?  That we are kingdom of priests, a royal priesthood, a chosen people called out of darkness into light to proclaim the excellencies of him who called us (1 Peter 2:9).  You’re a priest!  When we gather together we have to remember the community of faith speaks words of hope and goodness into people’s lives that prepares them to live as ministers of the gospel.  It’s part of the function of living in community.  It’s part of what it means when David writes that unity is like the precious oil on the beard of Aaron.  A healthy community prepares us forkingdom service!

I want to talk about two things that go along with this.  One is our heart.  In Romans 12:10, we’re invited to be people who are competitive.  Did you know that?  It actually invites us to compete, to try to outdo one another in love.  What if we really took this disposition?  That we were going to do our best to bring to the table our very best to build up THIS body because we love and care for the people who are a part of it.  What if our disposition was I’m going to outdo the people in this church in love?  What if we decided beforehand…..I know, listen, I know.  People are going to get inconvenient.  They’re going to ask for things at times where it doesn’t exactly fit my schedule!  But I’m going to choose love instead of choosing logic a lot of times.  I’m going to choose to go out on a limb…..I’m going to choose to give, even when I’m at the bottom of the barrel…..I’m going to choose to create in my heart a space to love the community of faith that I’m a part of.  Do you feel that way about these people?  Are THESE your people if this is your church?  I love the way Dietrich Bonhoeffer puts it: “We must be ready to allow ourselves to be interrupted by God.  God will be constantly crossing our paths and canceling our plans by sending us people with claims and petitions.”  Absolutely!  Are we willing to go there?

So we have a heart that says I want to serve, but we also, as followers of Jesus……did you know that you have been gifted?  That you have gifts to bring to this body.  Your gifts are unique and they’re needed and the way that you operate in those gifts are unique and needed.  I Corinthians 12:7 says that to each one has been given a spiritual gift.  If you are a follower of Christ, you have something that God has planted inside of you that THIS community of faith needs.  But you know what?  The beautiful thing about Christian community is that it does not mean uniformity.  It doesn’t mean that we all look the same, talk the same, do the same thing, think the same way, and operate the same way.  It means that we have the same King and He rules and that’s enough. But we all bring something different to the table and I want to affirm that that is an absolutely beautiful thing and it’s a good thing.  How boring would it be if we all looked the same, talked the same, believed the same, acted the same, did the same thing, had the same gifts?  It would be boring.  But, man, what a compelling picture it is when we use our gifts.  I think it looks a little bit like this…..{plays monotone piano player video}.   What a beautiful picture of the church—together, but not the same.  You have a gift that God wants to use to build up THIS body of believers to look more like Jesus.

I want to give you three things to encourage in using that gift.  First is to identify what it is.  Jean Lamont and our deacons are running, right now, a Connections class that’s helping people identify their gifts.  They’re going to run this again throughout the year, and I would encourage you to jump into that class and figure out how God has wired you.  Second, develop your gifts.  When God gives you a spiritual gift, it’s not at a place of maturity yet.  God gives you the gift and then you get to do the hard work of developing that gift to be a blessing to the most people it can possibly be a blessing to.  Listen to the way that Paul writes to Timothy, his protégé:  For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God. (2 Timothy 1:6-7)  He’s saying to him it’s in you, Timothy, it’s there, it’s present, but, Timothy, fan it into flame.  Work on it, Timothy.  Take those opportunities to speak and to lead and to administer.  And I would say to you the same thing:  Take the opportunities that God brings.  The third thing — you identify your gifts, you develop your gifts, and then you use them.  If you’re going, Paulson, I don’t know exactly what my gifts are and I don’t know where to use them, I would say back to you start where the need is.  Say listen, my heart is to outdo one another in love, where’s the need?  And see how God might start to refine and pull out and develop and fan into flame those gifts.  {Friends, look up at me a second.}  We are a kingdom of passionate priests; we are not intended to be passive observers!  This is not a show.  We are part of a body and your part matters!  We will never be who God has called us to be if you are not who God has called you to be, because we’re in this together.

David switches metaphors and he gives us one last picture of what life in community looks like.  First he said it’s like oil running down the beard of Aaron.  We said that a unified community speaks an amplified message.  And a healthy community prepares us for kingdom service.  And then David says this about unity:  It is like the dew of Hermon, which falls on the mountains of Zion!   If you’ve ever camped outside, in the mountains, without a tent covering you, you know that you wake up in the morning and that your entire body and sleeping bag is covered with dew, right?  Well, the same thing would happen on Mount Hermon, which is 9,000 feet tall in the Lebanon mountain range.  It’s the tallest mountain in that area.  David’s painting a picture that everybody would have seen and everybody would have experienced, especially along this road as they’re journeying towards Jerusalem.  Dew played a really unique part in the life of people who lived there.  This dew would fall every single morning.  It was ruthlessly consistent.  It would start to break up the hard ground of the desert.  That dew would prepare the desert floor to receive seeds that would eventually grow into fruition.  That dew didn’t miss anything, it didn’t miss anyone, it permeated everything and it gave life to all.

David said yeah, that’s what the community of faith, the unified community of faith looks like.  It looks like a nourishing community. That nourishing community leads to a flourishing soul.  That’s the kind of community I want to be a part of. You?  It’s identified by two things in the New Testament Scriptures.  The first is that this nourishing community is an encouraging community.  I was watching the Olympics over the last few weeks and there was this one race you may have seen.  It was a 5,000-meter women’s race.  During the heat, this runner from New Zealand tripped.  When she tripped, she tripped a U.S. runner also.  The U.S. runner immediately bent down to pick up the New Zealand runner. Here’s what she whispered in her ears: “This is the Olympic Games, you can’t give up!”  I love that picture.  I thought to myself, “What if church was more like that?”  What if we whispered in each other’s ears, “This is the life God’s called you to live, you can’t give up!”  What if we were community that spoke truth into each other’s lives……This is your marriage, you can’t give up! These are your kids, you can’t give up!  This is your faith, you can’t give up!  What if we were more like that?  The New Testament describes the church as a place where we gather together:  And let us consider {think about, plan} how to stir up one another to love and good works.  {Think about, when you gather together, how you can be a people who say there’s more to do, there’s another hill to take.  How do we love the people in our community better?}  …not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. (Heb. 10:24-25)  What if THAT’S what church was like? An encouraging community.

And a LEARNING community.  Did you know you don’t just come to learn from the preacher?  You may not know this…you’re a teacher.  Your life speaks.  Your words speak.  When we gather together, the Scriptures command us:  Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. (Col. 3:16)   Do you know who that passage is talking about?  Not just me!  It’s talking about you!  It’s talking about all of us, that we would be the type of people in a soul-flourishing way that encourage one another and point each other to Jesus.

I want to land the plane with three tips (keys) to living in community and unity, with one another.  (1) Take responsibility.  Our natural tendency is towards division; our innate design is for unity.  So, to live as a unified people is not on one person, it’s not on any individual, it’s actually on all of us.  Listen to the way Paul writes this in the book of Romans (12:18) — If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.   We need to own that this is not one person’s, or a group of people’s, ideals or idea, this is on all of us!  Here’s what I want to encourage — three things to live where we embrace this responsibility where unity is on us.   1) Forgive. This just in—people are going to wrong you.  People are going to disappoint you.  People are going to let you down. What if you chose to forgive them before they did anything?  We are a forgiving community.  2) Stop gossip. Gossip is simply talking negatively about somebody behind their back.  It’s saying something to somebody else that you wouldn’t say to their face.  Here’s the thing—this isn’t an issue that’s unique to South Fellowship Church in any way, shape, or form.  It was unique only to every single church that existed in the writing of the New Testament scriptures.  Here’s how to stop it:  1) Stop it passively by saying, “I’m not going to participate.” It’s a decision each of us makes.  I’m not going to participate.  2) We stop it actively when we hear somebody starting to gossip, starting to spread rumors or slander or malicious talk about someone not there, and we call it what it is, which is sin.  We invite them to repent and to confess and to be forgiven.  Listen to how Paul writes it to the church at Ephesus:  Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear. (Eph. 4:29)  We (1) decide to forgive, (2) we stop gossip, and (3) we give love.  I love the way Peter says it.  He says that love covers a multitude of sins. (1 Peter 4:8) Have you ever stopped to wonder why Peter thought he needed to write that?  Because there were a multitude of sins needed covering!!  That’s why.  So what if we chose forgiveness, stopped gossiping and gave love?  Then we’d be taking responsibility saying, “Unity’s on me and I believe that unity is God’s design and we flourish in it.”

Secondly, we assume the best.  Think of how many things have gone absolutely off the rails of your life, relationally, because our initial response is to assume the worse.  To assume that that glance was actually filled with malice, when maybe the reality is that person just had a really, really hard day.  Maybe that email didn’t have the tone that you read into it.  Maybe……we could go on.  What if we decided we’re going to assume the best.  Here’s how you do that.  You, instead of believing something somebody said behind your back, talk to them face-to-face.  Second, ask great questions and listen.  Assume people are telling you the truth unless they give you a reason to doubt that.

Take responsibility.  Assume the best.  Finally, focus on commonality.  In the New Testament, the church, in its incipient form, was being birthed.  You had Jews and Greeks coming together.  You had people who would intersect at no other place in society for any good reason gathering in an ecclesia (a group of called-out ones) saying, “There is enough to keep us together in a world that wants to tear us apart.  We may speak different languages.  We may have a different ethic, we may come from different backgrounds, we may value different things, but at the heart of it all, we are gathering around one name, one Savior, one Lord and his name is Jesus! In the vast array of things that we have that are different, we have one thing in common and that one thing in common is enough to keep us together in a world that would love to tear us apart.”  That’s what they would say. Paul would write to the church at Galatia:  There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all ONE in Christ Jesus. (Gal. 3:28)   This was their anthem, this was their song.  We may not agree on everything, but we agree that Jesus Christ trumps all of our preferences, sits enthroned above it all and we gather around Him.  We intentionally started our time with Revelation 5:  The scene from the throne room where people from every tribe and every tongue and every nation are gathered around the throne of Jesus in worship.  The thing in the center of it all is enough to keep them together!

Even in heaven, you know it’s not just you and Jesus, right?  And if that’s true, we might want to learn how to get along, since we’re going to have to get along for a long time!  In all seriousness, friends, David says: For there the Lord has commanded the blessing…   On what? On unity.  On gathering together.  When we walk together, when we sacrifice for one another, when we outdo each other in love, when we refuse to gossip, when we choose forgiveness, when we focus on the commonality, when we do all that stuff….you and I know this….God puts his stamp of approval on that, His blessing on that.  It awakens something in our soul that goes oh, this is how I was designed to live!  This is really good!  You know and I know that division absolutely drains our energy, but community/unity feeds the vitality that we were created to have.  When we live by God’s design, friends, we experience God’s blessing.   Let’s pray.

So Father, the one who holds us all together, the Chief Cornerstone, God, would you help us to reimagine what it looks like to live together in unity.  God, maybe reawaken places in our soul that we’ve cut off, because that’s hard.  That’s hard to do.  In so many ways, while unity is our design, division is our decision so much of the time.  So would you reawaken something inside of our soul.  Lord, if there’s people that we need to forgive, would you prompt it in our hearts right now we pray.  If there’s people that we need to reach out to, would you stir that in us?  God, we want to be an encouraging community.  We want to be a place where people are prepared to minister your glory.  Father, would you remind us that the way that we walk together is a message for the world around us.  We want to honor you and we want to lift high your name.  We know that you love people, so we want to honor people too.  Lord, for every person in this room, would you help us?  We need your power, we need your Spirit.  Would you help us to take responsibility, assume the best and then, Lord, to focus on the thing that draws us all together, the name above all names, King Jesus.  It’s in his name that we pray. Amen.