Oh, how good and pleasant it is,
*when brethren live together in unity!
It is like fine oil upon the head
*that runs down upon the beard,
Upon the beard of Aaron,
*and runs down upon the collar of his robe.
It is like the dew of Hermon
*that falls upon the hills of Zion.
For there the LORD has ordained the blessing:
*life for evermore.
A Christian missionary once asked Ghandi what he thought about Jesus. Ghandi’s response was, “I’m fond of your Christ. It’s just his followers I have trouble with.” That reminded me of something I heard last week – someone told me that they loved God but hated the church. “I’m cool with Jesus,” said the person making my sandwich at Thundercloud as she snickered at my clergy collar, “but his followers – well, they’re just weird.” And from time to time, I’m sure we all feel the same way. I mean, have you ever noticed at how often we define ourselves by how we’re different? “We’re Episcopalians,” we’ll say, “we’re not like them.” But my question is – as Easter people – is it okay to define ourselves by how we’re different from others that bear his name? Or, does the reality of Jesus’ resurrection compel us to live “at one” – “at one” with God, “at one” with each other?
You see, whether we like it or not, to proclaim “Christ is risen” is to join the family of God. And what Easter compels us to see is that God’s desire for his people is community. Our God never makes secret salvation-deals with random individuals. But like we see in tonight’s reading from Acts, God wants his people to be of one heart and one soul. And so our relationship with Jesus may be personal. But it’s anything but private. For our God is at work forming a family. And I hate to break it to you, but in the Kingdom of God, no one’s an only child.
Now, I’ll be the first to acknowledge that families can be messy. Just think about the first story the Bible tells about siblings – it’s a religiously motivated murder mystery. Cain and Abel fight, not over land or even over a woman – but over who God loves more. And then there’s poor Joseph – he’s a much better dresser than his eleven brothers, and out of jealously, they rough him up and sell him into slavery. And Esau – his brother Jacob cons him out of his inheritance and steals his father’s blessing. And let’s not forget Miriam and Aaron because well, they’re just racist. They plot a coup to remove their brother Moses from leadership because he marries an Ethiopian. In other words, the Bible tells the story of siblings “at odds” with each other – and in doing so, the Bible tells the story of our fallen world. But as Easter people, is it okay for us to live out the story of our fallen world? Because if Jesus has risen from the dead – if the universe has really been changed – then mustn’t it be true that our God is writing a new story – a story where we’re “at one” with God and “at one” with each another. And if that’s the case, what does “at-one-ment” even look like?
Tonight’s psalm paints a pretty good picture. “Oh, how good and pleasant it is,” the psalmist writes, “when brethren live together in unity.” So far, so good – but if we keep reading things get weird. “It’s like fine oil upon the head that runs down upon the beard, upon the beard of Aaron, and runs down upon the collar of his robe.” At least on the surface, this has to be the creepiest psalm in the entire Bible. But, in the context of ancient Israel, it’s a picture of grace, a picture of unity, a picture of at-one-ment.
The image we’re given is that of “oil-covered Aaron,” which is taken from Exodus 29, a chapter that lays out specific instructions on how to ordain Aaron as the priest of Israel. And in ancient Israel, ordination meant covering the new priest in oil, which symbolizes being set apart for the service of God. And so to look at a person and to see them covered in oil is, in essence, to see a priest.
Now, we may have a hard time seeing ourselves as priests – that is as people set apart for the service of God. After all, we can be so sinful, so weak, so ordinary, so faithless. Or maybe it’s other Christians we have a hard time seeing as set apart. Maybe they’re too judgmental, or maybe they’re too wishy-washy. Maybe it bothers you that some Christians just have to pray before every meal, or maybe it bothers you that some never do. In other words, the family of God is very diverse and some of Jesus’ followers – well, they’re just weird. It’s like they’re part of a different family.
But what the reality of Easter compels us to see is that they’re not. Listen to what Dietrich Bonhoeffer says about the family of God: “What determines our brotherhood is who we are by virtue of Christ. Our community with one another is based solely on what Christ has done for each of us.” In other words, to be “at one” with God and “at one” with each other is to look at our brothers and sisters and to see not the differences – but the reality of their anointing. Unity is about looking at every disciple of Jesus and seeing a person set apart for the service of God. And it’s not enough to see just a little oil on our brothers and sisters, for our God gives in abundance. The grace of God flows over their head, down their face, through their beard, and onto the collar of their robe. And so if we’re going to be “at one,” we have to see the reality of our anointing. Without exception, each and every disciple of Jesus is covered in oil.
And so here’s the question I’d like to leave us with: what story are we living in? Because we all know the old story far too well – the story of Cain and Abel that is. Theirs is a story of murder, of jealousy, of being driven by difference. And so whenever we’re okay with unresolved conflict, whenever we gossip or attack our brothers and sisters, we’re reliving the story of Cain and Abel. And so, what areas of our lives still reflect their story?
Because the good news of the Christian Gospel is that our God is writing a new one – and God’s is a story of “atonement,” a word that, when broken down, literally means “at-one-ment.” Because when our lives are rooted in Jesus’ resurrection we’re “at one” with God, and we’re “at one” with each other. And at the end of the day, that’s what the new story of God is all about. But the question remains – what story are we living in?
Because in a million different ways we are always answering this question. Our lives are always moving a little closer, or a little farther away, from the new story of God. But what that also means is that we have a million different opportunities – to forgive someone that hurts us, to encourage the depressed, to confront someone we love, to heal someone who’s sick. If our eyes are open, we’ll see a million different ways to live out the new story of God.
But the story that we choose – the life that we live – it all depends on how we see people. As Easter people, we can’t love God and hate the church. Because Christ died for the church – even the weirdoes. And like the book of Revelation tells us, the church is a kingdom of priests. We’ve all been set apart for the service of God.
And so do me a favor and look around. Jesus has risen from the dead, and because of that, grace abounds. It’s on your head, it’s running down your face; it’s all over your clothes. You’re all very different, but you’re still a family. Can you see it? Every single one of you is covered in oil.