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L’chaim: An Invitation to the Blessedness of Ecumenical Life

William Shishko

Ordained Servant: June 2015

Ecumenicity

Also in this issue

The Path to Ecumenicity

A New Heaven and a New Earth: A Review Article

The Digital Divide, edited by Mark Bauerlein

How (Not) to be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor by James K. A. Smith

The Church-floor

Consider the beautiful case for true ecumenicity[1] pictured in Psalm 133:

A Song of Ascents. Of David. 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.

This is part of the Songs of Ascents beginning with Psalm 120 and ending with Psalm 134. These depict the various stages of the pilgrimages of the tribes of Israel making their way to Jerusalem for a time of united worship.

It’s interesting that Psalm 120 is about strife, war, and division. The Psalm ends with these words, “I am for peace, but when I speak, they are for war” (v. 7). Then, in Psalm 133, as this pilgrimage progresses, we read the word “behold …”: Stop and think about the opposite … the goodness, the pleasantness of brethren dwelling in unity” (v. 1). It is no coincidence that Psalm 134—the end of the Songs of Ascents—is a beautiful fanfare of the worship of people who have gone from strife and war to the blessedness of holy unity.

Behold is significant. It (like the word Selah) calls us to stop and think about what God has just said. Behold calls us to “stop and think about this” beautiful thing called ecumenicity.

True ecumenicity is a blessed thing: “Behold how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity.” Psalm 133 culminates with, “There the Lord has commanded the blessing.” (v. 3; emphasis added). Here is a sure path to blessedness.

It is a unity that must begin at the top and flow down. It is like precious oil on the head running down on the beard and then on the garments of Aaron the priest. Or it is like the dew of Hermon that falls on the lower mountains of Jerusalem. Ultimately, this is in and from Christ, the one who is supremely greater than Aaron. It is a unity that represents the unity of the Father and the Son, together with the Holy Spirit. This is the unity for which Jesus prays so passionately in John 17:22: “That they may be one, even as we are one.”

This is not so much an achievement as it is a blessing, a blessing that begins by communion with Christ who is the head. The closer you are to him the less comfortable you will be with disunity with any who call on the name of the Lord out of a pure heart. If our unity flows from the unity of the Son and the Father and the Spirit, then we have the heart of what that true unity is all about.

This blessed unity must begin with the leaders of the church. John Calvin, who furthered ecumenicity in the early years of the Protestant Reformation, wrote:

If men of learning [here he is speaking of ministers] conduct themselves with more reserve than seemly, the very heaviest blow attaches to the leaders themselves, who, either engrossed in their own sinful pursuits, are indifferent to the safety and entire piety of the church, or who, individually satisfied with their own private peace, have no regard for others.[2]

Ecumenicity is hard. It is difficult. It is upsetting. But, beginning with the leaders in the churches, the work must begin. That will never come to minds and hearts that are full, first, with debate and difference. For minds and hearts full of the love, the longsuffering, the patience, the kindness, and the goodness of God in Christ, there will be a passion for biblical ecumenicity.

Notice that this is messy stuff. Oil coming down on the beard of Aaron, running down on the garments: that’s messy stuff. Most of you wouldn’t like a lot of oil dumped on your head, and then running down your face and then on to your shirt or your blouse. It’s messy stuff—but it’s messy stuff that is accompanied with God’s blessing.

One of our elders is fond of saying, when we deal with difficult things, “the agony is part of the answer.” The agony of working through ecumenical relations is part of the answer. But that messiness brings blessing to every member. It goes down to the garment. It goes to the very base of the mountains of Zion and causes lush plants to grow. The end result is a pleasant thing.

The word pleasant in Psalm 133:1 is used for the music produced by instruments playing together in what we would know of today as an orchestra—the pleasantness of various instruments and the various types of sounds in those instruments in concert together, all playing as they ought to, none of them out of tune, and all responding to the leadership of the great conductor. Pleasant. That’s the kind of a beauty that describes true ecumenicity.

Notice the beautiful symphony of true brotherly unity in Psalm 133:3: “There the Lord has commanded the blessing, life forevermore.” This is both the life that comes to people regenerated by the Spirit of God and the richness of the life of which Jesus speaks when he says, “I’ve come that they might have life, and have it more abundantly” (John 10:10).

This is the heart of the invitation to ecumenicity in our culture. Our culture is dying at a very rapid rate. We are seeing the last half of Romans 1 played out before our eyes. God is giving us up to a culture of death. You don’t need to think very hard for illustrations. Against that bleak backdrop, the greatest invitation to ecumenicity is that, in the context of healthy, biblical, principled ecumenicity, there is life—just what our culture needs and needs to see.

Our Jewish friends in New York have the concept right. At a toast you say, “L’chaim”—to life, to the blessedness of life. That’s what’s in view in Psalm 133. The writer says that true ecumenicity is an invitation to the blessedness of life.

Let me invite you to the blessedness of life in the bonds of true ecumenical unity. Here “the Lord has commanded the blessing, life forevermore” (v.3). What is the blessed life that comes in the development of biblical ecumenicity at any level?

L’chaim: To the blessing of lives of humility that comes by having to work together as a family. The blessedness that the Lord gives when there is true humility is that it makes us realize that we need to work together as a family—whether the biological family or the ecclesiastical family. It’s the humility of being able to say, “My preferences are not the same as my convictions.” Can you say that? In many cases ecumenicity has been stopped for one reason: We make convictions out of our personal preferences, rather than being humble enough to say these are not necessarily equal.

Background does not equal Bible. That is a very humble thing to admit, regardless of our backgrounds. Likewise, personal and church traditions are not necessarily equal to the Scriptures. The only right way to deal with backgrounds and traditions that can become impediments to true ecumenicity is with this grace called humility. Remember Ephesians 4:1–3.

I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager [working hard, making every effort] to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.

This is not a suggestion. It is a solemn and earnest mandate.

If you’re going to keep a family together, you must work through your differences with grace and love. It’s hard, and it takes humility. You must know where you can bend and where you cannot. But there is blessedness in that. That’s also true of God’s family, which is composed of his churches. L’chaim!

L’chaim: To the blessedness of a life of more multi-dimensional Reformed faith and practice. True ecumenicity brings together the richness of more diverse cultural backgrounds. The prospect of having a fuller expression of the Reformed faith bringing together the Dutch and Scottish and English and American expressions of the Reformed faith is blessed; but we should think beyond that.

It’s a joy as well as a challenge to minister in the metropolitan New York City area. It is the most culturally diverse area in the world. It’s a joy and a challenge to be part of a Reformed church in which we have Hispanics, people from the Caribbean, blacks, Asians, and Italians. They did not come to us knowing the OPC Book of Church Order. Reformed faith and practice doesn’t come hard-wired into them. You must teach them. We disciple them in the things we believe are right and good. And we learn from them as well. When we have the humility to learn from different cultural traditions, we invite the development of a more multi-dimensional (and beautiful) church life. That doesn’t mean we’re going to always be completely of one mind. But there will be a unity of one heart and mutual submission. L’chaim!

L’chaim: To the life of a little more visible unity in what, to the modern world, is a confusing mess. Split “peas”—OPC, PCA, ARP, RPCNA, KAPC. Then add URCNA, RCUSA. Oh, my!

Do you want to know what the church is to our culture? If you turn your desktop computer around, what do you find? Unless you’re fully wireless, you see dozens of cords connected to all different ports and holes and plugs. It looks like a multi-colored pile of spaghetti. And unless you are of a very rarified, geeky type, you don’t want to have anything to do with those cords.

We’re the geeks when it comes to our ecclesiastical spaghetti. Each of the cords of our faith and practice is important; but the world doesn’t want to have anything to do with them. “By this the world will know that you are my disciples, if you have love one to another” (John 13:35).

Let’s be honest. Our divisions have had a negative impact on our own children and grandchildren. For the sake of our generation and generations to come, let’s start addressing our differences in honest love and in genuine grace. L’chaim!

L’chaim, to the life of more efficient use of our resources in a time of increased expense and expertise for ministry. There is so much wasteful or prideful duplication of effort as we try to become adept in dealing with modern means of communication. (And remember that communication of the Word of God is what we are about.) We are making some progress in this area. It’s wonderful that the OPC and the URCNA are working on a Psalter-Hymnal together. We are sacrificing no principles, and we will be benefitting both bodies (and others) as we pool our resources. Similarly the OPC and the PCA work together to produce the finest of Reformed educational resources through Great Commission Publications. That’s the kind of thing that promotes ecumenicity and benefits the church as a whole. Let’s do more! L’chaim!

L’chaim to a life of practical, observable love, constrained by organizational union.

What does that mean?

Our relatively small church bodies struggle to get money for our various mission projects. It is understandable and right that we give priority to the projects of our respective church bodies. Wouldn’t it be better to have a life of practical, observable love constrained by an organizational union in which we work together on things like disaster relief and home and foreign mission projects? Could it be that, then, the world might better see our love as those committed to the historic Reformed faith? L’chaim!

L’chaim, to a life that is in a position to ask the very blessing God has commanded. “There he has commanded the blessing, life forevermore” (Ps. 133:3). How many of us have seen many conversions in our churches? I don’t mean people “converted” to the Reformed faith from broad evangelicalism, but people converted from the worst forms of paganism and wickedness. Are you seeing those kinds of conversions? Does not this text invite us to ask for this blessing as we work together and truly learn from one another in humility and love? “Lord, as we honestly seek to develop our visible unity in the truth, will you please honor your promise to bless us with the life of heaven, and with that life in more people?” He has promised to do that. He will do that—but not so long as—for whatever reasons—we avoid the responsibility of seeking visible unity among ourselves. L’chaim!

Finally: L’chaim, to a life that honestly lives out of our eschatology. By the Holy Spirit, God gives us a down payment of the “not yet” of glory in the “already” of this age. If we live out of that truth that heaven is, as Jonathan Edwards says, “a world of love,” what does that mean for biblical ecumenicity? It means that we will have the spirit of a John Calvin, who says things like, “I think it right for me at whatever cost of toil and trouble to seek to obtain the object of this church unity.”[3] This is not a reluctant, begrudging view of working for ecumenicity. It’s the impulse of eternity itself in one who felt impelled to move forward in the work.

Commenting on Psalm 133, Matthew Henry expressed this so well:

They that dwell in love not only dwell in God but do already dwell in heaven. As the perfection of love is the blessedness of heaven, so the sincere outworking of love is the earnest of that blessedness. Those who live and love in peace shall have the God of love and peace with them now, and they shall be with Him shortly, with Him forever, in the world of endless love and peace. How good then is this unity, and how blessed![4]

May God renew our zeal to see the beautiful picture of Psalm 133 realized more and more before our eyes, beginning with the principled, earnest labors of churches committed to the Reformed faith. L’chaim! To the special blessedness and life that come when brothers and sisters and churches dwell together in unity!

Endnotes

[1] This article is based on a lecture given at the United Reformed Churches in North America Classis Eastern US, “Semper Reformanda Conference” on October 14, 2014.

[2] Jules Bonnet, ed., Letters of John Calvin: Compiled from the Original Manuscripts and Edited with Historical Notes, (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2007), 348.

[3] Bonnet, 348.

[4] Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible (New York, NY: Revell, 1935), 3:746.

William Shishkois the pastor of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Franklin Square, New York. Ordained Servant Online, June/July 2015.

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Ordained Servant: June 2015

Ecumenicity

Also in this issue

The Path to Ecumenicity

A New Heaven and a New Earth: A Review Article

The Digital Divide, edited by Mark Bauerlein

How (Not) to be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor by James K. A. Smith

The Church-floor

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