The story of humanity’s redemption, restoration and reconciliation after sin and brokenness is the meta-narrative of scripture. It is in this context that both testaments speak of the importance God places on the unity of his redeemed people. Unity is neither an abstract doctrine nor an unattainable dream; it is the standard to which God’s diverse people are both called and empowered to live.
Like a scarlet cord, the theme of unity weaves through the Bible, culminating in Paul’s revelation of the “one new man” in the letter to the Ephesians and embodied in the multi-cultural throng from every family, tribe and tongue gathered together to worship the Lamb in Revelation 7. The brokenness caused by sin is finally healed and humanity is fully reconciled to God and to one another. One of the fruits of this reconciliation is unity.
Part of sin’s pervasive legacy is humanity’s seemingly inherent tendency to separate into warring factions. The gospel message is intended to overcome the enmity of sectarianism and division while maintaining the integrity and uniqueness of multiculturalism. As individuality is retained in the redeemed individual’s relationship with God, so is the uniqueness of diverse cultures preserved (Revelation 7:9). Jesus’ prayer for the unity of his disciples in John 17:20-23 is not a cry for uniformity, but is rather a prayer that through the harmonious relationships among the disciples, paralleling the relationships within the Godhead, God’s love would become visible to the world.
Unity among God’s People
Psalm 133 is particularly instructive regarding the connection between unity, ministry and blessing in the framework of relationship within the people of God. Unity in this psalm is described as both ultimately good and experientially pleasant. This unity is compared to abundant moisture—dew from Mount Hermon, appearing in a normally dry place, the mountains of Zion in the Judean desert (133:3a).
“How good and pleasant it is when
In scriptural terms, dew is symbolic of refreshing and blessing. The heart of this psalm contains an additional metaphor for the blessing of unity. Aaron, the high priest, is pictured as being anointed to such a degree that he is completely drenched with oil (133:2). Anointing the priest was to empower him for ministry before God and to the people. The blessing of unity, God’s people in harmonious relationship, is refreshment and empowerment for service bringing everlasting life and it is commanded by God himself (133:3b).
The world in the twenty-first century is deeply divided across ethnic, racial, national and political lines. Humanity’s penchant to divide into warring factions is everywhere in evidence. Conflicts are both ancient and modern and they are ubiquitous around the globe. Tragically, the message of the gospel has not always resulted in unity among God’s people living in places of conflict, especially when they are on opposite sides of ethnic, national, racial or political divides. Unity among God’s people is particularly important in times and places where ethnic conflict exists.
Unity in the Middle East
The conflict in the Middle East is perhaps the oldest conflict in today’s world. Israel and the Arab world are ancient enemies. From biblical times, the conflict continually recycles. The gospel has reached both Israel and the Arab world and today there are vibrant communities of believers in Jesus living among both peoples. In Israel and Palestine, these believers are increasingly aware of the need to be in relationship with one another. According to the world, they are enemies, but by the power of the gospel, they are brothers. Can these brothers dwell together in the unity prayed for by Jesus in John 17 and described in Psalm 133? In theory, the answer is yes, and happily, in practice this is a growing reality.
Congregations of Jewish believers meet with Arab Christian congregations in Israel. Pastors speak in one another’s churches. Over Christmas holiday 2006, collections of money and clothing were sent by Messianic congregations and individual believers to the needy Christians of the Bethlehem area. This is unity characterized by mercy and compassion, across the divides.
Reconciliation in Israel
In the context of conflict and wide cultural diversity that is Israel/Palestine, Musalaha Ministries is the only faith-based reconciliation ministry in Israel that intentionally brings Arab Christians from the Palestinian territories and Gaza together with Arab Israeli Christians and Messianic Jews. Working from an unambiguous basis of common faith in Messiah, Musalaha brings together people from these different communities in order to deepen understanding and relationship.
In the framework of Musalaha, the participants often find themselves facing new challenges that require them to move from their comfort zones. Doing this helps them to grow in faith, understanding that “we cannot reconcile if we do not grow together in our faith and let it unite us. The more one interacts with different communities in our country, the more one realizes just how necessary this faith is to our reconciliation.”1
Conferences, seminars, outings, trips, prayer meetings and camps are available for many different population subgroups. There are specialized activities for children, women, leaders, families and youth. Working with core groups who are involved long term, new people are brought into each of the activities. Over time, as people become more comfortable with each other, there is an engagement with some of the hard issues that are a part of the context of relationships. While it is fundamental that spiritual unity is the basis of relationship, there is recognition that this unity does not either erase or render individual and corporate identities unimportant.
Although often difficult and sometimes painful, seeing our own situation from the perspective of another helps us get beneath the surface of relationships, understand ourselves and others and then begin to relate to one another more profoundly. Our historical narratives, both as Palestinians and Israelis, have been used to justify our positions in the conflict and to deny one another’s truth.2 By listening to one another and hearing history from another point of view, it becomes possible to legitimize the differing perspectives, to accept and embrace one another’s views.
In a region of extreme conflict and difference, God’s people—both Jews and Arabs—are more and more embodying the answer to Jesus’ prayer in John 17. This unity of brothers and sisters dwelling together, like dew in a dry land, is bringing refreshment and blessing to both peoples.
1. Musalaha Ministry of Reconciliation newsletter, May 2007.
2. Musalaha Ministry of Reconciliation newsletter, March 2007.