Today was my first day after I have returned from our annual meeting of the General Synod of the Reformed Church in America, the highest assembly in our denomination.
At this meeting, there was much talk of unity and division, of agreement and disagreement. We spoke of why we are united, or why unity is something for which we cannot (or should not) seek. This week’s hymn is a popular one, and one which I think is important for the church.
Blest be tie that binds
Our Hearts in Christian love:
The fellowship of kindred minds
Is like to that above.
Before our Father’s throng
We pour our ardent prayers;
Our fears, our hopes, are aims are one,
Our comforts and our cares.
We share our mutual woes,
Our mutual burdens bear,
And often for each other flows
The sympathizing tear.
From sorrow, toil, and pain,
And sin, we shall be free;
And perfect love and friendship reign
Through all eternity.
-John Fawcett (1740-1817)
Although this hymn has a fascinating and moving story, I’m actually not going to talk about it. Hymns (at least the good ones) have the ability to transcend space and time and find meaning in places other than just the original story from which this hymn originated.
I love this hymn because it speaks of the bond that Christians share. I saw a church bulletin that offered an invitation: “Please feel free to worship the Lord Jesus Christ today.” While I think that the spirit behind this is for people not to feel coerced, this carries the implication that we each worship on our own, even when we are together as a church. It also prompts me to think that this particular congregation sees the primary relationship as the one between the individual and God, with the community playing a nonessential role.
I’m not sure if this is what the writer of the bulletin intended, but this expresses a concern that I have in general: lack of a communal awareness, when people claim that they don’t need to be a part of the church in order to be a faithful Christian, that one can have their own relationship to God. This is simply not the case, and scripture is clear that God’s people gather, and the body of Christ is not just a mystical one, but also a physical one that gathers. While I do not build my theological system based upon hymns, the best hymns are those that echo a theological system, that express a theological truth, and in this case, it is the necessity and important of the church not only as a gathering of individuals but as a body of people who are united together, as a tie.
Our connection, our unity, is important not simply because it is pragmatic, but because it allows us to bear each other’s burdens, to carry each other’s woes, to pray for and with one another, to mourn with one another, and to strive for a common goal. We fellowship, because God is in perfect fellowship with Godself. We are unified not because we choose to be, we are unified not because we like one another, we are unified not because we agree on every socio-political or theological point. Our unity lies in the fact that we are all held together in the body of Christ. The tie that binds, then, is not rope or twine, but it is the love with which Christ loves us and commands us to love others. It is love which holds us all together, as we are called to be together.
This relationship that we have with other Christians is not just a friendship that lasts for a little while, it is not just something for the here-and-now, but it is a connection that will continue into eternity. We are called into the body of Christ, and that body will survive death, and we will be perfectly united in a perfect unity. This perfection is of course something which will never be accomplished now, but rather when God’s work of restoration and redemption is finished. Therefore our unity is not a temporal unity, but an eternal unity with a temporal aspect to it. It is not a tie of friendship or marriage, on the contrary it is much more powerful. It is love which we have received from God, love that we have learned from God, love that we have learned from the life of Christ, and love which we gain as we learn more and more what it means to be a disciple of Christ.
As we continue to consider unity, and the requirements and implications of unity, let us remember this song, and let us remember that the tie that binds us together is not I, and it is not you, and the tie is not some kind of agreement, arrangement, or contract. The tie that holds us together is the love of Christ, and blest be that tie that binds us together here and forever more.
Join in and share your thoughts!