Unity in Diversity
Based on Acts 2:1-21, Romans 8:14-17, John 14:15-21
We have arrived at the last great feast day of the liturgical year. We are now at Pentecost, the birthday of the Church of the Christ. This is the last true festival day in the United Methodist Church until “Christ the King” Sunday at the end of November. It is fitting that we end with a birthday celebration – to put an exclamation point on a long and grace-filled holy-day season. When we look closer at Pentecost, however, it is much more than just the birth of the Christian Church, it is the beginning of something totally new.
Historically, the feast of Pentecost came from our Jewish roots with the Feast of Shavuot which occurs 50 days after Passover. It was a summer holiday that celebrated the harvest of wheat – the first two quarts of which (that constitutes and omer) were given to the Temple as an offering. Interestingly, after the destruction of the Second Temple and the inability to give an offering there, the tradition shifted to remembering the giving of the Law at Mount Sinai – or the birth (or consecration) of the Jews as God’s covenantal people. Thus, our celebration of Pentecost builds on that foundation.
Our readings today point us to the power of the Holy Spirit in the actions of this birthing of the Church in a very diverse Jerusalem. We have heard the story from Acts 2 of the descent of the Spirit giving gifts of tongues and the way that all who heard the disciples in the Temple that morning marveled to hear their own language from the mouths of Galileans! We should remember what Paul would later write in 1Corinthians 12 about gifts of the Spirit – he says they are not only tongues but their interpretation; to some wisdom and knowledge; faith and healing; miracles, prophecy and discerning of spirits. The important point that Paul teaches is this, “…Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services but the same Lord, and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates them in everyone….” Let us thank God now for creating the Church by uniting our diversity in the one Body of Christ…
Paul is writing to the Roman believers in Chapter 8 about living life in the Spirit. Starting in verse 5 Paul writes, “…For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh (i.e., with minds set on worldly things), but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on things of the Spirit. To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace….” We pick up our reading today which reminds us that when we set our minds on the things of God (as we are led by the Spirit who IS God) then we realize that we are children of God and heirs to the kingdom which the Incarnation of God began, and which will become finalized when the Christ returns in glory. The same Holy Spirit which began the Church today leads the unified but diverse faithful forward into this preferred future.
In the 14th Chapter of the Gospel of John, Jesus is teaching His disciples what they need to know about the coming of the Holy Spirit after He is gone. He comforts them and calms their fears by telling them that they will not be orphaned, but will have the Spirit of Truth, the Advocate with them forever. If they love Jesus and keep the commandments that He taught them, they will receive the Holy Spirit and, “…On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I in you….” In other words, those among the 2.3 billion people who define themselves as followers of the Christ, who love Jesus enough to follow His commandments of loving God with all that we are and have, neighbor as self, and fellow disciples as they have been and are loved by Jesus, will receive the Holy Spirit and be one with the Trinity that is God.
The eleven original disciples have taken upon themselves to add a twelfth; Matthias is chosen from the 120 or so who were believers in the Christ. Then the day of Pentecost comes and the disciples are visited in the Temple by the Holy Spirit as a violent wind and divided tongues, as of fire, which rested on each of them. They were at once filled with the Holy Spirit. Jews from all over the Roman Empire had gathered in Jerusalem for Shavuot and were amazed that these unlettered men from the Galilee were speaking to them about God’s deeds of power in their native dialect. Many thought that the disciples were under the influence. But most miraculous of all, the Spirit moved Peter, yes even normally reticent Peter, to begin to preach to them all and set them straight. He began his oratory by quoting the minor prophet Joel and then launched into a highly moving and effective sermon which resulted in 3000 being converted and baptized! Unity in diversity indeed.
For you see the disciples were confronted by people from all over the Mediterranean Sea, the Arabian peninsula and parts of what are now Iraq and Turkey. These were a diverse set of Jews who had gathered for the festival celebration and who were in the Temple. They got to experience the power of God’s Spirit at work. At this early part of the new movement’s story, the only people that were converted were Jews. At this moment, the cross-cultural and counter-cultural nature of the new creation that would come to be called, “Christianity”, was only speaking to “the lost sheep of the house of Israel”.
That is not what was in God’s preferred future for this new creation, and we get that sense from this beginning. Jesus made sure that the disciples knew that they were going to have a divine person to accompany them – an Advocate, so that they could follow along the path that God desired. God desires, as Jesus pointed out at the end of the Gospel of Matthew, that the disciples (that WE disciples) go to every nation and make new disciples in the holy names of the Trinity. We were not to just set down with folks who look and think like us and call it a day; church buildings didn’t happen until hundreds of years later.
We follow the Christ who made it clear in his ministry that everyone was to be included in the kingdom of God. Pharisees, Samaritans, Roman soldiers, folks from the Gentile area of the Decapolis, thieves, tax collectors and all sorts of sinners, lepers, the blind, women. Jesus’ ministry was all about spreading the good news as widely as possible – starting with the Jews, but not ending there. Jesus’ great gift was to be able to meet everyone who came to him exactly where they were, and to speak to them about how God had a way for them to live in the world differently and far better than they were living to that point. A narrative for their life that was more meaningful than chasing after money or climbing the social ladder and oppressing those below one’s station. Jesus had good news for all of God’s people – and wanted them all to finally be united in Him instead of some nation-state or personal empire.
Jesus showed us in His ministry an important distinction between evangelism and discipleship. Evangelism can bring people to Jesus within their cultural context (e.g., Jews, Medes, Parthians, Cretans and Arabs), but in order to grow into a disciple they needed to cross into other cultures and break down human-made labels and barriers like He did. This is how 2.3 billion people came to call Jesus Lord and Savior, by the way. Friends, we live and pray in a County where only 10 to 12 percent of the population goes to church on any given Sunday. We also live and pray in a County that has the better part of 40 faith communities. Thus, we are really not going to make an impact for Christ by continuing to talk to ourselves or the approximately 1600 persons who regularly attend church. Further, because we live in a place where everyone knows (or is related to) everyone else, we can seek to welcome the 88 to 90 percent who aren’t churched but who are members of your extended family and the body of Christ. We can do this by intentionally collaborating with different churches or organizations to reach these people. We need to follow the lead of the Holy Spirit and go where God is already at work in Madison County. When we follow the Spirit, we will find Jesus already at work and He will invite us to be with his friends who will be tax collectors, prostitutes, those dependent on alcohol and other substances, those who sin, those who live only for themselves, those who might be of a totally different viewpoint on the world than we have; in other words…the marginalized and oppressed. That is where we will find our missional work, where we will find our meaning and purpose, where we will put our gifts to work, where we will find our salvation. That is where I’m going – because that is where I’m being led by the Spirit to participate in the unity of God in the diversity of God’s creation. I invite you to come along with me. Amen! 00000000000