Acts 2:1-12, 1 Cor. 12:4-7; 12-14; 27
Miracles are flashy! Sometimes we crave miracles. We often think that the sign of the Spirit is the gift of miracles. But miracles are not unique to Christianity. Remember how God gave Moses signs to do – turn his staff into a snake, make his hand full of leprosy and clean again, turn water into blood – and the magicians of Pharaoh’s court could replicate each of these. A pastor from India said, “Most of what happens in Christian churches, including even miracles, can be duplicated in Hindu and Muslim congregations. But in my area only Christians strive, however ineptly, to mix men and women of different castes, races, and social groups. That’s the real miracle.” [Philip Yancey, “Denominational Diagnostics,” Christianity Today (November 2008), p. 119]
It may be that the greatest miracle of all, and the truest sign of the church is unity. Yet, we are so divided, not inclusive! Different denominations, church splits, racial ethnic versions of each denomination. Why all this separation if the gift of God is unity?
On the day of Pentecost, when Jews and Jewish converts from all over the world were gathered in Jerusalem, something powerful and strange happened. The Holy Spirit poured out in wind and fire and communication. It changed everything! For those who chose to follow the energy, they were drawn into a community of human beings like and very unlike themselves. This new community didn’t always communicate with each other as well as they did on the day they were gathered. The Greek widows complained that they were not treated as well as the Jewish widows (Acts 6:1). Some of the rich people tried to win acclaim by lying about what they gave (Acts 5). A slave felt threatened to return to his slave owner because he did not trust that he would be accepted as brother in faith with his owner (Philemon). The Jerusalem Jewish leaders tried to make the Gentile converts do what they did (Acts 10-15). Gentile Jesus followers argued about whether Paul or Apollos was greater (1 Corinthian 3).
But there is no question that unity was of ultimate importance to Jesus. When he prayed for his followers the main thing he prayed for was for unity, that they would be one as Jesus, God and Spirit are one, that they would not be divided or distracted by their suffering.
Beginning with Pentecost, the Christian church dismantled the barriers of gender, race, and social class that had marked Jewish congregations. Paul, who as a rabbi had given thanks daily that he was not born a woman, slave, or Gentile, passed on the new baptismal formula for the church of Jesus followers: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). In both the letters to Corinth and Rome, Paul taught the metaphor of the body of Christ – that we are diverse, yet one.
It is also true that we often confuse unity with uniformity. It is much easier to gather with people who are like ourselves than it is to reach across the divisions which mark our culture. I first became familiar with this tendency when I was in my teens. I watched as the town kids clumped together and excluded us country kids. We called it forming “cliques.” Which clique you were part of meant everything about who would talk to you and do things with you. We didn’t like it then, and from the perspective of now, I know how much damage it did. As I have gotten older, I have become really sensitive to how we congregate in groups of the same age group. That makes sense, since we have similar life experiences. But we lose of the wisdom of other generations. Pause a moment and think about how you first experienced the tendency to group like with like. Was that a positive or negative experience for you (it could be either)? Has your memory of that experience changed over time? How has it effected you?
Paul insists on something richer, more complex. I love to cook. In cooking, the complexity of flavors from multiple food traditions has become the “thing.” Lots of spices and herbs, combinations of meat or vegetable sources, never-thought-of combinations – like Strawberry Honey Balsamic with Black Pepper, or Brown Butter Bacon, or Goat Cheese Beet Swirl ice creams. The church is that weird! And tastes just as sweet and amazing!
This radical commitment to unity in diversity weaves into the earliest creedal statements of the church. The Nicene Creed, completed in 381, proclaims the bold and difficult faith: We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.
The church is one. Whether we like it or not.
The diversity within the church is not a problem to be avoided, solved, or managed, but a gift of God’s grace and a sign of the Spirit at work. The differing gifts of the Spirit form us in such a way that we must belong to one another. The Spirit’s gifts can be so strong that we need the balance of the other gifts. We balance and strengthen each other with our gifts. But it is tricky.
Today, we ordained and installed new officers for our congregation. The Presbyterian Book of Order echoes the Bible in being very clear that leaders are called to serve, not be be served. Never to lord it over the others in the congregation. Never seeking ones own interests over the interests of others. Never rejoicing when one’s own position wins, but acknowledging the Spirit who gives wisdom, who is all things and in all things. We are a diversity. It is our character, never to be quashed.
Right now, we have a very interesting mix of leaders serving our church. Have you noticed? We represent native Portlanders and transplants; long-time members who have the perspective of history and newer members who know more about what other churches do than about how things have been done here. We represent different political opinions. We represent different economic groups. We represent different preferences when it comes to worship style and theological interpretations. While we are mostly Anglo, we represent plenty of diversity to let us rub each other the wrong way. We have leaders who are out-spoken, sometimes blunt, eager and go-getters. We have leaders who listen quietly and observe with wisdom. We have leaders who don’t say much at all, but are constantly busy doing things for other people – calling, providing meals, praying, sending cards, preparing music, giving generously, contacting community donors, and so much more!
The diversity of our congregation sometimes gets us into tense spots. Yet, we say that joining Mt. Tabor Presbyterian Church means “these are my people.” And in response we all open our arms and say, “You are my people!” And when we open our arms, our bodies say what our spirits are learning – that you – every one of you – is loved, included, valued – no matter how much you get on my nerves!
The truth is that the ones who get on our nerves the most may be our greatest assets, our greatest teachers. If someone gets under your skin, it is time to wonder why God gave you that person. What do you have to learn from him or her? Its not how you need to change them to behave as you would approve, but to change yourself so that the other will know the love of God through the love you hold for them.
Easy? Never! We make mistakes over and over and over again, and it won’t stop today. Growing is three steps forward and two steps back. That is why Jesus’ motto is forgiveness. Even Peter asked to have a limit on forgiveness, but Jesus gave him a number so big that he could never keep track (Matthew 18:22)! Forgive so many times you could not possibly keep track.
Diversity is perhaps our greatest gift and our greatest challenge. It is something given to us about which we have no choice. Whether we like it or not, we need each other like an ear needs a nose, and like and eye needs a foot, and like a finger needs a chin. It may not be that all those body parts love each other, but whenever one of them hurts, they all hurt. When your stomach hurts, your feet don’t walk so well. When your shoulder hurts on one side, your back hurts on the other. When your eyes water, your nose runs. That is how it works.
But the pain of one part tells us how the whole system is working. If you have one part of your body hurting, pay attention to your whole life. Where are you storing tension? Or is it an injury or illness you need help with? We do this with our physical bodies. We can do it with our spiritual body, our congregation.
We have a body brought together at this particular place and time with exactly the gifts and skills we need to do exactly what we are called to do! This is how God designed us. Revel in that! It is the gift of God. It is the promise of God. It is our joy and inheritance. Now we just have to figure out what to do with it!
May the Spirit accompany you journey with blessings!