27 May 2012
Festival of Pentecost
St. John United Church of Christ
St. Clair, MO
Unity in Diversity
Based on Acts of the Apostles 2: 1-21
By Rev. James Semmelroth Darnell
Happy Birthday Church! By Church I mean not just our congregation here, or even our denomination – but the whole Church throughout the world in all its various permutations. A great teacher once said, “The Church is broken, but the Church is one.” It is for the life of the whole Church throughout creation that we celebrate today. Pentecost is the day on which we believe that the life of the Church began. Jesus had told the disciples to wait in Jerusalem until the Spirit descended. We hear in our passage that the disciples were all gathered in a house together. Now it wasn’t just the 12 apostles – but all the primary followers of Jesus, including his mother and Mary Magdalene. Tradition tells us that 120 persons all were present that morning. Scripture says that, “suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting…All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.” This Spirit that gave them this ability to speak other languages, is the very same Spirit of God that at the beginning hovered over the face of the deep and molded creation out of a formless void. The same Spirit that descended on Jesus in his baptism now descends on his disciples and empowers them to go out into the world with the Good News. In this moment, with this rush of the wind-like Spirit, the Church is created.
And what is the first act of the newborn Church? They go out into the marketplace where people from many nations are gathered. The disciples speak, and amazingly each of the people gathered in the crowd heard and understood in their own language. We don’t know what the disciples said, but we know that the crowd gathered from many places understood. Those in the crowd said, ““Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 9Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” These are places and cultures that represent what would have been the entire known world for the disciples – not just people of Israel and its neighbors, but from all over the world. And yet somehow, by the power of the Holy Spirit the disciples, most of whom by all accounts are not educated, speak and the others understand in their own language. God certainly could have enabled all to understand one language, and yet the Church is born in the midst of the diversity of languages, cultures and experiences. When God could have made us all uniform, instead God chose to show us unity in diversity.
Dr. Eric Bareto, professor at Luther Seminary writes that, “The story of Pentecost in Acts 2:1-21 helps us understand how God sees human diversity: one of God’s greatest gifts to the world. At Pentecost, God through the Spirit does not erase our differences but embraces the fact that God has made us all so wonderfully different… God meets us in the messiness of different languages and does not ask us to speak God’s language. Instead, God chooses to speak our many languages. God does not speak in a divine language beyond our comprehension. At Pentecost, God speaks in Aramaic and Greek and other ancient languages. Today, God continues to speak in Spanish, Greek, Hindi, and Chinese alike. At Pentecost, God makes God’s choice clear. God joins us in the midst of the messiness and the difficulties of speaking different languages, eating different foods, and living in different cultures. That is good news indeed.”
Too often we want to erase or differences, or worse marginalize them. Difference makes us uncomfortable – it makes things harder understand. It is usually with good intentions that we say “We’re really all the same.” But that’s not even true of those who speak the same language, worship the same God, and have the same skin color. We all have different life experiences and learnings that impact who we are – and we are all different, regardless of what it may look like in the mirror. While the temptation for us may be to wash away all difference, to try to grasp what makes us the same – in the life of the Church, in this very first act of its life there is a diversity of voices and languages. It is as if God has already ordained that there be a vast variety of expressions of the Christian life throughout the world.
Of course today there are innumerable ways to be a Christian in our world. Even in our own United Church of Christ on any given Sunday, 21 different languages are spoken in worship throughout our 4,500 congregations. They include Native American congregations of Lakota, Cheyenne, and Ho-Chunk tribes; Samoan, Micronesian, and Marshallese congregations from the South Pacific, Japanese, Chinese and Indian congregations from Asia, historic Hungarian and German congregations for European immigrants, Spanish-speaking congregations for Latinos, including Iglesia Cristiana El Dios ViViente in St. Louis, multicultural congregations like Pilgrim UCC in St. Louis, and many more varieties. There are churches from the Congregational, Christian, Evangelical or Reformed tradition that merged into the UCC, churches planted by the UCC, churches that have left Pentecostal, Baptist, and charismatic traditions for a home in the UCC. There are a broad variety of worship styles – from congregations that have incense, chanting, and kneeling to ones that have ecstatic experiences with praise bands, dancing, and sometimes even speak in tongues. Three of our newest congregations show this broad range of God’s diversity: West Hollywood UCC in California, a formerly Presbyterian congregation; Vision Church of Houston, TX, a Korean-speaking congregation; and Community Church UCC in Washington, DC, a predominately African-American church. These are all wonderful examples of our own denomination living into Pentecost diversity. The point here is not diversity for diversity’s sake, but recognizing the myriad ways in which the Holy Spirit equips different people to be the Church. These are just examples of our own little denomination, among hundreds of other denominations, among thousands of churches – that show forth God’s presence in a multitude of ways.
David Bartlett reminds us that “The miracle of Pentecost is that even though there are still many languages and diverse words people are able to understand each other. It is a misreading of the story to think that God’s promise for the church is a kind of ecclesiastical Esperanto—a universal language we all can speak and understand. The apostles speak a variety of languages so that a variety of people can hear. God’s promise for the church is that in our diversity, through our diversity, the Spirit still leads us forward in understanding.”
We have so many modes of expressions in the UCC and beyond, in the way we speak of God and worship God, precisely so that people from all walks of life can hear and participate in God’s saving work, in ways that we each can understand. God calls us out of the temptation to erase our difference, to acknowledge the gift of all the unique ways God has created us – inviting the Church to speak to each one in their own language, so that all can understand.
In the United Church of Christ statement of faith we proclaim each week that God “bestows upon us the Holy Spirit, creating and renewing the church of Jesus Christ, binding in covenant faithful people of all ages tongues and races.” Of many tongues and races we are united in our faith in Jesus Christ. As most of you know, I come from one of the last 3 remaining German-speaking churches left in the denomination. I’m reminded of watching people lining up there to kneel before the altar rail for communion – it was a marvelous rainbow of people – immigrants from Germany, Ukraine, and Ethiopia, college students from Korea and the US, African-American and European American, homeless people, academics with PhDs, young and old, gay and straight – all people seeking Christ, seeking to be fed by his body and blood, each one called into the Church by the Holy Spirit. It was a beautiful moment of experiencing a glimpse of Pentecost.
Today as we celebrate Pentecost, we remember that the Holy Spirit doesn’t disperse our differences, but we understand and see Christ through each of our differences, cultures, languages and experiences – and help each other see how broad and expansive the Church really is. So today we celebrate the life of the Church in all the wonderful, different and unique ways it makes Christ known in our world.
+To God be the Glory. Amen.
 Dr. Eric Bareto, “Think Differently About Difference,” http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rev-dr-eric-d-barreto/acts-2-1-21-think-differently-about-difference_b_1539115.html?ref=religion
 David Bartlett, workingpreacher.org