May 15, 2016 sermon (Pentecost Sunday)
Holy Spirit’s Action Film: Unity in Diversity
“Happy Birthday to us. Happy Birthday to us. Happy Birthday dear Christian Church. Happy Birthday to us.” Today is Pentecost Sunday. Pentecost is considered the birthday of the Christian Church because the Holy Spirit that the first disciples received on Pentecost gave birth to the Christian Church. Before this event, the followers of Jesus were a small group of people; but because it was the day of Pentecost, a Jewish holiday, a lot of Jews from all over the world (but probably not from this part of the world) were gathered in Jerusalem. Although they were all Jews, they came from different cultures and languages; and this is when God decided to pour out the Holy Spirit on them, for maximum efficiency no doubt. Anyway, as a result of this event, a large group of people received the Holy Spirit, and a lot of other people listened to Peter’s sermon and converted. Acts 2:37-46 describes how the newly converted Christians lived together and shared everything they had, forming a family-like community. This is how the Christian Church started.
Now let’s take a look at what happened on the day of Pentecost. First, let’s talk about the Acts of the Apostles as a book, since what happens in the rest of the book is caused by what happened in the text we read today. It is generally agreed among biblical scholars that the Acts of the Apostles is written by the author of Luke’s gospel. So Acts is the second part for the Gospel of Luke. As you can see in the title of this book (“Acts”), this book is like an action movie; then we can say that Luke’s gospel is the action movie for Jesus, and Acts of the Apostles is the action movie for the Holy Spirit working through the disciples of Jesus. This is how this action movie starts; with the big bang of Holy Spirit’s arrival. Today’s text is like an exciting movie scene. The followers of Jesus are gathered together. There were also a large number of Jews from other regions speaking different languages gathered there for a Jewish festival. The first followers of Jesus were from Galilee, so the term “Galilean” was sometimes used to describe the followers of Jesus in a pejorative way. Galileans were stereotyped as being ignorant and backwards; so when the Jews from other regions heard them speaking in different languages (their languages), they had to be shocked.
Note that the Holy Spirit brought the followers of Jesus the gift of different languages. I know there are a lot of people out there who would love this gift. This story of Pentecost is often compared to the story of the Tower of Babel where God confused the human languages so people can’t communicate with each other and get too powerful and arrogant. The Babel story is about preventing human unity, and the Pentecost story is about uniting people under the Holy Spirit and the leadership of Jesus the Christ. But wait a second; God divided languages to scatter people in the Babel story but in the Pentecost story gave different languages for the unity of God’s people? Does this feel odd to anyone?
It might feel odd at a first glance, but think of the Christian Church today. First think of what Western Christian missionaries did in Africa, for example. When Africans were colonized and evangelized, they were forced to learn the language and customs of their colonizers. My fellow ministers in Kenya grew up being punished and humiliated at school whenever they were caught speaking to each other in their mother tongues; and that was after the British left. They also obsessively and compulsively drink tea with milk. As we get involved in mission works and develop relationships with churches and people of different cultures, at least today in the United Church of Canada, we know better than to try to culturally colonize our global sisters and brothers. Imposing our languages and cultures is against social justice, as I mentioned maybe a couple of weeks ago. Although as a result of colonialism we can now communicate with the people of Kenya in the same language (English) and it’s convenient, it might not feel like unity for the people of Kenya because they were forced into learn it. Then for the sake of social justice, in today’s global context, it is by being multi-cultural and multi-lingual that we can work towards unity and justice. This is how the Holy Spirit works to bring God’s people together in unity; not by forcefully assimilating them culturally and linguistically, but by striving to understand each other even though we speak different languages and practise different cultures. Think about this; even in the same culture, with people speaking the same language, we have difficulty understanding each other’s differences and accepting people who are different. But the Holy Spirit opens our minds with the undiscriminating love of God and helps us to unite with those who are different from us. Unlike in the story of Babel, the many languages on Pentecost came with the Holy Spirit of unity; in this case, the many languages help us to understand and unite with each other.
The works and actions of the Holy Spirit in our global context create unity in the midst of diversity because God’s kingdom, the family of God is based on love and justice. God created us all differently and called us beautiful. God didn’t create robots who act the same way and obey God without thinking. God gave us free will, individuality, and different cultures; thus, we are created to live in diversity. The gift of the Holy Spirit sets us free from the compulsion to expect uniformity by suppressing our diverse natures. As we read in Romans today, we received the Spirit of adoption and not of bondage. We are not slaves of the Law but the children of God through the Holy Spirit. Our children are not expected to behave and obey us like robots (I hope they are not). I’m not sure if you are familiar with the progressive rock band Pink Floyd and their movie/ album “The Wall”; in one of their songs called “Another Brick in the Wall”, there is a shocking and powerful image of school children in uniforms and the same creepy masks marching into a meat grinder, like products in a factory. Eew… Children should be valued and appreciated by their individualities. God looks at us the same way.
We as the children of God are not united because we are the same like robots, but because in our diversity we follow the same teachings of Jesus, led by the same Holy Spirit, sent by the same God. When we are united in Christ and the love of God while respecting each other’s diversity, mimicking a catchphrase from the internet, “Diversity, you’re doing it right”. On this birthday of the Christian Church, let us remember that forcefully assimilating everyone is oppressive and against the spirit of freedom we have received. In the context of God’s justice, we can only be united in Christ in our diversities. Happy Birthday to us Christians, and may the Holy Spirit lead us to a righteous unity in Christ through our diversities.
Rev. Sunny Kim