June 4, 2017 sermon (Pentecost)
Acts 2:1-21/ 1Cor. 12:3-13
Work of the Spirit: Unity in Diversity
There was a time when I didn’t know anything about the United Church of Canada, except for the urban legend I heard that they ordain gay people and marry gay couples, and my reaction that consisted of two questions; one, “Are you kidding me?”, and two, “No seriously, ARE YOU KIDDING ME?” Fast forwarding 15 years, and I was taking online courses to be admitted to the United Church. One of the courses I had to take was the United Church Worship, and the title of our main text book taught me in one phrase what the United Church is about, and not only in the United Church Worship; Ordered Liberty. This phrase summarises how we as the church embrace diversity, but in an orderly manner. Even our name has the word ‘united’ in it. In short, we are a church where diversity is united into one body.
Today is the birthday of the Christian Church, and the story of the Pentecost that gave birth to the Christian Church teaches us what the coming of the Holy Spirit means; what the birth of the Christian Church means. It is important to pay attention to the fact that the coming of the Holy Spirit was manifested through the disciples speaking in different languages. The disciples who received the Holy Spirit started speaking in different tongues. Usually when we say someone spoke “in tongue” it is about some kind of heavenly language that doesn’t make any sense to us. Some Christians receive the gift of speaking in tongue, and some others, the gift of translating “the tongue”. Because it doesn’t make sense to us normal humans, that language needs translating. But the tongue/ language we are talking about in the Pentecost story is not the heavenly language that doesn’t make sense to us; it’s our diverse languages that make sense to those to speak them.
This incident of speaking in different tongues also reminds us of the story of the Tower of Babel, where God divided the human languages to prevent the arrogant humans from uniting against God. In the Babel story, different languages were given to divide humans; in the Pentecost story, they were given to unite God’s people. Disciples who received the Holy Spirit spoke different languages and used them to be united as the Church of Christ. This story teaches us that unity doesn’t mean uniformity. This Pentecost story and what follows show us how people of different cultures and languages became one in the Spirit, teaching us that the function of the Holy Spirit is to unite us different people.
The fact that the Holy Spirit unites different people can also be seen in the 1 Corinthians text we read today. We all received different gifts, but we are all parts of one body of Christ. Our different gifts came from God, and God gave them to us deliberately. God intended us to be different. This God who made us differently and gave us different gifts unites us in the Holy Spirit. Through building the Tower of Babel, humans exhibited pride because they thought they could reach the heavens; through receiving the Holy Spirit, humans who followed Jesus exhibited humility by becoming the body of Christ, working for the good of God’s kingdom and not for their individual greed. This is the Christian Church to which we belong. This is the United Church of Canada to which we belong.
This past weekend, I experienced my first conference meeting in the United Church. I witnessed diversity because during our plenary meetings, we learned about our different theological propensities and had to identify ourselves with one of them. The five categories were evangelical, ecclesiastical, missional, ecumenical, and spiritual. To a certain degree I didn’t like taking a label because I identify with more than one group, but still understood that this labeling has a benefit; by understanding ourselves, we can understand each other. Because of my passion for social justice, I got labeled as an ecumenical. Not only our theological differences, but I also met flaming homosexual members of our church as well as those who look like typical moms and dads. I also met our previous minister Jeff and his partner Don, although they’re not really flaming. There were Caucasians, Asians, and First Nations members. In short, I witnessed the diversity of our United Church. I was extremely proud to be a part of this church.
We are all different in the church. Even our hymn books reflect our diversity with their many songs in different languages. As we have learned today, this is the work of the Holy Spirit; uniting God’s people in their diversity. So as we celebrate the birthday of the Christian Church, let us celebrate our diversity as the gift of the Holy Spirit. Let the Spirit work in us to open our hearts and minds, so that instead of spreading prejudice and hate with our differences, we can spread love and compassion in our world.
Rev. Sunny Kim