When I lived in Kenya in 2005, I stayed with a Kenyan host family in Nairobi.
I was basically a part of their family. For example, whenever we had guests over, I had to sit with everyone and make small talk in the living room, even when all I wanted to do was go introvert in my room after a long day.
Every Friday morning, my host dad and I would sit out on their porch, drink chai, and talk. He was kind of discipling me. One day, he said, “Barry, can I tell you something that may be kind of hard to hear?”
I said, “Uh… ok?”
He said, “Well, Barry, whenever we have guests over, we always ask them about them and their lives, and then you come in and tell some story about yourself that has nothing to do with the conversation. You take the spotlight off of our guests and put it on yourself. Well in this culture, Barry, that is a really dishonoring thing to do. When we have guests, it should be all about them, not all about you.”
Ouch. That hurt. I’m not going to lie. I felt all kinds of emotions when he told me that. Part of me want to just scoff and say, “Whatever. You don’t know me. You don’t understand.”
But I had committed to be a learner when I was in Kenya, to keep an open handed posture. And so I decided to start taking notice of my conversations and seeing if there was any shred of truth in what he was telling me.
Well, it took me all of, half a day to realize that what he was observing in me was totally normal. I did it all the time!
My Kenyan friends would be talking about - whatever - their favorite ice cream flavors, and I’d bust out some story about playing French horn in high school. They’d be discussing movies, and I’d bring in some completely unrelated anecdote about baseball.
It was like an out-of-body experience. How did I never notice this before? Have I always been this way?
My answer came when an American short term trip team arrived in Kenya and I listened to the way they talked to each other. One of them would tell a story about themselves, the next person would share an opinion they had, the next person would talk about something they had experienced.
It was this ongoing spiral of self-promotion. The American way! I was blind to it because it was normal in my culture.
Well, in the months and years since that difficult conversation, I have seen radical change in the way I talk to people. Yes, I still give in to the temptation to turn conversations back to myself from time to time, but I regularly catch myself - even now - when I’m about to divert a conversation to shine the spotlight on myself.
And the only reason that happens is because I learned from someone very different than myself. I got exposed to the values of a very others-focused culture, and it changed the way I talk to people.
There is tremendous value in learning from those who are different than us. Of sitting at the feet of people who don’t look or act or think the way we do.
That’s why today we’re talking about diversity. I’m not just talking about a bunch of multi-ethnic people smiling together in a stock photo. That’s not true diversity.
Diversity is when mutual growth, mutual learning, mutual strengthening happens in the midst of difference. And I think we need more of it here.
Of course today, in our age of social media rants and rage-filled politics, mutual growth and diversity seem to be in pretty short supply. Why is this?
Well, the way I see it, the deck is kind of stacked against us.
Biologically, our brains are hard wired for prejudice. Neurological studies have shown that we are more at ease around people like ourselves.
Socially, the people we surround ourselves with tend to be pretty uniform. And I’m not just talking about race. I’m talking about gender, age, nationality, and economic status too.
And of course, politically, we’re ridiculously polarized. And with social media, it’s easier than ever hear only voices that reinforce your own perspective.
So how do we overcome these divisions? How do we rise above our tendency to surround ourselves with people just like us?
Well, I don’t think we can. At least, not on our own. Diversity is not the default state for humanity. This stuff is not going to happen from hard work and good intensions.
Now, we’ve made good progress on this over the last 25 years, but for Grace Church to continue developing a culture that cherishes diversity - to become a church of difference - there must be a movement of the Holy Spirit.
So that is what we’re going to talk about today: how the Holy Spirit unlocks world-changing diversity in the Church.
A few weeks ago, I talked about the incredible unity that took root in the early church. Remember? Everyone was gathered in each others’ homes, breaking bread together… The Holy Spirit moved, and the church became one.
Well, today we’re going to look at how the Spirit creates diversity in the midst of this unity.
Now that may seem like a contradiction, but in a minute I hope I can show you why it’s not.
Let’s turn to Acts 2 once more. [House Bibles]
Acts 2:4-12, Page _________
Now, before we look at the passage, I want to apologize for something really quickly. Last time I spoke, I set up the book of Acts by saying that Luke was a disciple of Jesus. He wasn’t. He was a disciple of Paul. It was a dumb mistake. I don’t know why I said it. I’m sorry. I just wanted to clear that up, because I don’t want you thinking inaccurate things.
So, we’re returning once more to Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit fell on the disciples like a fire. And this is what happened immediately afterwards. Look at verse 4:
All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them. Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard them speaking in his own language.
Utterly amazed, they asked: “Are not all these men who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in his own native language? Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs - we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “What does this mean?”
In the centuries leading up to the time of Jesus, the people of Israel had been scattered by war, exile, and oppression. Sometimes they came back to Israel after the hardships were over, but often they ended up putting down roots in foreign lands and started adopting the local language and culture.
So imagine all these foreigners returning to Jerusalem for Passover, and then hearing all these Galileans, who, apparently had a really distinctive accent and who were seen as sort of backwoods simpletons, suddenly speaking fluently in all these different languages.
It would have been astounding.
Now, there is some pretty interesting symbolism in the way this passage is written. Many scholars see it as an allusion back to the story of the Tower of Babel. In that story, mankind was getting too big for its britches, so God confused everyone’s language and they couldn’t understand each other anymore.
Well, at Pentecost, it’s like God is healing that divide. He’s undoing the curse of Babel. Bringing humanity back together. But with one really significant twist. Instead of returning everyone back to one common tongue, God allows for comprehension among a diversity of languages.
The gospel is available to everyone. This shift becomes par for the course in God’s kingdom.
In the book of Revelation, John has a vision of God’s future kingdom, and he says this:
After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands.
Picture that! Yes, everyone is gathered in one place for one purpose. They’re even wearing the same thing. But the skin tones in that group, the cultures represented, the world views and ages and genders… they all remain unique.
And this, I think, points to a hugely important reality about God’s kingdom: there is powerful unity made possible for those who follow Christ, but the beauty of their diversity is never lost.
There is definitely not enough time to go into this in detail, but another prophetic passage, Isaiah 60, gives a beautiful depiction of God’s heart forboth diversity & unity. In that prophecy, the nations gather in Jerusalem from all corners of the earth. That sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
They’re coming to adorn the temple with the finest goods from their nation. Their unique cultural identity isn’t abandoned in God’s kingdom, it’s celebrated.
Let me read just a little bit of it to you.
Then you will look and be radiant,
Your heart will throb and swell with joy;
The wealth on the seas will be brought to you,
To you the riches of the nations will come.
Herds of camels will cover your land,
Young camels of Midian and Ephah
And all from Sheba will come,
Bearing gold and incense
and proclaiming the praise of the Lord.
Isn’t that beautiful? Through the powerful work of the Holy Spirit, God creates a community that is unified, but never monochromatic. In the Church, unity and diversity are held together not in tension, but in harmony.
And this is a crucial aspect of what happened at Pentecost.
Now, I think a pretty legitimate question to ask is why? Why didn’t God just create a community where everyone’s differences simply fell away? Why wasn’t everyone made exactly the same? Wouldn’t that be easier?
Well, I think we get our answer when we look at Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. There he uses the analogy of a human body to describe the Church. He says,
1 Corinthians 12:12-13
The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body. So it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body - whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free - and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.
In other words, there is unity here. We’re all a part of one body. But, he goes on to describe how it’s our diversity that makes us strong. Every part of the body has a different role and perspective, and that’s on purpose. He says:
1 Corinthians 12:17
If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? But in fact God has arranged the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be.
When each part of the body works together for the common good, the Church becomes far stronger than any individual part could ever be on their own.
The legs help the body move. The eyes help the legs know where to walk. The heart pumps blood to all of it. The body is most effective when each part does its own role and supports the role of all the others.
This is what happened at Pentecost, when a small band of disciples became the Church of the Nations.
And on a much smaller scale, this is what happened with me and my host dad in Kenya. He could see into one of my blind spots. The Spirit used his perspective to change my life to look just a little tiny bit more like Jesus.
This is why we need the Holy Spirit to break us free from our human tendencies to silo ourselves - to surround ourselves with people just like us. Because the parts of our body only gain true purpose in relation to each other.
If we can become a people who regularly learn at the feet of those who are different from us, our church will be stronger. Breaking free from our limited perspectives,
· Our theology will be deeper
· Our worship will be richer
· Our worldview will be more well rounded
· We’ll have greater compassion on our neighbors
· A better understanding of how to tackle injustice
· More relevance
Frankly, we’ll be better able to accomplish the mission of God in this world.
When the Holy Spirit moves, the Church becomes diverse.
BAD TRACK RECORD
Unfortunately, the Western Church has had a pretty bad track record in the area of diversity. From slavery to the subjugation of women to the inquisition, we as Christians have consistently missed the mark.
We’ve been like the left elbow of the Church trying desperately to make everyone else into a left elbow too.
We’ve taken the story of the gospel - with its lower class Messiah, its women leaders, its African converts and its children and widows and people from every nation under the sun - and we’ve turned it into a religion designed by and for wealthy, straight men of European descent.
We have missed the purpose of Pentecost.
Case in point: Let me tell you about Native American “Residential Schools.”
Residential Schools were part of a British colonial mission to “civilize” native peoples. The slogan they used was, “Kill the Indian; Save the man.”
[Scroll through images: Residential Schools 1-3]
And so they took native children from their homes and put them in boarding schools where they had their long hair cut off, they had to wear European clothing, they were given “Christian” names like “James” and “Samantha,” they were shamed into speaking only English, and they were forcibly converted into Christianity.
“Kill the Indian; Save the man.”
The colonialists who did this loved the idea of unity, but they ignored the power and potential of diversity.
Think about all that they - that we - lost by killing and subjugating Native Americans. By stripping them of their culture and shaming them into acting like Europeans. Sure, a few people became “Christians,” but at what cost?
Imagine how different the Church - and even our whole society - would be if we had learned from and celebrated the indigenous cultures here before us.
Imagine if we had allowed Native American Christ-followers to teach us about the Creator. To teach us how to properly live in equilibrium with the natural world instead of allowing the ravenous jaws of industry to tear it to shreds.
Imagine how much stronger the Church would be.
Now, we can’t change what happened in the past, but we can change our posture in the present.
LISTEN AND PRAY
So how do we do it?
Well, like I said earlier, it’s not going to happen by just trying real hard. The societal and cultural and biological decks are stacked against us. There are only two things we can do to pursue true diversity: Listen and Pray.
First, we have to listen. That means taking the posture of a servant, shutting our mouths, and actually hearing the voices of those who are different than us. Listening to their perspectives, asking questions instead of giving answers. Celebrating our differences instead of trying to be colorblind. Listening.
Second, we have to pray. True diversity is an act of the Holy Spirit. The curse of Babel isn’t undone by singing Kumbaya around a campfire. Prejudice runs deep, guys. We must invite the Spirit’s power to transform our hearts.
If we do these two things in love: if we listen and pray, I believe the Holy Spirit will unleash a revival that will radically alter our community. Can you even imagine?
· If young people in this congregation would start learning from their elders, I believe the Spirit would give them wisdom and integrity for the long haul.
· If older folks here would humble themselves and listen to the perspectives of our young adults, our whole church would become more relevant in this world.
· If men in this church were committed to learning from the women here, the Holy Spirit could multiply the impact of our congregation
· If we all listened to the voices of those with special needs, the Spirit would grow our understanding of what it means to be a child of God.
· And if those of us who are white would just stop talking for a minute and actually listen to the voices of minorities, our knowledge of God’s heart for this world would deepen in profound ways.
When we allow the Holy Spirit to transform our hearts, to overcome our biological reflexes of prejudice - when we take a posture of learners, sitting at the feet of those who are different than us - then, and only then, will the Church become what it was always meant to be.
A Church of difference. Of diversity. A community filled with unique perspectives and gifts, a unified body made stronger by the uniqueness of its members.
I want to give you one concrete example of what this looks like.
Take a look at the story of Elizabeth and what happened when she chose to listen and pray.
VIDEO: Elizabeth at Nora
I think that story is a beautiful example of what happens when we take an open-handed posture to people who are different. Elizabeth could have walked into that hospital room with all the answers. She could have plowed through their cultural norms like a bull in a China shop.
But she didn’t. She listened. She learned. She prayed. And look what the Holy Spirit did with it! Elizabeth’s faith and mission are now stronger because she had a posture of open hands.
Imagine if the Spirit were to do that with you and me as well. We could be a church of difference. We could be unified and diverse.
Before I end this message, I want to share one very specific application of all of this that has been on my heart recently. And it has to do with a topic that I know is a pretty hot button issue right now.
I want to talk briefly about racism, specifically towards African Americans.
When I was younger I used to think that racism wasn’t a thing anymore. Definitely not with me. I liked my black friends, I would have never dreamed of using the “N” word. So when I heard people talk about systemic racism or white privilege, it just didn’t make sense to me at all. How is that still a thing?
But then, I started to travel. To a very tiny degree, I got to feel what it’s like to be a minority somewhere. Feeling the stares, hearing the whispers, having people make huge assumptions about me.
But more than that, I went to countries where the effects of racism and injustice were so much more blatant than at home.
In one setting after another, like in the Native American residential schools, I saw how my ancestors used violence and oppression and injustice against people with brown skin to secure their own fortunes.
Seeing these global patterns finally allowed me to see the patterns at home.
And so when I realized I didn’t have the full picture, I began to actually listen to what African Americans were saying… listening to their fear and their hurt and their anger. And I looked at our nation’s history with new eyes.
· I saw that the quality of schools is tied to property taxes so that the best education goes to those who are already wealthy.
· I learned about congressional redistricting designed to lessen the impact of black voters.
· I saw vast income inequality along racial lines that continues generation after generation.
· I saw how suburbs like our own were formed because of mortgage discrimination and an unequal application of the GI Bill.
· And I came to realize that, for African Americans, racial oppression is not some piece of ancient history. Jim Crow laws were in effect 50 years ago. And slavery just 150. As one comedian put it, if you take the lifetimes of two little old ladies back to back, you’ve got people owning people in our country.
After all of this, I had finally awoken to reality that racism for me was not about being prejudiced or hating people. It was about doing nothing. Doing nothing - being colorblind - and continuing to reap the benefits of an unequal system.
Meanwhile, my own life was made poorer because I wasn’t sharing in the riches of black culture. Specifically when it came to faith. My understanding of God was limited because I don’t know what it feels like being an oppressed people fleeing Egypt. My worship generally doesn’t involve passionate dancing.
How much stronger would my faith be if I started listening to Christ-followers who didn’t come from my exact same race and culture?
I’ll be the first one to admit I have so much more to learn about this issue. But I want you all to know I am committed to seeing a change in our culture. To keeping Grace Church on this path.
How am I doing it? I’m listening. I’m done jumping to conclusions. I’ve stopped trying to be colorblind, and I’m actually learning from people who are different than me.
And I’m praying. I’m asking the Holy Spirit to transform my heart. Because if I remain sheltered in my own limited worldview, I know I’ll never experience the true fruits of diversity.
But that’s me. That’s my story.
What about you? Where do you stand? You might be White, Black, Latino, Arab, Asian, First Nations or some combination of those or something I didn’t even mention.
Whatever your race, will you join me in seeking to listen to one another and to pray for the Holy Spirit to move among us?
When the Holy Spirit moves, the Church becomes diverse.
If you’re willing, I’d like to invite you to read something aloud together with me. It’s a creed we read last summer when my dad preached a different sermon about race. And I think it is a beautiful way to keep our hearts soft as we head into taking communion together.
So read it with me, and try not to sound like a robot.
Loving God of every tribe, nation, race and color,
We come to You seeking Your forgiveness for the ways we’ve built barriers that hinder us from loving others.
Help us to celebrate our differences, to share the richness of our many cultures, languages and backgrounds.
Help us to identify and destroy systems of injustice that continue to enslave, bind, and demoralize others. Forgive us for being complicit in sustaining those systems, Lord.
Help us to see the reality of racism and bigotry and free us to challenge and uproot it from ourselves, our society and our world.
Help us to have courage to walk in another’s shoes, to choose to engage.
To befriend, to share hospitality, stories and life.
To learn the history of those from other races and to talk with one another about the issues faced.
To refuse to perpetuate but confront crass, hurtful speech, jokes and stereotypes.
To raise our children not to be color blind but instead to appreciate and celebrate your loving artistry, O Creator God.
Help us, O Lord, to be instruments of your Peace, to be your Church that strives to reconcile all peoples to each other and to You.
May we be that Church found in Revelation 21, where all tongues, tribes and nations will be one, as the Father and Son are one. Amen.