As has been my tradition, every sermon that I preach will be posted here. This sermon, Unity in Diversity, was given at The Salvation Army Rochester on Sunday August 5, 2018. The Reading was Ephesians 4:1-16.
One Body, One Spirit, One mind?
This past week, Liesl and I have been at Officer’s Fellowship – the first Officer’s Fellowship of the unified Victorian division. Now you may be wondering what we do at Officer’s Fellowship. Do we get away for a week of frivolity, where the rules are somewhat relaxed? No. Do we spend the week in deep and rigorous bible study that enriches the mind and spirit, but leaves you physically tired? No. The reality is somewhere in the middle.
Of course, this year was somewhat different. This was the first year we have had one Victorian Division. In past years, there would be a fellowship for each division – so last year, there was a retreat for officers in Western Victoria Division, Eastern Victoria Division, Central Victorian Division and the State Social Command. This year, all of those came into one – with the result being 178 officers in attendance. So it was massive.
And of course, with 178 officers, you can understand that there are some differences between us all. For example, we weren’t all able to fit into the one hotel. So they split us up. But how do we split it up? Well, I never heard anything official about it, but we were put up in the hotel down the road that seemed to have many of the younger officers. Across the road from the main conference centre seemed to be a lot of the older captains and younger majors – those in the middle of their lives. And those who were staying in the conference hotel? Well, they’re the ones who are left.
But as you can expect, we are all different. There were those who thrived being amongst a group so large. There were the social butterflies who flitted from group to group – catching up with old friends and meeting new ones. And then there were the introverts like myself who were looking for a quiet space and not finding it.
There are those who hold to a very black and white interpretation of scripture, and there are those who see some grey, and those who see lots of colours.
There are those who can only worship to traditional hymns, and those who only like songs written in the last year.
And the theme of our retreat this year? United.
At one point, one of the speakers asked – are we actually united? Can we ever be? When we are all so different, how can we possibly be united?
We expect the church to be the same
It’s an issue that faces the church as well as the Victorian officers. It is a problem that faces each of us. Far too often, I hear of churches not allowing someone in because they’re different. Or minorities not feeling comfortable in our churches because there is an unspoken expectation that everyone should be the same.
Similarly, when discussing different decisions by churches, we can find ourselves questioning how can they call themselves Christians if they do this, or if they don’t do that?
We expect the Church to look the same, no matter where we go. And our uniform speaks into that – expecting that all soldiers should look the same. However, when I look out at the Salvation Army, I see officers that are all different; I see Salvationists wearing different levels of uniform – from Formal Navy Blues, Work uniform, or Shield T-shirts with their adherents badges.
When this becomes the case, we run into different problems. Our churches become closed – closed to outsiders yearning to discover God, and closed to the wisdom that God has granted to churches other than our own.
By embracing diversity, we find unity
Paul is writing to the church in Ephesus, which has had a number of issues. It’s still a young church, finding it’s legs, and trying to discover where it belongs. Do they do away with people who are different, or who have different gifts?
No, says Paul. He reminds the Ephesians that there is to be diversity within the church. Some will be given the giftings of an apostle, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers. This is similar to Paul’s lists in Romans 12 and 1 Cor 12. Paul’s words in Corinthians are helpful:
Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; 5 and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; 6 and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. 7 To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.
1 Corinthians 12:4-7 (NRSV)
Paul goes on to remind the Corinthians:
For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. 13 For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.
1 Corinthians 12:12-13 (NRSV)
That was a huge distinction for the early church. Paul was saying that it didn’t matter where you came from – whether you were born a Jew, or whether you were a Greek – which was code for “not a Jew”; whether you were free or whether you were a slave, it didn’t matter. You were to be welcomed in the church of Christ.
We see the value of diversity in Jesus’ ministry as well. Peter was a fisherman. Matthew – a tax collector, a collaborator with the occupying Roman Empire. Simon was a Zealot, or a Freedom Fighter (or Terrorist, depends on your point of view). He engaged with centurions, Samaritans, lepers, adulterers, and even women!
Jesus embraced diversity, and encouraged unity through that diversity.
We find strength in a diverse, unified church
So how can we be diverse and united? We find strength in our diversity, drawing from our unity. Paul encourages us in this challenge, calling us to “lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called.” What is that life? It is one that is grounded in humility and gentleness, in patience that bears all people in love. And it is a life that reminds us of the source of our unity.
Paul writes that we need to make “every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, …one hope… one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all.”
Paul uses seven items here – a number that means completeness and wholeness. It’s in this that we find our unity – the source that everything comes from.
Cyprian of Carthage was an early church Bishop, living around the 200’s. While being on exile, he wrote a treatise called “On the unity of the Church” and its words have as much to say to us now than they did then. He writes:
The Church is also one, though spread far and wide by its ever-increasing fruitfulness. There are many rays of the sun, but one light. There are many branches of a tree, but one strength from its mighty root. From one spring flow many streams, and though they are multiplied in rich abundance, yet they are still united in one source. You cannot separate a ray of light from the sun, because its unity does not allow division. You can break a branch from a tree, but when broken, it will not be able to bud. Cut a stream off from its source and it dries up. It is the same with the Church. Filled with the light of the Lord, it shines its rays over the whole world, yet everywhere it is one and the same light that shines, and the body is not divided. The Church’s fruitfulness spreads branches over the whole world. It sends forth her rivers, freely flowing, yet the source is one, and she is one mother, plentiful in fruitfulness.
So we have some churches who have gone one way or another – but we all find our source in the same God. We have some people who have believed one thing or another – but we all find our salvation in the same Christ. And while we may all look different – different races, different genders, different hairs and hands and anything else we wish to divide ourselves on, we all were created in the same image of God.
Go and embrace your diversity
We are stronger when we embrace diversity. But we need to remember that despite that diversity, we are all unified through Christ. We are all in need of Christ’s salvation. We are all in need of Christ’s love. And we are all in need of the Grace of God. Because it is the grace of God that meets our weaknesses, that meets our failings, and helps us rise above them.