Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The Witness of a Generous Pluralism

The text tells us that on the Day of Pentecost the disciples were all together in one house.  Was this the same house where they ate the Passover meal with Jesus?  Is it the same place where they huddled behind locked doors after the crucifixion – the house where Jesus appeared in their midst not once, but twice, and showed his wounds to Thomas?  We don’t know for sure, but likely it is a familiar spot in Jerusalem for the group to gather.
These eleven were a wildly divergent collection of individuals.  Consider Simon the Zealot.  Named after a revolutionary, he appears to have participated in activities designed to overthrow (or at least to harass) the occupying Roman government.  Today we might call him a terrorist.  At the other end of the spectrum there is Matthew the tax-collector whose profession was the embodiment of Jewish collaboration with the Romans.  I’m thinking Jesus did not have Simon and Matthew sit near each other at the dinner table. 
Then you have Jesus’ own brother James, whose words and writings indicate he was a trained as a Pharisee.  Match him with Peter, Andrew, James, and John – the Galilean fishermen.  Today we might refer to them as Rednecks, hard-working country folk who never would have measured up to   Pharisaic standards of holiness.  The fishermen were as different from James as today’s cookout will be from next week’s silver-service reception after confirmation.
A couple of Jesus’ disciples were once devoted followers of John the Baptist.  Even though they converted from that rival movement, no doubt they brought with them some of its practices and beliefs.  How different do you think they were from the Beloved Disciple of John’s gospel?  He was connected to the High Priestly family and thus had access to the upper echelons of the prestigious Temple hierarchy.  You have to think his culture and background was a tad different from that of those who followed into wilderness a charismatic figure who ate bugs and wore clothes made from camel hair.
As I said, this is a wildly divergent collection of individuals: terrorists and collaborators, religiously devout and worldly, cultured and course.  No wonder they found it such a struggle to get along; bickering all the time, debating who among them was the most important, and the like.  And no wonder they had such a difficult time understanding what Jesus was trying to teach them, what with all the effort it must have taken for them just to coexist with each other.
So we might want to ask of Jesus, what were you thinking when you pulled together this assortment of folks to carry forward your message into the world.  Well, apparently Jesus wanted everyone to know – including us – that Christianity cuts across all boundaries, smashes apart all barriers, and breaks down all divides.  Christianity rises above social status, cultural background, political leanings, and religious affiliation.  On the Day of Pentecost, with the receiving of the gift of the Holy Spirit, each disciple retained his distinctiveness, but became bound with the others by something infinitely more unifying than their differences.
When I think of myself, I don’t think of myself as being an American who happens to be a Christian.  I am a Christian who happens to be an American.  I don’t think of myself as a Republican who happens to be a Christian, but as a Christian who happens to be a Republican.  And I certainly don’t think of myself as a Cleveland Browns fan who happens to be a Christian, but as a Christian who has the misfortunate of being a fan of the Cleveland Browns. 
And when I think of myself in relation to the human family, I don’t think of myself as one who possesses ‘The Truth’ or as one who has earned God’s favor or as one will get to heaven while others who don’t have what I have get sent to hell.  Rather, I think of myself as one who has been touched by God’s love and thus has a story to tell, as one who has been enfolded in God’s love and thus can share God’s love with the world, as one who has been richly blessed and thus has much to share, as one who has glimpsed the mystery of God and thus has much to learn about God from others.
The Spirit of Pentecost – falling on these eleven and being declared in every imaginable tongue – proclaims that Christianity is about what writer Robert Morris calls a “generous pluralism”.  It finds its unity not through a neat and tidy ideological conformity, but rather in Jesus himself, in his Spirit, and in his way of being with people. 
Morris describes Jesus’ vision of unity in the Spirit this way:
“It consisted in being humble beggars for God’s grace, fellow mourners about the suffering of others, colleagues in making peace, practitioners of mercy and forgiveness, and joint seekers of the vision of God.  [It seeks] to cultivate a compassion that can dissipate condemnation, a love strong enough to neutralize hate, and an interior grounding in God deep enough to transcend the need to find security in group sameness.”
At its core, this Day of Pentecost – with its ecstatic experiences and dramatic signs – is (as they say) the beginning of something big… really big.  The gift of the Spirit now enables the church to live into the message that Jesus proclaimed.  We are empowered to use our differences for the work of God’s kingdom because we are being drawn and held together by something substantially greater than our differences. 
Years ago I served at a parish where the women spent years organizing bake sales and after-church lunches in order to raise money for a new, commercial grade refrigerator for the kitchen.  Given that each month’s event raised only a hundred dollars or so, you can imagine how long it took.  Well, the day finally came when they had all the funds they needed.  The order was placed and delivery was set.  Unfortunately, the crew bringing the unit into the church dented one of the sides.  Well, after all the effort that went into all those events, you can understand how even a slightly damaged refrigerator would not do.  Back it went and new unit was brought in.  The only problem, it too got dented. 
Well, as they say, the third time is the charm – especially if the district manager is on hand to supervise delivery.  I talked to him about his work and he told me that they sold a lot of products to religious communities.  “You must hate working with churches,” I said, thinking about all the committees and all the disagreements and all the stuff that can make working with a place like us challenging.  The supervisor said something I have never forgotten, “Oh churches aren’t nearly as bad as country clubs.  At least people in churches are supposed to be nice to each other.  With country clubs, all bets are off.” 
This is a day for us in the church not celebrate that we are supposed to be behave in a way different from the world, but to celebrate that God’s love makes us different by binding us as one.  Do we always live into this?  Of course not.  But does God ever give up on us?  Never.  That Presence which pulled together those first eleven followers pulls us together too.  It pulls together our parish.  It pulls together the churches throughout Suffolk.  It pulls together our diocese and our denomination and all who share in the Christian tradition.  It works to pull together people of faith around the world.  And, as Paul says in today’s reading, it even works to pull together the entire creation.
Of all God’s gifts given to the church – forgiveness, empowerment, joy, faith, hope, love – perhaps the most important and (at times) the most tenuous is unity.  With this week’s service of Holy Baptism and next week with the bishop present for confirmation we begin our worship with a confession:
There is one Body and one Spirit;
There is one hope in God’s call to us;
One Lord, one faith, one baptism;
One God and Father of all.
This oneness is not something we muster on our own, but something we receive.  It is not something we create, but something we embrace.  It is not something about which we boast, but something for which we give thanks.  Living as we do in a society that seeks to divide and differentiate along all kinds of lines, God’s gift of unity is perhaps the most potent witness we can offer to the world.  If you agree, I invite you as one to say “Amen.”