A Pentecost Sermon about Diversity in Unity

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Photo by Josh Evans, Stained Glass (South Window) at Augustana Lutheran Church, Omaha, Nebraska, © 2017.


Augustana Lutheran Church
4 June 2017 + Day of Pentecost
Acts 2.1-21; 1 Corinthians 12:3b-13



There’s a certain pleasure in watching a cooking show on TV — my personal favorite is The Barefoot Contessa — and then searching out the recipe online, hurriedly jotting down the ingredients, and embarking on a quest to make that dish your own. Except it never quite turns out like it did for Ina Garten, does it? Maybe that’s just me, but then again, no one has ever mistaken me for a chef extraordinaire.

In cooking, one quickly learns the lesson that every ingredient matters. Case in point: When you’re making brownies, eggs are kind of crucial. Not that I would know anything about that from experience…

Every ingredient matters. Similarly, Paul writes to the Corinthians that there are varieties of gifts but the same Spirit, many members but one body. For Paul, every unique gift matters to make up the whole. But it seems that the lesson we learn from this and similar texts is to place greater value on the end result — the unity, the oneness, the sameness. And yet quite the opposite is true when you cast even a passing glance at this text, for indeed Paul spends the majority of his time naming these various gifts of the Spirit — wisdom, faith, healing, prophecy, and so forth.

The emphasis here is much more on the diversity of the community. So why then do we so quickly jump over that to arrive at a sort of kumbaya/we’re all the same/let’s all get along conclusion?

We’ve probably heard more Pentecost sermons about Christian unity than we care to remember, and while they’re not inherently wrong in any way, I want to suggest a nuance here — unity not as the opposite of diversity, but unity in the midst of and even harmoniously alongside diversity.

The movement in our Pentecost text from Acts draws us from the cloistered group of disciples into the wider community. They were all together in one room… and then suddenly the Holy Spirit shows up… and before you know it, they’re in the midst of a crowd of Jews from every nation, speaking in the native language of each.

Now let’s be clear: It’s not that the disciples were suddenly speaking some universal language that everyone could miraculously understand. These were all different languages. The litany of nations and nationalities isn’t there for its own sake or for the sake of keeping church readers everywhere on their toes. It’s meant to emphasize, or even exaggerate, the dramatic diversity of people to whom God’s Spirit and message of liberation is being revealed. As Peter declares, quoting the prophet Joel, God will pour out God’s Spirit upon all flesh. But what the text doesn’t say, and what  I fear we all too often read into it, is that God’s Spirit will make everyone the same. Instead, there’s a movement here from unity to diversity, and it’s a diversity that enhances our common humanity.

Still, this diversity doesn’t come about all on its own; it’s the doing of the Holy Spirit. But we don’t seem to talk about the Spirit much, do we? God the Creator? Sure, that’s basically the main divine character in the Old Testament. God the Son? Well, that’s Jesus, of course. But God the Holy Spirit? That’s where we get a little fuzzy…

Martin Luther himself ascribed great significance to this oft-neglected third person of the Trinity. In his Large Catechism, he writes, “Neither you nor I could ever know anything about Christ…unless…offered to us and bestowed on our hearts through the preaching of the gospel by the Holy Spirit” (LC 436.38). This Holy Spirit, for Luther, reveals to us the Word of life and brings us again and again to faith.

Luther also says something else quite remarkable: “Creation is now behind us [God the Father], and redemption has also taken place [God the Son], but the Holy Spirit continues [their] work without ceasing… for [they] have not yet gathered together all of [the] community(LC 439.61-62).

The Holy Spirit continues in their work… The work of the Spirit is ongoing. It is as ancient as creation, when God’s Spirit hovered over the waters before life began, and it is promised and received anew on the Day of Pentecost. For the Spirit has not yet gathered together all of the community…

I suspect the Spirit is at work, too, in places like Storm Lake, Iowa, a town of just over 10,000 residents. A recent New York Times article highlights its growing immigrant workforce. Defying state trends, in which the vast majority of Iowans are non-Hispanic white, nearly the opposite is true in Storm Lake. Local grocery store Valentina’s Meat Market showcases a variety of ethnic foods side-by-side, while in the halls of Storm Lake’s public schools, as many as 18 different languages can be heard. “A lot of different communities are living together,” remarks one resident, and another: “This is who we are now.” There is a vivaciousness, a sense of new life, in Storm Lake amidst its diversity.

Here at Augustana, too, the Spirit consistently urges us to draw the circle wide and wider still, as our choir sang not long ago, to include more and more of God’s whole creation — from North to South Omaha and West Omaha to Midtown to downtown, to immigrants and refugees from halfway across the world and our siblings in Christ at Masama Kati, and even and especially the non-human parts of creation, animals and plants and waters, under great threat amidst a changing global climate.

The Spirit is all-inclusive, far-reaching, and ever gathering her people into one. The Spirit doesn’t magically change all those people into the same carbon copy of the next person. But the Spirit thrives in diversity and uses that diversity to enhance our common life. The Spirit draws us together in new and varied ways of worship, song, and prayer; she engages us ever more fully in unique facets and vantage points of understanding and knowing; and she unites us around one table — our diversity intact, honored, celebrated — as we share of the fruit of the one Tree of Life, whose leaves are for the healing and wholeness of all the nations.

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