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.

A Sermon About Rejoicing and Not Worrying (Really?!)

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Sermon for ML 403 Preaching Lab
Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago
3 November 2015
Philippians 4.4-7 (Advent 3C)


[Click here to listen along!]


I hate to break it to you, but you realize that we’re now just a mere five weeks and three days away from the end of the semester, right? That’s only 38 days to research and write those final papers and give those final presentations. And I know most of us in this room are doing MIC (Ministry in Context), so let’s not forget about preaching or leading adult forum or teaching confirmation at our congregations. And Thanksgiving’s just around the corner, with Christmas lurking not all that far behind: the gift shopping, the cookie baking, the extra worship services, the stress of awkward family gatherings. But you know, don’t worry.

If you’re anything like me, then you probably take issue with what overly optimistic Paul has to say in this passage from Philippians. Rejoice always. Don’t worry. Pray continually. And by the time he rolls around to his conclusion, “The peace of God which surpasses all understanding,” his maxims and platitudes have reached their pinnacle of gag-worthiness.

I learned the lesson about vapid platitudes and overly optimistic maxims the hard way during a summer of CPE (Clinical Pastoral Education). During one patient visit, I was listening to a woman, Amy, talk about loss upon loss in her life: her son’s unemployment, her own tenuous employment and lack of sick pay during multiple hospitalizations, the uncertainty of whether or not the bank would foreclose on her house and leave her homeless for the second time. So at one point when I said, “Well, you’re here now, and it sounds to me like you’re a survivor,” she basically told me to shut up. I imagine if Paul were in the room telling her to rejoice in the Lord always and not to worry about anything, she might have said something similar.


There’s been an article floating around Facebook this week titled “Your Mental Health Is More Important Than Your Grades.” The author reports that about 62% of students suffer from “perpetual, toxic anxiety.” Stress, she says, is “a force to be reckoned with.” It can have damaging effects on our sense of well-being and our ability to function, resulting in fear, doubt, and depression. In response, the author conducted a study focusing on what her students were doing to actively combat stress. Among her conclusions: you don’t have to be a perfectionist, and you’re not alone. In other words, stress isn’t worth it if it costs you your mental health and your life in community.[1]

The Philippians appear to have been no strangers to stress, either. There’s evidence throughout Paul’s letter that the church at Philippi experienced both external persecution and internal conflict. But Paul offers them encouragement. “Rejoice,” he says, and “let your graciousness be known to everyone.” The Greek word for graciousnessepieikes—means, essentially, not insisting on the letter of the law and instead being gracious and forgiving. It’s also the word Paul uses to refer to the graciousness of Christ in another letter to the Corinthians. As one commentary puts it, epieikes evokes a sense of generosity toward others, and Paul uses it here as a model of living for the Philippian community. Be like this because Christ was.

In this passage, Paul is basically telling the Philippians the same thing as the author of the stress study tells us: Your unity and graciousness to others are more important than getting it right all the time. Paul is concerned for their unity, and against the background of conflict and anxiety, his words remind the Philippians that they’re in this together. As one biblical scholar puts it, “Jesus has redeemed us from petty squabbles and derisive chatter to provide a particular kind of witness to the world. That witness is found in the way we treat one another.”[2]


So: rejoice in the Lord always, let your graciousness be made known to everyone, do not worry… and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Paul ends with a promise of God’s peace, but it’s not just another vapid platitude. The word Paul uses for guard can also be used in the sense of confinement in prison. I don’t think his word choice is just a coincidence. Paul knew what confinement was like, since at the time of his writing to the Philippians he himself was locked up in Rome, pending capital charges. So if Paul could be reassured of the peace of God in his situation, the Philippians could believe it in theirs. Paul wasn’t offering empty words; he was offering his lived experience.

We can rejoice in the Lord always and not allow ourselves to become confined by stress or conflict. We can rejoice not because circumstances are always ideal or easy, but because in the end God’s peace endures even in those dark places—be it the stress of the rapidly approaching end of the semester or the depression that accompanies the ever-shortening days until the winter solstice. Advent is the season we anticipate the inbreaking of God’s new reality in Jesus, culminating in the angels’ proclamation: “Glory to God in the highest, and peace to God’s people on earth.”


[1] Kristen Lee Costa, “Your Mental Health Is More Important Than Your Grades,” https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/reset-247/201510/your-mental-health-is-more-important-your-grades.

[2] Jacob Myers, “Commentary on Philippians 4:4-7,” http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1505.