Spirit of Unity and Diversity

Ephesians 4:1-16

This summer in the season after Pentecost we are exploring the movement of the Spirit in the life of Christians. As followers of the resurrected and ascended Jesus, we are alive in the Spirit of God. The Holy Spirit empowers the Church (capital-C) to keep reinterpreting the story of Jesus in each new place and each new time. This week we are talking about the spirit of Unity and Diversity. Not the spirit of unity and the spirit of diversity, separately. But one thing together: the spirit of unity and diversity. 

This past Tuesday, June 25, the United Church of Christ celebrated it’s 67th birthday. On June 25, 1957, the Evangelical and Reformed Church and the Congregational Christian Church officially merged to form the United Church of Christ. As you might have guessed from their names, those two denominations were themselves each mergers of the German Reformed Church (which is what Zion was) and the Evangelical Synod of North America on one side and the Congregationalists and the Christian Churches on the other side. And each of those four were themselves mergers of mergers. Since the Roman Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox Churches separated in 1054, Christians have been separating and recombining in infinite combinations. The Methodists are doing it right now. Christians are apparently almost as good at agreeing as we are at disagreeing. I’ll give you a minute to think about that. 

Out of curiosity would you raise your hand if Zion is the first United Church of Christ where you have been a member or regular attender? Zion is your first UCC experience. You’re not alone. Many many many people are finding their home in the United Church of Christ. I did myself. I counted the other day and Zion is the 11th church I have attended in my life, representing seven different denominations. The UCC is the right home for me because it welcomes and honors all the beliefs and experiences that I want to bring with me from those other traditions and says there’s no one right way of doing church. 

The UCC has been called “an improbable collective of exceedingly diverse people” and a “beautiful, heady, exasperating mix of a pluralistic church.” You may wonder why the name is so general: The United Church of Christ. That name was chosen in part because our founders hoped that the denomination would continue to grow by merger, that we would find other Christians who wanted to unite instead of staying separate. We are a united and uniting church and from our inception, the United Church of Christ has been led by a spirit of unity and diversity. 

Which begs the question: what keeps us together? What holds together this improbable collective, this beautiful, heady, exasperating mix? Well, it’s not a new idea. The New Testament church was also an improbable collective of exceedingly diverse people, a beautiful, heady, exasperating mix, a community that grew and grew as more and more people from different backgrounds came together. In fact throughout the book of Acts, we see that one of the distinctives of the church was the fact that it was a community of people from across social boundaries. Galatians 3:27 and 28 say, “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” The apostle Paul in the book of First Corinthians chapter 12 uses an extended metaphor to talk about how the church is the body of Christ and different people are different parts of the body, working together for the good of the whole body, complexity in harmony. 

And our text for this morning, the book of Ephesians chapter 4. We explored this whole book together while we were all in lockdown in the summer of 2020, so if this sparks your interest you can go listen to those podcasts. Let us listen now in the reading of scripture for the word and wisdom of God. 

“As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.

But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it.

(skipping to verse 11)

So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.

Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.”

This is the word of God for all people. Thanks be to God.

The way to live in a spirit of unity and diversity is to remember that we are each and all subject to something greater than ourselves. We’ve talked before about how our individuality serves the whole, that’s not what I’m talking about here. I’m talking about the fact that each and every Christian and all of us together are subject to a greater authority. I’m going to say something that I don’t say often so get ready. Each Christian and all of us together are subject to the authority of the lordship of Jesus Christ. Now the only way that a progressive church might be more uncomfortable with that language would be for me to put the word “submit” in there too, which I almost did. The way that we are guided by and maintain a spirit of unity and diversity or perhaps we could say unity IN diversity, is by each and all of us remaining subject to authority of the lordship of Jesus Christ. So let’s unpack that a little. 

The constitution of the United Church of Christ says right at the beginning, “The United Church of Christ acknowledges as its sole Head, Jesus Christ, Son of God and Savior. It acknowledges as kindred in Christ all who share in this confession.” Christ is the only head of the church, the head at the top of the body, not just of our denomination but of the entire church, and the body is directed by the head. If we are to be the body of Christ, and individually members of that body, we must each and all be moved not by our own whims and wills but by the will of Christ. We must acknowledge the crucified and risen Christ as the final authority in our lives individually and as a church. We must each and all be “one in Christ” as it says in Galatians. 

If Jesus is Lord — as our ancestors claimed in opposition to the declaration that Caesar was Lord — if Jesus is Lord then money is not. If Jesus is Lord then power is not. If Jesus is Lord then fame is not, and neither is beauty or youth or your job or your family obligations or your politics or anything else to which we humans tend to give our allegiance. If we are subject to the lordship of Jesus, then our primary question in every situation is “What is God doing here? How is Jesus leading me in this situation?” Asking that question, even if we start by simply pausing for a couple of seconds before we speak or act, it would change us.

Now if Christ is the head and we are the different parts of the body, it doesn’t mean that we are all going to agree. It doesn’t mean that we are all going to do the same thing. The head is going to direct the hands to something different from what it will direct the legs or the eyes to do. We can be “one in Christ” with people with whom we disagree, even about important things. It means that God has different work for us to do. If we disagree about reproductive freedom, we won’t work together on that issue. But the fact that we are called to do different things does not mean that we aren’t still part of the same body. 

The thing that we must remember is that the Christians with whom we most disagree are still made in the image of God and are reflecting some aspect of God’s character that the world needs to see. You may not like that they focus so much on personal sin. But the gospel of the freedom of Christ includes freedom from both the inward bonds of sin and the outward barriers of injustice. Are they getting everything right and being perfect representations of God. No. But guess what — neither are we! I am getting some things wrong; we are getting some things wrong. God is too big to be perfectly represented by one individual or one group. What arrogance it would be to claim that. But all of us together? The best of each and all of us, the best of the whole Church? That reflects God. Earlier in Ephesians, it says that “through the church the multi-colored wisdom of God is made known in the world.” 

We in the UCC claim as kindred, as family, anyone who claims that Christ is the sole head of the Church. Family, even though we disagree. Family, even though we are called to different things. Family, complexity in harmony, diversity in unity. Maintaining the unity of the one Spirit in the bond of peace. Amen. 

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