Some time back on my regular visit to a nursing home I met an elderly woman from Latvia. She spoke no English, and I spoke absolutely no Latvian. When I first visited her I tried to tell her who I was. I showed her my Bible and read from it though I’m sure she didn’t understand what I was saying. I folded my hands and prayed. After all this symbolic kind of speaking I went away believing that she had at least comprehended that I had something to do with the church.
I visited her regularly and even though we couldn’t understand what the other was saying, I could see by the warmth of her smile and the way she firmly held my hand when it came time to go that she appreciated the time we spent together.
There was one time when we really did communicate. Not with a common language, but when we shared the communion liturgy together. We prayed the Lord’s Prayer, she in Latvian and I in English. Then as I took the plate with the bread on it and began the Words of Institution she recited those words with me. She said it in Latvian and I spoke them in English. Then we shared the body and blood of Christ. And when I raised my hand to make the sign of the cross and began to say, “The Lord bless you and keep you…” she said those words in her own language.
It seemed that the Holy Spirit was blending our voices into a common language. In a very real way, we were communicating. She was at least 40 years older than I was, she was born and grew up on the other side of the world, her life’s experiences were so different to mine (I dare say she would have known hardship and sadness during the war years and then under communism), we didn’t have a common language with which to communicate – only the language of the Holy Spirit who enabled us to be at one in spite of our differences and the confusion this caused.
I was asked to conduct her funeral service. She had no family here in Australia – there was only a very small group of people at the funeral service – and even though I didn’t know a great deal about this lady, she wasn’t a stranger. She was one of God’s children as much as I was. This is what we had shared and in the end this is all the mattered.
In Jerusalem that first Pentecost, there were people from all over the world. They had little or nothing in common. The barriers of national languages and interests and different cultural backgrounds stood between them. Yet when the wind of God’s Spirit swept over them, this estrangement, this separation seemed suddenly to blow away. The diversity and differences were still present – the language and cultural variety amongst the people on that day didn’t disappear. They just didn’t matter any more.
The Spirit had brought them together as one in the body of Christ. The unity that we experience as Christians is only possible through Jesus Christ.
• We all believe and trust that Jesus is our Saviour.
• He has died for us and given us forgiveness.
• He rose from the dead and assures us that we too will rise from the dead.
He has brought all of us together as members of God’s family regardless of our backgrounds and all the things that divide us in this world.
This is highlighted for us at our baptism. In a very simple way, through the water and the Word he has united us all together with him. We are brothers and sisters in Christ, and when I say “we”, I mean people from every tribe, nation and tongue. There is no discrimination in God’s family. Paul says it so well in Galatians, “For you are all children of God, through faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3.26-28).
A couple of weeks ago we heard how the apostle Peter was affected by what happened at Pentecost. Remember how Peter was waiting on the rooftop for lunch and as he dozed in the sun he had a vision. A tarp was lowered from heaven and on it were all kinds of animals, reptiles and lizards most of which were not allowed to be eaten by the Jews. A voice spoke to him. “Rise, Peter, kill and eat!” (Acts 10:13).
Peter was horrified. He was brought up to be very careful about what he ate. There were rules about what was good to eat and what was not. Peter had always been careful to follow the rules.
God responded saying, “Are you calling unclean what I have made clean!” This happened three times. Soon after, a messenger came from Cornelius, a Roman soldier, inviting Peter to go to his house. He wanted to know more about Jesus. A Jew would never enter the house of a Gentile. Peter would have politely said to the messenger, “Thank you but no thanks” but that vision from God changed his whole outlook.
He realised that Christ had died for all people, even their enemies the Romans.
In God’s family there is no distinction.
Because someone’s skin is a different colour,
because they come from a different cultural background,
because a person is on a different social and economic level than we are,
because someone has a different way of expressing their Christian faith (like styles of worship, music, prayer etc),
none of these things matter. They exist but they don’t divide.
As Paul said, faith in Christ Jesus is what makes each of us equal with each other.
This oneness in Christ is expressed so well by the apostle Paul when addressing the divisions that had occurred in the Corinthian congregation. You see, the Christians at Corinth were anything but unified.
• Some thought themselves more important than others.
• Some considered themselves more religious than others.
• Some didn’t care if they offended anyone else.
• Some regarded their spiritual gifts as superior to those of others and it went on. Paul had to speak firmly to those Christians saying, “For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether bond or free; and were all given to drink into one Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12.13).
He used the illustration of our own bodies. Between the many organs and parts there is great diversity. One part needs the other. If one part suffers the whole body suffers. There is diversity but there is a unique unity. And then Paul finishes by saying, “Now you are the body of Christ, and members individually” (1 Corinthians 12:27).
What could be clearer? We all share the same Saviour, we all have all been baptised into the one body, the Church; we have all brought into the body of Christ through the same Spirit and share the same faith given by the Holy Spirit. In spite of individual gifts and backgrounds, together we are the body of Christ, his church.
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As you can appreciate this has a powerful message about the way we should regard one another – as brothers and sisters in Christ. It is true that we all express our individuality in some way or another.
For one thing we all have a variety of gifts and abilities.
And another thing is that there are people in every congregation who have special roles that have been given to them by the Holy Spirit and sometimes they have to give a clear “yes” or “no” or “let’s do this another way”. The Apostle was quite clear that people are appointed to various roles and sometimes we aren’t going to like what they tell us. But there is nothing nasty or sinister or divisive in this – this is the Spirit’s way of making us stronger, more focused and more mature in our love and faith. It’s the Spirit’s way of making the unity we have in Christ firmer and more certain.
I know that sometimes the words don’t come out right and offence is given and even when the words do come out right we don’t hear them as they are intended and so take offence. Misunderstanding happens. That’s part of our sinful nature coming to the front. That’s Satan’s attempt to destroy the unity that we have in Christ. He rubs his hands with glee every time somebody boycotts the church or quits using their gifts because offence has been given.
Every time we get uppity about what someone has supposedly said and done and fail to seek reconciliation and understanding,
We deny the unity that we have in Christ;
we ignore our baptism and the unity it gives,
and rebut the Holy Spirit by letting our sinful nature win the day. We get into all kinds of strife.
Paul speaks to us through his letter to the Ephesians: “Gentiles are fellow heirs, and fellow members of the body, and fellow partakers of his promise in Christ Jesus through the Good News” (Ephesians 3:6).
In fact every time Paul talks about the oneness that we have in Christ he talks about love. He follows his chapter on oneness of the body of Christ with the wonderful description of love in chapter 13. In Ephesians he follows his plea for oneness saying, “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving each other, just as God also in Christ forgave you…. Be therefore imitators of God, as beloved children” (Ephesians 4:32, 5:1).
This unity that we have in Christ goes beyond the walls of our churches. It goes with us into our homes, our work places, our places of leisure. The Holy Spirit is an every day Spirit. He helps us in our daily living as Christians in this very complex age. Let’s take one example, the Spirit guides and directs us in our homes
A little girl asked her grandfather, “Did you and grandma ever get into any fights?”
To which grandfather replied: “We don’t talk about it very often, but there was a time when we were not getting along very well. We seemed to be picking on each a lot and finding all kinds of things to argue about and really getting on one another’s nerves. Well, one day I came in from the garden and I heard a voice upstairs. I went to the stairs and heard your grandmother telling God what she could not bring herself to tell me.”
“Well, what did you do?” asked the grand-daughter.
“I quietly walked up the stairs,” he replied, “and knelt down beside her and told God my side of the story. And from that day to this, we have never had a problem which we couldn’t resolve by talking it over with each other and with God.”
Do you think the Holy Spirit was active in that couples’ marriage? There can be no doubt. Conflict will always remain part of every relationship. The fruits of the Spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, humility, and self-control – will always remain critical for happy relationships with others.
The challenge is always before us as Paul said to the Ephesians, Be “eager to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3). When we fail, and be sure, we will do that often, the Spirit is quick to point us back to the cross and remind us of what Jesus has done for us. He points us to the love and the sacrifice that Jesus showed for each of us and the forgiveness and newness that is ours. Through the Holy Spirit we are encouraged and reminded that God loves us and consequently urged to show love to one another.
The people on the first Pentecost listened to what Peter had to say, and they acted. Likewise the Spirit promotes Jesus in our lives, he gathers us around the cross of Jesus, he changes our lives so that we are more patient and forgiving, ready to let the power of God’s love have the final say over the conflicts we get in to.
We pray that the Spirit open our ears to his prompting and help us to mark real in our lives what it means to be “one in Christ”.
Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.
Copyright 2006, Vince Gerhardy. Used by permission.