Unity in Rich Diversity

“We are Parthians, Medes, and Elamites, inhabitants of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the districts of Libya near Cyrene, as well as travelers from Rome, both Jews and converts to Judaism, Cretans and Arabs, yet we hear them speaking in our own tongues of the mighty acts of God.” Acts 2: 9-11

I was about 12 years old when I was asked to proclaim the first reading on the Solemnity of Pentecost. As our lectors know, this is not an easy reading to proclaim. Mother Hildegard, my dear great-aunt, worked with me on the pronunciation of the many names in this reading. And she seized the opportunity to elaborate on what happened that first Pentecost.

My great-aunt’s introduction to the early church opened my imagination to the world in which the Gospel was first proclaimed some 2000 years ago. This lively Pentecost scene somehow reminded me of the Sunday Market in Brussels, the capital of Belgium and Europe. When I went there for the first time, I could not believe my eyes. Coming from a small and traditional town in Flanders, the sight of people from all around the world made me dizzy with excitement. I could not believe the exuberant and colorful clothes. Competing music in unknown languages blared from the different booths. I tasted dishes previously unknown to me. And to this day, I remember being olfactorily overcome by the scent of the many different spices. It was an absolute delight and it felt like I was traveling from country to country in a matter of moments. This is how I imagined Jerusalem on a holiday in the time of the apostles. A rich cacophony of humanity in all its diversity: just like the cradle of the church.

Visualizing my great aunt’s description of that first Pentecost, I knew exactly where the apostles were. I saw them hiding in the upper room. In stark contrast to the festive atmosphere outside, the apostles were laden with angst and burdened by uncertainty. And then, in an instant, everything changed. Aflame with the Holy Spirit, they threw open the doors and windows, burst into the streets and started speaking of the marvelous deeds of God.

This happened with so much energy that it drew the attention of passers-by and quieted them down. And to everyone’s amazement, they all heard the apostles speak in their native tongue. The Gospel of Jesus Christ was proclaimed in multiple languages and received by people from different countries, cultures, races, and ethnicities. This is a powerful testimony to the fact that though we all believe in the one, true God, we are as diverse as our world.

In contrast to this great Pentecost scene, where the diversity of the people was honored and lifted up, a dangerous fog of cultural fear and anger clouds our world today. These days diversity is met with suspicion and often leads to division.

The political world is particularly affected by this. Yet, our church is not immune to this either. Rather than welcoming the richness that comes from respectful dialogue between diverse races and opinions we clammer for uniformity. And rather than listening to one another we resort to speaking louder and louder in a desperate attempt to win whichever battle we are waging. Sadly, we lack the inner peace and the mutual respect needed to listen intently to one another and learn from one another. Tragically, we seem to have lost the way of the apostles who were able, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit to rejoice in the richly diverse tapestry of humanity.

I look forward to the day when it will be said:

“We are republicans, democrats and independents; rich and poor; liberals, conservatives and moderates; women and men and children; gay and straight; Africans, Asians and Americans; Australians and Europeans, yet we hear them speaking in our own tongue of the mighty acts of God.”

What an exciting and holy time that will be. May that day come soon!

 

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