“We are all the same.”
This is a rallying cry we see again and again as we sift through the wreckage of our conflicts over differences. It’s a phrase that’s trying to take away pain, but it isn’t telling the truth. Differences are real. Declaring that differences don’t exist doesn’t just erase the beauty of diversity, it also offers the wrong solution to what our problems truly are. We don’t all need to be the same. We need to be one in Christ.
Last week was a rollercoaster, both personally and nationally. Like most folks, I read about and watched some of the pain and violence that has ignited across our nation in recent days. From both those nearest to me (those to whom I spoke face to face), and those furthest from me (those whom I saw in the news), I heard so many differing stories: different concerns, different praises, different fears, griefs, and joys. Countless, different people. Each one unique.
And this difference goes deeper than relationships between people. The Creation can be described as the wedding, the joining together of differents. Heaven and earth, light and dark, land and sea, male and female. Creation is diverse both within and beyond the human community. Even sea monsters and men are held together in a beautifully diverse unity, because the Spirit hovered over the face of the deep.
Here is the sea, great and wide, which teems with creatures innumerable, living things both small and great. There go the ships, and Leviathan, which you formed to play in it. (Ps 104:25–26)
Psalm 104, which we read every year on Pentecost, reminds us that where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom, and there is fullness of life. Innumerable, living things both small and great, sea monsters and ships, dance and play together in the sea. In the psalmist’s imagination, when the Spirit is present, difference is delightful, and man and monster play (Ps 104:26-28, 30). But when the Spirit is hidden, both small and great, man and monster, we are all dismayed (Ps 104:29).
The natural human answer to the perceived problem of difference is sameness. For most of human history, we have separated ourselves into groups, building up comfortable walls to protect our sameness, to achieve mastery over others, and to protect ourselves from differences. Other times we have tried to conform everyone around us into the same image, eliminating all distinctions. Like prisoners in a jail, we lose ourselves in the collective.
But sameness cannot resolve our differences. The answer of Holy Scripture to the apparent problem of difference is not sameness; the answer is oneness.
Last Sunday, many of us gathered together to celebrate the Feast of Pentecost. We remember that fifty days after Jesus’ resurrection on Easter Sunday, the first disciples were gathered together in a house. Suddenly, there was the sound of a mighty rushing wind, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit. The Spirit of the living, resurrected, and ascended Christ was poured out on all flesh, on all nations. The reverse of Babel happened and what drove us apart, uncommon language, was turned backward, and everyone heard the gospel in his or her own language.
For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit. (1 Cor 12:13)
Differences abound. Jews and Greeks (things we can’t change). Slave and free (things we can change). When we are ignorant of another culture’s customs it is normal for us to be frightened. The turbulent deep teeming with sea creatures has scared mariners for ages. We are afraid, like the disciples in the storm.
But Jesus calmed the storm. He made peace between people of all nations by his blood. How did Jesus make us one? By the Spirit (Eph 2:18, 22). Jesus has broken down our comfortable dividing walls of sameness. Jesus has killed the hostility, and through him we have access in one Spirit to God. Once we were two; now we are made one.
Once we were different and hostile to one another. Now, we are still different, but Jesus has killed the hostility. You cannot eat at King Jesus’ table together on Sunday and then refuse to eat in one another’s homes on Monday (Galatians 2:11ff.). There is no “live and let live” in the Kingdom of God. Killing our hostility with God requires killing our hostility with one another.
Oneness Requires Difference
The family of God is not a cult drinking the same Kool-Aid, all wearing the same robes and sneakers. Rather, the Body of Christ is a “unity of unlikes” (C. S. Lewis, Membership), a “fellowship of differents” (Scot McKnight). The Church is a community of unique persons.
The answer to the problems that arise from our difference is not to eliminate all distinctions, but to gather at one table. Like various parts in a body, we are not the same. If the body has more than one head, it is a monster. You don’t make an engine by gathering together a bunch of bolts. You need nuts and bolts, pistons and cylinders.
When you look into the face of another person made in the image of God, you don’t say, “I don’t see color.” White sand and rich black soil are different, but both are the dust of the earth. Both are beautiful and different. The skin of man is beautiful and different. Sameness is not oneness.
From Abraham onward, the children of God are more than the sands of sea. When sand goes through the fire it melts together into glass, and with each pane of glass, every curve, every distinct side reflects the light in uniquely beautiful and brightly colorful ways. Every grain of sand reflects the infinite beauty of God in perfectly unique and uncountably beautiful ways. Sameness is not oneness.
In the gospel, Greeks must not become Jewish. Jews must not become pagans. But they must eat together at the same table. In the gospel, mothers are not fathers. Children are not grandparents. Multiple wives don’t make a happy family (ask Solomon). We need all kinds of different and unique persons to make this family. We, the family of God, are a “unity of unlikes.”
Family is hard and difference is challenging. But oneness in the Spirit requires us to live with each other in understanding ways (1 Peter 4). In the gospel, slave and free become family (Philemon). Male and female are wed. The fatherless are given a Father. The childless are given innumerable offspring.
The answer to the problems that arise from our difference is not to make everyone the same. The answer to the problems that arise from our difference is to be united in Christ. Christ the Head, we the Body. In Christ we die, and in Christ we are buried. With Christ we are baptized in one Spirit. This “fellowship of differents” is raised together to walk in newness of life. Oneness requires difference.
What Must We Have in Common?
We try to protect ourselves by surrounding ourselves with sameness, all dressing the same way, separating ourselves by skin color and class and political party. We separate and sing different songs in different keys. We know this is wrong, but our solutions are neither realistic or ideal. Shouldn’t we all just be the same? No. Sameness will never lead to the common good. We need variety, we must have difference if our aim is unity.
Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. (1 Cor 12:4–7)
The song of the gospel is not one note. The song of the gospel is many notes in the same key, in beautiful harmony. Variety, differences of gifts, differences of service, differences of activities produce a common good, a shared good, a beautifully diverse unity. We are one in the Spirit, diverse in our gifts, producing our common good. In the Spirit, variety is in harmony, and we all sing the same song:
…we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God. (Acts 2:11)
The outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost was made manifest in the common proclamation of the gospel. To be Spirit-filled requires us to proclaim the mighty works of God. And although we proclaim the same message, each person, every mouth will tell the story in different ways, with a different tone of voice, singing different notes in harmony. The message of the gospel throughout Acts is diverse: tell of the mighty works of God in creation, tell of the mighty works of God in the Law and the Prophets, tell of the mighty works of God in the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. Many voices, one common proclamation. Different stories, one gospel.
Every time we gather, many different voices harmonize together in one song. On the Feast of Pentecost, on every Lord’s Day, by the Spirit, all nations sing the same song. We share a common liturgy with Nigerians, with Mexicans, with Canadians, with Christians from all nations. We must not fear difference in Christ.
And they sang a new song, saying, “Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation (Rev 5:9)
The Creation requires difference. The New Creation in Christ by the Spirit redeems our differences. Come let us return to the Lord. Let us repent of our comfortable sameness. And with many different tongues and with one voice, let us sing of the mighty works of God.