Saturday, May 26, 2012

Born into Diversity

All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability… And at this sound the crowd was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. (Acts 2.4,6)


Not long ago I joined a group of HIV specialists for a diversity and inclusion (D&I) workshop. A group of actors played out a typical meeting scenario, where colleagues felt at ease with one another while discussing business. We were asked to listen closely for “unconscious” signals of inequities and assumptions based on gender, orientation, ethnicity, etc. Some were glaringly inappropriate. But most were extremely subtle and many seemed unintentional. “What we say matters,” the session facilitator told us. “And if we truly want to foster a diverse, inclusive environment, we need to use language that respects differences.” We all nodded in agreement—that’s the perennial moral in D&I training. Yet this session’s emphasis on unconscious breeches left us uneasy. Is never offending possible if one doesn’t always realize his/her language gives offense? As we wrestled with this idea, the gentleman next to me sighed, “Sometimes I think this stuff asks too much. As hard as you try, you can’t get it 100% right.”

Which brings us to Pentecost and why commemorating this major event—often called the “birth of the Church”—is so essential. While the gift of the Holy Spirit is, without question, the greatest miracle ever bestowed on the Body of Christ, it comes in such a way as to remove all doubt that God intends the Church to be a radically diverse and inclusive community. That is the second Pentecostal miracle, and it’s one we should celebrate to the full. When we revisit the extraordinary goings-on in Acts 2.1-21, we see more than fulfillment of Jesus’s promise to provide a Comforter to care for His followers. We witness a definitive declaration that forever throws open the doors of the Church to all people. In a gust of violent wind and fiery flashes, the Holy Spirit blows away every thought of exclusion and burns up any presumption that this great gift belongs to a select few. And how does the Spirit manifest this miracle? It uses languageunconscious language that speaks to everyone, believer and non-believer alike.

Above Their Limitations

Before we get to how this happens, suppose we glance around the Upper Room to see who’s there. We find a group of regular folks with no social or political agenda. We’d be hard-pressed to label them “progressives,” as they have no voice in their culture and what we’ve observed of them in the Gospels reveals decidedly shallow understanding of the world’s ways. What’s more, they’re surrounded by uncertainty. Their Leader has vanished into thin air. His recent execution puts them on the wrong side of history, leaving them vulnerable to persecution and potential death. Once again, they’re behind closed doors, just as they were after the crucifixion, waiting for something—who knows what, exactly—to offer them guidance. They’re afraid. And since fear is the root of bigotry and suspicion, we can safely say the 120 who faithfully anticipate the Holy Spirit’s descent are a diversity train wreck waiting to happen. The barriers discouraging acceptance of outsiders are seemingly insurmountable and if they’re to realize Jesus’s command to reach the entire world, they’ll have to rise above their limitations. So the first thing the Spirit changes is their language.

“All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability,” Acts 2.4 reports. This phenomenon—glossolalia, or “speaking in tongues”—becomes the Church’s calling card. Verses 6-8 tell us, “At this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, ‘Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?’” Verse 11 lists 15 different nationalities that are present and hear the Upper Room believers “speaking about God’s deeds of power.” And we should be very clear here. This is not ecstatic gibberish or personal “prayer languages” that the crowd hears. It’s a linguistic miracle that simultaneously confesses and verifies the Holy Spirit’s presence in the disciples’ faith community. It employs transformed speech to tear down cultural walls and overcome every fear that prohibits inclusion. Now the apostolic commission is achievable just as Christ said it would be: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be My witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1.8) Not only does the Spirit equip Christ’s followers to walk the walk; it empowers them to talk the talk.

Welcoming Witness

In no uncertain terms, Pentecost confirms that the Church is born into diversity. The Holy Spirit’s manifest presence in the Body of Christ erases all borders and rejects any possible excuse for religious rejection. It enjoins us to abandon all conscious reasoning for exclusion so we may speak God’s power to “the ends of the earth.” It makes a welcoming witness available to every believer—a spiritual language that resonates with people of every creed and kind. It is our Mother Tongue and when we revert to insular, exclusionary dialects, we make a mockery of this amazing communication skill that God has entrusted to us.

Pentecost unites us in a language of love that transforms how we view others and what we say to them. It’s the antidote to “unconscious” signals that defeat diversity and inclusion, as it, too, should be unconscious. It should come so naturally to us that we embrace everyone we meet without reservation. “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal,” Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 13.1. And in Luke 6.45 Jesus says, “The good person out of the good treasure of the heart produces good, and the evil person out of evil treasure produces evil; for it is out of the abundance of the heart that the mouth speaks.” The inexplicable clamor that ushers in the Holy Spirit isn’t what Pentecost is about. Pentecost is proof of what happens when we yield ourselves to the Holy Spirit’s enabling power to express God’s all-inclusive, unconditional love to everyone who will listen.

When the astounded foreigners ask, “What does this mean?” (v12) Peter explains that it’s the fulfillment of God’s promise to “pour out My Spirit upon all flesh.” (v17; emphasis added) And he wraps up his explanation by telling those who’ve gathered to find out what’s going on: “The promise is for you, your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls.” (v39) All flesh… you, your children… all who are far away… everyone. Sure sounds like radical D&I to me.

The second miracle of Pentecost is manifest when the Holy Spirit transforms the disciples’ speech so that diversity and inclusion barriers fall at the moment of the Church’s birth.

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