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The Day of Pentecost: May 19, 2002

The Day of Pentecost: May 19, 2002

"For by 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)

Cultural diversity, as a positive social value, did not exist in the first century. To be sure, people who lived in the Mediterranean world inhabited by Paul and Christ and the earliest Christians were well aware of what we would today call racial, ethnic, and linguistic differences. Just listen to the lineup of those coming to Jerusalem for the Jewish Feast of Pentecost: all those "Parthians, Medes, Elamites; residents of Cappadocia, Pontus, Asia, Phrygia, Pamphilia, Egypt, and Libya; Romans, Cretans, and Arabs." How many of us could locate the places these people came from on a map? Yet Luke assumes his readers know who these people are, all these pilgrims to the holy city who end up becoming the first recipients of the good news when the apostles break out of the upper room and begin speaking to them.

The average urban dweller of antiquity probably had a more cosmopolitan outlook on the world than his contemporary counterpart today. Just think of the old poster of the "New Yorker's View of the World" that was funny precisely because it came so close to the truth. People who lived in antiquity knew that there were plenty of differences among the inhabitants of this earth, and the wealthier classes might revel in a sort of exoticism that expressed itself in having both slaves and artifacts drawn from remote regions of the earth. But people who lived in ancient times-and most people right up into the twenty-first century--while they might find other ethnic groups interesting, quaint, or exotic, never thought of them as equals. Other groups might be charming or barbaric, as the case might be; but one's own group was always the best. Cultured Greeks and Romans thought of Jews as very peculiar indeed, with their grotesque rite of circumcision and absurd dietary restrictions. Jews meanwhile looked down on these Gentiles for their generally loose morals and utter ignorance of God and his ways.

So when in the aftermath of Pentecost this sort of tribalism begins to break down, something quite revolutionary was happening in the world. At the Christian Eucharist, Jews and Greeks, slaves and the masters they serve, all come together for table fellowship. It had never been done before. It followed the pattern inaugurated by Jesus, who stepped across the piety divide to eat with well-known sinners. But we know of no recorded instance in the gospels in which Jesus broke bread with Gentiles; the sinners he ate with were all Jews. Crossing the ethnic divide was a task he left to his Church. "Truly, truly," says Jesus in today's gospel, "whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these he will do, because I go to the Father" (Jn. 14: 12). Perhaps a more inclusive table fellowship was one of these "greater works" Jesus was entrusting to his Church, something to be developed gradually under the impulse of the Spirit. Because what Christians discovered over time was that there was something deeper that united them to one another-something more profound than sharing the same gene pool, the same language, the same tribal or ethnic history. And that something was the Spirit. Although we are many, marvels Paul in today's epistle, by the one Spirit we are made one body. The differences aren't obliterated; they just aren't all that important. Where there are differences that are themselves the creation of the Spirit-such as the variously distributed gifts of wisdom, knowledge, or healing-these distinctive gifts are given not for personal enjoyment, but for the common good.

In many ways, we live in a different cultural universe from that of the first century. To be sure, tribalism is alive and well in some parts of the world: witness the horrors of ethnic cleansing on several continents, the conflict in the Middle East, the balkanization of much of the former Soviet empire, the resurgence of anti-Semitism in Europe, and the pockets of outright racism right here at home. But the reason we find this so shocking is because most of us really do believe in the value of diversity, and that one of the strengths of this country is its astonishing social, cultural, and racial complexity. Even when we don't live up to this challenging legacy, we still think we should. Those of us who are Christians feel its congruence with what we know of Pentecost, when the unity of the Spirit overcame the babble of competing languages. To have read our lesson from Acts in the original Greek, together with six of the hundreds of languages into which it has been translated, helps us gain some humility and perspective. Every week we hear the Scriptures in translation, as do most other Christians throughout the world. Underneath all our varying languages is the Word of God who transcends all our words and unites us in the Spirit.

The value of diversity is something we hear a lot about these days, particularly in the educational establishment. It certainly represents an advance over the old tribalism that believed that my group or language or race or religion was superior to yours. But because in many cases it is diversity itself that is "celebrated," our grasp of this potentially enriching facet of human life has generally remained remarkably superficial. We suffer, as Buddhist philosopher Ken Wilber has observed, from mistaking span for depth. We suppose we are culturally richer or wiser just because we can look around a room and see lots of different colors or language groups or religious persuasions. It doesn't matter that we know almost nothing about what makes these people tick, what is their historical, literary, artistic, musical, or philosophical legacy. We do not even know our own history, which bespeaks another sort of parochialism, as our mental universe narrows to the ghetto of the present day. Like the collectors of exotic artifacts, our culture's contemporary commitment to "diversity" is superficial and smugly complacent.

There is no such smugness or superficiality in Paul. Writing to the Corinthians, who themselves were situated in a teeming cultural cross-section of the ancient world, Paul speaks of the variety present in the Church. While he is both astonished and grateful that the grace of God can overcome the polar opposites of ethnicity and class as experienced in his day, bringing into one "Jew and Greek, slave and free," Paul is far more impressed with the "gifts of the Spirit" than with any naturally occurring differences of human culture. Paul observes how the Spirit liberally distributes a whole range of needful gifts throughout the community: prophecy, knowledge, discernment, healing, and wisdom. But over and over again he directs his readers' attention to the Spirit at work underneath it all. He points us to where we will find God and our most authentic connection to one another: in the depths of the Spirit.

Pentecost tells us that unity overcomes estrangement; that God delights in the sheer physical diversity of creation and the cultural abundance of the human family. It is an antidote to the narrow pridefulness that assumes that my country, my group, my language, my race, my culture, or my point in time, are all the best or at least normative. But above all, Pentecost directs us to the gifts and depths of the Spirit, who out of many makes us one in Christ. To live this mystery is to honor difference, to be sure, but even more it is to find our common life in the life of God.

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