Living with our Differences:
Community and Diversity in the Church
- A political revolutionary, bent on overthrowing the government – violently if necessary.
- A government official, responsible for collecting taxes owed by his own neighbours.
- An uneducated, thick-witted and stubborn man who catches fish for a living.
- An independent, emotionally-needy woman, recently recovered from mental illness.
- The sophisticated wife of a powerful man who travels in royal circles.
- An intelligent, ambitious, motivated man, well-connected to those in power.
- A fanatically religious, educated and passionate man, determined to destroy his enemies.
What if you asked me to describe my parish congregation and I gave you a list like this one? Would you think: “now there's a church I want to belong to” ? Probably not. And I don't blame you. Look at that list again. Quite a group isn't it? Glaring differences in backgrounds. Likely many differences in views and beliefs. Certainly differences in needs and expectations! Who on earth would want to be part of a group like this one?
Well, Jesus for one. These people are some of the men and women Jesus called to be his disciples. People like Simon the Zealot, Matthew the tax collector, Simon Peter the fisherman, Mary Magdalene, Joanna the wife of Herod's steward. Judas Iscariot and Saul of Tarsus (known later by his Greek name, Paul). On the surface such a group seems to have little in common. It's almost certain that they didn't all hit it off when they first came together as a group to follow Jesus and assist in his ministry. Simon the Zealot was a man used to fighting the Romans for the freedom of his people, while Matthew had worked with the Romans, gathering taxes for them from his own people. I doubt Simon and Matthew were the best of friends in the beginning! We know from reading Acts that Peter and Paul continued to have strong disagreements throughout their lives regarding who should and should not belong to the Church. Some ancient sources suggest that Peter and Mary Magdalene disagreed sharply about the role of women in the early church. And yet, this is the community that Jesus called and entrusted his work to.
Why? Well perhaps Jesus saw something in these men and women that went beyond their differences. Perhaps he sensed in each of them a passionate desire for truth and understanding…a desire for God. Each of them were pursuing this in their own way, but each of them followed Jesus out of a shared desire to serve God and understand the way of Jesus. Sometimes they succeeded at following Jesus' way, and sometimes they failed. Jesus never gave up on them, and with the tragic exception of Judas, they didn't give up either, even in the face of disagreement and misunderstanding.
This is the Church. Not a group of people who all agree and get along. Not a group of people who all believe exactly the same way, worship the same way, and live the same way. Not a group of people who always like one another and would choose one another as best friends. No
, the Church is a group of people called by God to work together in following the way of Jesus and making God known in the world. The people God calls into this group may sometimes surprise you. Perhaps you are surprised that you have been called! The thing to remember is that its God who brings the church together. If someone comes into our community, even someone we may not like or immediately appreciate, we can still assume God has a reason for them to be there.
We tend to build community around shared interests, similar viewpoints and commonalties but the Church is different. Once when Jesus was told that his family had come to see him he asked the question “who is my family?” His answer surprised people. “Those who do the will of God are my brother, my sister, my mother.” In other words the family of God is not held together by common bloodlines, common interests, common backgrounds or anything else that we usually base our ideas of “community” on. The Church, God's family, is held together only by a desire to serve God as Jesus did.
Things to Do or Think About:
- The way we see people is often affected by the fears, needs and desires we have within us. How we react to others often says more about us than it says about them.
- Think of someone you like and admire. What is about them that you are drawn to? Why do you think they are so attractive to you? What do they have that contributes to the greater good?
- Think of someone you have difficulty appreciating. What is it about them that bothers you? Why do you think it bothers you? Is there anything they contribute to the community that is good? Is there anything you can learn from this person?
- There were a few things Jesus always did when relating to people. Read some passages from the Gospels where Jesus was interacting with people, and make a list of what he did. (Don't just go from memory – get into and read the scripture. You might find some things surprise you). Individually or as a youth group, challenge yourself to try to practice these things over a period of time (a week or two). Evaluate together or with a friend or spiritual elder (your youth leader?) to talk about how it felt to practice those things.
To Jesus everyone was a child of God. If we begin with the premise that everyone we meet is part of our “family”, just as they are, wherever they are at, that makes a big difference in how we relate to them. They don't need to earn our respect or our concern, they should automatically have it.
Jesus did not try and control people. He respected their freedom to make their own choices, even if he didn't agree with them. Forcing people to accept his agenda does not seem to be Jesus' way!
Building and maintaining connections was the most important thing. For Jesus helping people build a loving, trusting relationship with God and with each other was the most important thing. Everything else was secondary. Whenever relationships were broken, Jesus did what he could (forgave, reached out, spoke out) in order to bring healing and rebuild broken relationships.
The Rev. Daniel Brereton