Diverse world, diverse Church

I found out last week that there are 900 different types of cheese in the world. I mean – really? Do we need 900 different types of cheese? Clearly we think we do. Cheese doesn’t just arrive by accident – it takes effort and planning and experiments and risk taking. Human beings are clearly a bit odd and rather impressive. However many types of cheese there are, we know there could always be one more…

There are 15,000 species of butterflies. We didn’t make them. They just are. And of the 7 billion people on this planet there are no two exactly the same – not even identical twins are actually identical. It seems that God likes diversity just like people do. Creation did not have to be so colourful, so surprising, so lavishly extravagant. People did not have to be so different from one another.

So why do Christians sometimes fall into the trap of thinking that we should all be the same? One of the biggest mistakes we can make is to somehow get the feeling that diversity is a product of the fall. Surely, we think, if there wasn’t sin and wrongdoing and tragedy in the world, our lives and our relationships wouldn’t be so complicated. People would agree with one another more easily because we would all think the same. But that is not the gospel of Jesus’ good news.

Here’s one of the readings that we had this week at Church. It’s one of the many letters the Paul wrote to the new Churches that were springing up everywhere in the century after Jesus’ death.

Welcome those who are weak in faith but not for the purpose of quarrelling over opinions. Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables. Those who eat must not despise those who abstain, and those who abstain must not pass judgment on those who eat; for God has welcomed them. 4 Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another? It is before their own lord that they stand or fall. And they will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make them stand.
Some judge one day to be better than another, while others judge all days to be alike. Let all be fully convinced in their own mind. Those who observe the day, observe it in honour of the Lord. Also those who eat, eat in honour of the Lord, since they give thanks to God; while those who abstain, abstain in honour of the Lord and give thanks to God…
…Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister? Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister? We will all stand before the judgment seat of God. For it is written,
“As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me,
and every tongue shall give praise to God.”
So then, each of us will be accountable to God.

Paul is celebrating difference. He’s saying “you know those people over there who are vegetarians? Well they’re doing it to praise God, just like you give thanks to God when you eat meat, so don’t argue about it. You know those people who are always going on about how Sunday is special and needs to be treated differently? Well if you think all days are equally holy you don’t need to beat them over the head with it. Hold on to your opinions, but don’t let them divide you.”

Unity is not uniformity. Unity is valuable only when it is diverse. In another letter of Paul’s, he writes about the Church as a body. Yes, people are functioning together for one purpose, but they are nothing like one another. Some, Paul says, are like the feet of the body, some are like the hands. Some are the head, some are the heart. None can do without the other. When we fail to recognise one another’s gifts, appreciate the differences that there are among us, we are quite literally dis-abled by our narrow vision. We are not following God’s path, if we’re not prepared to see something of God – something that we haven’t got – in those we travel with.

St Paul is talking about things that don’t seem that controversial to us now. It’s unlikely that arguments over meat eating or how we spend our Sundays would to lead to ostracisation in a Church, one way or another. But there are plenty of things that Christians do feel differently and strongly about, that if we’re not careful tear us apart, and Paul says to all these groups of people, whatever their sincere belief as people of God “Hold to your beliefs. But however strongly you feel, it is not your job to make everyone just like you.”

It is so easy for us to become obsessed by trying to make everyone think like us – but there are many ways of following Christ – and that is how it is meant to be. Do you think we will all look the same as one another in heaven? I don’t. Creation teaches us that God loves difference. What is important, Paul says, is the spirit in which we hold our beliefs. Is our priority to worship and give thanks to God?  Or is our priority to put our neighbours right?

We come across people every day who think differently to us. When they think very differently but they are also part of our faith community, that can be a huge challenge. But we do need each other in order to bear faithful witness to the one who calls us.

Unity in diversity is to some extent a paradox, but we claim a faith that is paradoxical, and we live in a world that is paradoxical. The world is beautiful and terrible – occasionally both at the same time. Those of us who are Christians believe in a God who is one, but also three, a God who is essentially about relationship. We believe in a God who suffers and serves in order to win the battle. We believe that you can only find your life by giving it away, and, even though we see power misused every day, we believe that love conquers power in every way.

And we are called to live together in this paradox. To allow one another to hold our strong opinions and refuse to let those opinions divide us. To understand that our way of being a Christian is not the only way of being a Christian. We must resist seeing ourselves as victims, only being careful to never victimize others. It is not, as Jesus makes abundantly clear throughout the Gospels, our job to judge one another – it is our job to forgive one another, allow ourselves to be forgiven, and celebrate the God who has called us to a diverse unity.

God give us the grace to live with, and give thanks for, diversity in all its many forms.

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