Glenda Simpkins Hoffman
My previous post was the importance of unity and staying connected with others. But in Ephesians 4:11-13, Paul actually goes on to express that our differences also contribute to the health and vitality of the body of Christ: “The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.”
Unity doesn’t come from everyone being the same. Each of us is created as unique individuals. We like to say we each have a unique SHAPE: spiritual gifts, heart (or passion), abilities, personalities, and experiences. The unity we share is strengthened by the many unique people with different gifts deployed in the body of Christ and in the world. Like the many parts of our physical body, each is needed for the health, vitality, and wellbeing of the whole (1 Corinthians 12).
One of the strengths of this church is that we have been an intergenerational church for a long time, made up of young children and older adults with many ages in between. While some churches are made up of mostly builders and boomers and others have mostly younger generations, our church has found strength in diversity of ages represented. Reaching younger people is becoming more of a challenge with changing priorities and technology, but we must listen to the Holy Spirit to do what we can to live into this strength of being an intergenerational church.
Not only do we have a variety of ages, we also have people at different stages of faith. Many at VPC have been growing and transforming for some time, while others are newer to faith. A sign of a healthy church is that people are coming to Christ through the invitation and witness of more mature people in the congregation, who then take responsibility to disciple others who are further along in the faith. While this is happening in beautiful ways, it is an area of growth for us as a congregation.
Thinking about the strength of difference this week brought to mind our study of Paul’s letter to the Romans last winter and spring. Perhaps the greatest reason for Paul writing that letter was because the peace and unity of the body of Christ was being threatened by the division between the Jewish and Gentile believers. Their inability to reconcile over racial, historical, religious, cultural, and social differences were keeping them apart. Instead of enjoying the unity that Spirit gives, they were judging each other, excluding each other from sharing meals and enjoying fellowship, and living and worshipping separately. They let their differences divide them rather than allowing them to be viewed as a strength.
I think of the vision of heaven in Revelation 7:9: “After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands.” Not only we will enjoy eternity in the presence of our Lord, we will enjoy eternity in the midst of a very beautiful, diverse, multicultural community.
Today in my devotional reading, I came across this quote by Henri Nouwen from his book Compassion: “The Holy Spirit, the Spirit of of peace, unity, and reconciliation, constantly reveals itself to us as the power through whom people from the most diverse social, political, economic, racial, and ethnic backgrounds are brought together as sisters and brothers of the same Christ and daughters and sons of the same Father.
“To prevent ourselves from slipping into spiritual romanticism or pious sentimentality, we must pay careful attention to the compassionate presence of the Holy Spirit. The intimacy of prayer is the intimacy created by the Holy Spirit who, as the bearer of the new minds and the new time, does not exclude but rather includes our fellow human beings. In the intimacy of prayer, God is revealed to us as the One who loves all the members of the human family just as personally and uniquely as God loves us. Therefore, a growing intimacy with God deepens our sense of responsibility for others. It evokes in us an always increasing desire to bring the whole world with all its suffering and pains around the divine fire in our heart and to share the revitalizing heat with all who want to come.”
In times of anxiety, loss, and uncertainty, it’s easy to want to cling to who and what we know. It brings us a sense of safety, security, and comfort. That is human, and it’s understandable on the one hand given all the change and adapting that has been required of us in the last year. But it can also lead to inward complacency due to our fear of change and/or our resistance to adapt. And it can lead to a spirit of contempt and criticism toward those who are “different” from us. We see some of this in the divisions of our world and country, but it can also be true of churches. It was true in the Roman church, and it is a danger to every church, including ours. As followers of Christ, he calls us to be people of peace, unity, and reconciliation.
Our mission is to become like Christ together for the world. This is a command to the universal church, but we at VPC and each of us individually must be faithful to do our part. We participate in Christ’s ongoing ministry of transformation in the world by recognizing and celebrating our differences, using our gifts, and sharing the good news in word and deed.
I thank God and celebrate the many ways our mission team, ESOL ministry, and Belong! are leading us in ministering to so many and meeting real the needs in our area. I’m thankful for our new Ministry of Racial Reconciliation and Healing (MHHR) that is working to encourage and facilitate awareness, conversations, and actions that lead to healing and a deeper experience of our togetherness in the body of Christ. But there is so much more that needs to be done, and it’s not up to others leading in mission. Each one of us is responsible to live faithfully the mission Jesus has entrusted to us as his followers.
We must resist the temptation to stay in our comfort zones doing only what we already know to do and relating only to people who are more like us. We must resist the temptation of complacency to the needs, pain, and suffering of so many. Following Jesus requires letting go of self-reliance and security to rely on the power of the Spirit. Our confidence is not in ourselves or what we know or have done before but in our triune God who is with us. It will take courage to step into the unknown to engage in the uncomfortable by welcoming the stranger, nurturing the newcomer, caring for the needs of those suffering, building bridges of reconciliation across divides. But as we do, we are staying the course with our mission of becoming like Christ together for the world.
Here are some specific questions: Do you know your SHAPE? Are you engaged with others who are in a different age or stage of life? Are you building bridges across racial, cultural, economic, or other divides? How is God calling you to let go of comfort and complacency to courageously step up and step out to trust in in new and different ways as we continue to love the Lord and love the people, serve the Lord and serve the people?