Unity in the Midst of Diversity

Go Forth in Unity 

Unity in the Midst of Diversity

Sunday, October 10, 2021

 

Welcome: Can there be unity in the midst of diversity? 

Of course, it happens all the time when people of varying backgrounds, thought processes, skill levels come together for a common purpose. Think of sports teams-all the players and coaches come from a wide variety of backgrounds, experiences, talents, and opinions on how to play that game right? But when there is a common purpose they can all play a part in helping bring about-there is unity in that team in the midst of the diversity they bring.

Think about the church. What is the church if not full of diverse people? 

Let’s pray and welcome the Holy Spirit to move in our midst and unite us today through the bond of peace.

 

Lord help us if we ever hope and pray for us all to be uninformed. There is a huge difference in uniformity and unity in the Spirit. 

Imagine coming here one Sunday and we all had on exactly the same clothing-every bit of it, our hair was the same, color and all, our eye color the same when we sang everyone was exactly the same in tone, we had our coffee exactly the same way, we had the same views on every topic-not one thing among us externally or internally differed. 

Can you say creepy? How about boring, uneventful, and lacking experience and learning? What would challenge us to grow in the gifts of the Spirit if we were all the same? How would we have the opportunity to practice grace, compassion, patience, kindness, forgiveness, gentleness, and love? Does diversity give us a great opportunity to practice and develop the fruits of the Spirit does it not? 

Living in a small community can pose challenges in some ways to encouraging diversity because, for the most part, we draw those who live in and around our community. Online has expanded our reach more now-thank You Lord for that gift! However, look around and really look around with grateful eyes and the wonderful diversity we have within this church family. The beautiful and challenging thing about diversity is you discover more of it, the more time you spend with others and let your guard down. Underneath the polished look, we all strive to portray-we’re all just a hot mess in one way or another, aren’t we? In the church, by God’s design, is where He gathers His people in a melting pot of diversity and binds them together through His Spirit. It’s really quite glorious to ponder what the Spirit does and how God has created His Church to function. Not in uniformity, but in unity.

It’s when we forget this glorious way God works that diversity can be a catalyst for many problems to unfold. Just look around in the world-you’ll see it everywhere. The fact that God has created people so complex and so uniquely designed is fascinating until someone disagrees with us right?  Then we hate it or we try to influence them to “come into the light” and have an awakening of how to see things correctly. 

God calls us to be united in the Spirit through the bond of Peace. He never said to think exactly alike. He never said push your opinions on others or demand one person is right so therefore the other person must be wrong. He never said choosing to be united is easy. Jesus said, Love God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength, AND love your neighbors as yourself. He said, “Follow Me.” He said, “This is how others will know you are My disciples if you love one another.” 

Unity happens when we choose to do these things and put our love for God and love for others first-who are all created by God who loves them- when we surrender our will and acknowledge God can and does bring about unity even in the midst of our diversity when we act in love. 

The Apostle Paul teaches unity quite a bit throughout the New Testament. We talked about some of his teachings last week in Ephesians. He was able to teach on this because he walked through being a recipient of someone extending unity in the midst of diversity towards him after his conversion. Remember Paul was Saul who persecuted the early Christians and was set on taking out as many as he could. He stood by and watched the stoning to death of Stephen who was a servant of the Lord and we read, he approved of it. So he was not a trusted person among followers of Christ. Not someone they would want to be anywhere near for their safety and clearly held different religious views. 

BUT JESUS…. Don’t you just love to ponder that in situations like this?

Saul was a murderer and persecutor of those in the Christian faith, BUT JESUS. That wasn’t the end of Saul’s story-thank YOU Jesus! Listen- too often our human nature might say that person (someone like a Saul) should rot in hell-we might even wish that upon someone for the evil they did in this world. NO. I’m not saying there aren’t natural consequences for people who commit crimes and carry out evil-there are and there should be. But Jesus. Wouldn’t we rather a cold-hearted, wicked person would come to know the saving grace of Jesus and repent for their sins and find salvation? 

Is heaven only for those not so bad people who only sort of sinned?

No. We might be surprised who shows up in heaven when we get there. I pray we are pleasantly surprised. Sin is a sin to God. We are not the judge. Thankfully, Jesus is and He offers forgiveness on the behalf of all who call on His name. Let us remember this as we think about Saul. If Jesus didn’t intervene and shine His beautiful light upon Saul and into his heart, think of all the marvelous things that happened for the sake of the Gospel and the building of His Church-through Paul- a man transformed in his heart to love God and ALL of God’s people. Look at all those mission trips and letters to the early churches again with fresh eyes to see this was Saul, BUT JESUS interceded and said I want you to see what I’m doing, what I’m building, and I want you to be part of it. Incredible right? 

Saul has this miraculous encounter with Jesus and is completely changed. He’s on fire for Christ and begins preaching the Good News to all around him. People are thinking what is happening? Is this a trick to get us to trust him and then he’ll have us all arrested? Think of the Jewish leaders he was siding with to bring down anyone connected to Christ. What are you doing Saul? Lots of confusion, anger, and fear rising up about Saul’s great transformation. 

So you want to talk about adding some diversity to the group-I think Saul wanting to join forces with the apostles was more diverse than most of them cared to entertain. How excited would you be to bring someone like Saul into the mix?  But they like we are too, were all bound through the unity of the Spirit. That’s not something we choose- we are grafted into the Body as we believe- and the Spirit moves about as God determines, for His purposes. 

Today we’ll pick it up when Saul begins his teaching and meets up with the apostles. Let’s notice how the group responds, who reaches out through the unity of the Spirit and how that unity of the Spirit continues to play out throughout their time in ministry together. 

                                                 Acts 9: 20-28 NIV                                                                     

Saul spent several days with the disciples in Damascus. 20 At once he began to preach in the synagogues that Jesus is the Son of God. 21 All those who heard him were astonished and asked, “Isn’t he the man who raised havoc in Jerusalem among those who call on this name? And hasn’t he come here to take them as prisoners to the chief priests?” 22 Yet Saul grew more and more powerful and baffled the Jews living in Damascus by proving that Jesus is the Messiah. 23 After many days had gone by, there was a conspiracy among the Jews to kill him, 24 but Saul learned of their plan. Day and night they kept a close watch on the city gates in order to kill him. 25 But his followers took him by night and lowered him in a basket through an opening in the wall. 26 When he came to Jerusalem, he tried to join the disciples, but they were all afraid of him, not believing that he really was a disciple. 27 But Barnabas took him and brought him to the apostles. He told them how Saul on his journey had seen the Lord and that the Lord had spoken to him, and how in Damascus he had preached fearlessly in the name of Jesus. 28 So Saul stayed with them and moved about freely in Jerusalem, speaking boldly in the name of the Lord.

The other apostles were afraid of Saul and for good reason. They wanted nothing to do with him for the man they knew him to be. But the Spirit spoke to Barnabas’ heart and said you can trust him. Bring him into the group and vouch for him. I am sending him to do My work. Barnabas listened and followed what the Spirit was calling him to do; what the Spirit calls us all to do- be united and include new believers into the Body. 

  • Inclusive

Acts 9:26-27 26 When he came to Jerusalem, he tried to join the disciples, but they were all afraid of him, not believing that he really was a disciple. 27 But Barnabas took him and brought him to the apostles. He told them how Saul on his journey had seen the Lord and that the Lord had spoken to him, and how in Damascus he had preached fearlessly in the name of Jesus.

Barnabas vouched for Saul and shared the great encounter he had with Jesus. Barnabas chose to see Saul as Jesus did-redeemed and given a new name, that of Paul; given a new purpose-to bring the Gospel to the Gentiles. 

Paul later taught the Galatians this truth about getting past the things that divide us and prevent us from serving together for the cause of the Gospel. 

Galatians 3:28 There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.   

James also taught this truth to early Jewish Christians and it is so important we remember this yet today.                                                                                                                             

James 2:1 My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favoritism.      

As we talked about last week, we don’t decide who is part of our church or who is part of God’s kingdom-thank You Lord that we don’t have that responsibility! God decides and it is always for His purposes and His glory! Always. The apostles couldn’t choose in their own will who would join them. First of all, they were each called by Jesus and there was great diversity in the 12 who were originally called wasn’t there? But Jesus included them. From there came unity in the Spirit; they became one in purpose. Barnabas included Saul and from there unity was formed in the midst of their diversity. God started moving in powerful ways as they focused on His purpose and let unity in the Body and the Kingdom guide their hearts.                   

  • Focuses on Fulfilling Purpose 

Fast forward a bit into their growing ministry. We read in Acts 11 that many of the Christians had scattered after Stephen was stoned to death-in fear and for their safety in different regions. At first, the Gospel was only being spread to other Jews, BUT JESUS worked through some men from Cyprus and Cyrene who took the Gospel to Antioch and they began sharing the Gospel with the Greeks there. Many people believed and opened their hearts to Jesus. Antioch was under the Roman government. It was a melting pot of many cultures and it was a seaport so an important city for merchants and traders. The languages were Latin which was of Roman influence, Greek, and Persian. So this was a city filled with diversity! But the message of Jesus was spreading. Word got back to Jerusalem of what was happening in Antioch so the apostles sent Barnabas to Antioch to see first-hand all that was happening. 

Acts 11: 22-23 22 News of this reached the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch. 23 When he arrived and saw what the grace of God had done, he was glad and encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts. 24 He was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith, and a great number of people were brought to the Lord..                                                  

Acts 11: 25-26 25 Then Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, 26 and when he found him, he brought him to Antioch. So for a whole year, Barnabas and Saul met with the church and taught great numbers of people. The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch. 

First-with a spirit of Unity-Barnabas was glad to see the Greeks coming to know Jesus as their Savior. Then seeing there was much work to do to minister to all these newly believing Christians, Barnabas included Saul-who was now Paul. This wasn’t just for inclusion’s sake. This was because Barnabas had been serving with Paul and knew the giftings God had given him. He knew the call on Paul’s life and he was the one God said he should be ministering within Antioch. Barnabas was focused on fulfilling the greater purpose-obeying the Great Commission- to bring the Gospel to the nations. He needed Paul by his side to carry that out in Antioch and God greatly blessed their efforts. 

Barnabas and Paul both understood God’s plan was so much greater than just the Jews receiving salvation. The Good News was for all who would hear and receive! 

Acts 13:47 For this is what the Lord has commanded us: “‘I have made you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth.’”

They served very effectively and joyfully together for quite some time. Also, in Acts 13 we read where Paul and Barnabas sail to Perga. They had a man named John, also known as Mark (who later wrote the Gospel of Mark) ministering alongside them. Partway through the mission, John decides to leave what they are doing and head back to Jerusalem. We later read this was a big issue and he let them down. Because of how he abandoned them. There is a big disagreement that arises between Paul and Barnabas as they discuss another missionary venture. Barnabas the ever includer and teacher- wanted to include Mark-likely to keep teaching him and grooming him where he fell short. Paul had another way of dealing with Mark- rebuking his behavior and not letting him come along.                                                                                       

  • Cooperates in Separation 

Acts 15: 36-41 36 Sometime later Paul said to Barnabas, “Let us go back and visit the believers in all the towns where we preached the word of the Lord and see how they are doing.” 37 Barnabas wanted to take John, also called Mark, with them, 38 but Paul did not think it wise to take him, because he had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not continued with them in the work. 39 They had such a sharp disagreement that they parted company. Barnabas took Mark and sailed for Cyprus, 40 but Paul chose Silas and left, commended by the believers to the grace of the Lord. 41 He went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches. 

 

It’s important for us to note here, that there is no sign of disrespect, or offense given to the other, or talking poorly about the other to anyone else. They were also commended by the believers-sent off with a blessing as they each went a different direction. There is never a mention of either one of them being rebuked later for wrong actions. There was a disagreement and a sharp one we’re told. Strong enough to cause them to go in different directions.

Was one right and one wrong? Could both be right? In God’s economy, they absolutely can. It all depends on where their focus is and the condition of their heart. Could there be learning for Mark in Paul leaving him out of a mission trip and cause him to think and consider how he conducts himself on future missions? Could there be exhortation, grooming, and maturity for Mark by being with Barnabas since he was gifted in this area? Yes, and that was needed for Mark.  Barnabas likely took Mark to areas he had been successful on their first trip to reinforce his ministry and build him up from there. 

Paul took Silas who was also a Roman citizen like he was-and that became important for later arrests they would encounter to have that citizenship. He also met and took under his wing Timothy by going a different route. They all ended up being routed to Macedonia in a time where the church of Phillipi was started and ladies remember our discussion from last Saturday, who did Paul and the others encounter in Phillipi who was integral to the growth of the church there? Lydia.

Each of their journeys was ordained and blessed by God. 

 

While there was a separation in their direct service together-there remained a unity of purpose and unity in the Spirit. God worked amazing things for the growth of His Church through their diversity. 

While there was separateness in how they ministered there was no division or discord. This is the key. 

Now for those who feel bad for Mark who was cut off from Paul. Watch what happens and see who God brings back together for His glory and to the joy of His Church. When Paul was later imprisoned and writing to his beloved son in the faith, Timothy, he was asking for him to come to him quickly-to encourage him and help him in the ministry. He was saying how some had left him and he only had Luke with him. Look who Paul specifically asks for.  

2 Timothy 4:11 11 Only Luke is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, because he is helpful to me in my ministry.  

Paul was not cold-hearted. He just had a different way of addressing Mark’s behavior back then. He like Jesus did with Peter, later restored Mark to be a faithful companion and servant in the ministry as Mark grew in discipleship. This happened because it wasn’t personal when he and Barnabas separated. There was unity yet so Mark could later return to work with Paul. There was cooperation in their separation. There was a focus on the greater purpose. 

Eventually, all the apostles understood the great purposes of God and what Jesus came to make known: it was shown to the Apostle John through revelation; through the Spirit.                       

Revelation 7: 9-10 After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people, and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. 10 And they cried out in a loud voice: “Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.”

See this picture in your mind and let it be sealed deep in your heart. There is diversity in heaven, yet we stand unified before the Lamb of God through the Holy Spirit that dwells in us. Beautiful right? 

Diversity brings challenges no doubt, even separateness at times. In our diversity let us choose to include all into the Body as they are called; let us look for each other’s giftings and joyfully serve together for His purposes for the times He calls us, and let us remain in unity when disagreements arise-for God can and will work in our disagreements when we keep the unity of the Spirit.

ConclusionIt was through the unity of the Spirit Barnabas included Paul among the apostles. It was in honoring Paul’s giftings, Barnabas brought Paul to co-minister in Antioch. It was love for the Gospel and the lost that led to separate yet united ministries. God works His purposes in the midst of diversity. The Gospel advances mightily when hearts remain unified in purpose through the Spirit. 

Let’s pray.  Father God we thank You for the gift of unity through the Spirit that binds all of us together in a bond of peace. This is not of this world, nor is it anything we can attain apart from You. This comes from You and is of You. Help us Lord to follow You Jesus as one who is inclusive to all, welcomes all and loves all. Help us to not be bogged down in our differences but to keep our gaze to Your greater purpose. Help us to be about advancing Your kingdom over our personal agenda. Help us glorify You in our words and actions. Let us keep the unity of the Spirit even as separation occurs, for we can trust You work all things for the good of those who love You Lord. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen. 

Final Blessing: Romans 15: 5-6 May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

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