BY KATEI KIRBY
When my nephew was born, it was clear that he had inherited my Dad’s round, welcoming face and people skills. He was – and still is – great with people. As he has grown older it’s clear that he also has my Dad’s slightly competitive spirit, a capacity for logical thinking and is very careful with his cash! My Dad is not so tall, dark and of Antiguan heritage. My nephew on the other hand is growing taller, of fair complexion and of a wonderful mixed heritage – Black Caribbean and English Irish. He would often say: ‘I know; I’m just lighter’. What seems to matter most is not the complexion, but the connection – their relationship is clear.
When I read the account of the birth and spread of the church in Acts 2, two pictures are shown about their identity. The first is in the picture painted in verses 5-11. The author takes the time to list the backgrounds and heritage of the people who heard this group of Galilean men speaking in their own language:
5Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. 6When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard them speaking in his own language. 7Utterly amazed, they asked: ‘Are not all these men who are speaking Galileans? 8Then how is it that each of us hears them in his own native language? 9Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome 11 (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs-we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!’ 12Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, ‘What does this mean?’. (Acts 2:5-11, New International Version)
Understanding the diversity of the people is what helps to make the impact of the Holy Spirit coming at this Pentecost so powerful and indeed unique. Peter did his best to explain what had just happened. He not only succeeded in preventing himself and the other disciples getting the equivalent of a 21st century anti-social behaviour order (ASBO), but he identified (and glorified) the DNA of the event – the unifying power of God’s love. And the outcome? Transformation, complete and continuing, and those who respond to the Word, are simply called ‘believers’, thus painting the second picture of identity as described towards the end of the same chapter:
42They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. 43Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles. 44All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. 46Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, 47praising God and enjoying the favour of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved. (Acts 2:42-47)
Their unity was to be tested by tasks and challenged by custom, but what remains clear in the narrative of the energy and life of the New Testament Church is their commitment and sheer determination to include ‘all who believe’. When that is the starting point and foundation of the life and mission of the Church in our time, then our differences in complexion – be they culture, language or ethnicity – are significant but secondary. Unity does not become something we bolt on to our programmes, ministries or services, it is at the core of everything we do.
The story of the early Church is also a reminder that unity does not mean being the same, but it does mean embracing the same core beliefs and deliberately demonstrating them daily as ‘common’. In John 17:20-21, Jesus prayed for those who would believe to be one in Him and that prayer is being answered every time I reach out to my neighbour – whoever they are – and love them as myself. My own prayer for my generation and beyond is that while our world seeks to categorise and differentiate, that the koinonia or fellowship that we call ‘church’ will be identified by what the people of God do in community, rather than by the plethora of skin tones of its members, the dialects of the attendees or the liturgical preference that traditions may dictate.
Rev Katei Kirby is a minister, mentor and communicator and formerly the CEO of the African and Caribbean Evangelical Alliance. She is also a Trustee for Premier radio.
via the Prayer Forum website at http://www.prayerforum.org/news/national/unifying-power-of-gods-love.
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