Unity and Difference: On Pentecost

The true aim of our Christian life consists in the acquisition of the Holy Spirit of God.

St. Seraphim of Sarov

Another season of silence has fallen—I have been meditating, praying, and listening, but not writing and speaking as much. But I felt compelled to write today, on my favorite feast day of the Church, Pentecost.

Yesterday, the people of the United States celebrated Juneteenth, a celebration of the anniversary of the emancipation of African-Americans from chattel slavery. Part of the purpose of Juneteenth is to honor the unique contributions of Black culture to the American project: we possess valuable differences within a singular vision of humankind united by freedom, dignity, and the belief that all men are created equal.

Today we in the Orthodox Church celebrate the origin of the Church, when the Holy Spirit descended upon the apostles with tongues of fire, giving them the power to speak in many languages to the crowd of people who had gathered for the Jewish feast day from throughout the known world. The crowd was amazed to hear them speak. St. Gregory of Nazianzus said:

But as the old Confusion of tongues was laudable, when men who were of one language in wickedness and impiety, even as some now venture to be, were building the Tower; for by the confusion of their language the unity of their intention was broken up, and their undertaking destroyed; so much more worthy of praise is the present miraculous one. For being poured from One Spirit upon many men, it brings them again into harmony. And there is a diversity of Gifts, which stands in need of yet another Gift to discern which is the best, where all are praiseworthy.

The unity of believers is one of the signs that the Holy Spirit is at work within the Church; division, discord, and schism is an indication of the devil’s work to tear the Church apart. And yet, as St. Gregory reminds us, difference is not necessarily a sign of division or discord, nor is every kind of unity a holy one. At the Tower of Babel, humankind was unified in hubris and opposition to God. In order to save humankind from its worst impulses, God sowed a kind of blessed confusion: linguistic and cultural difference, which led to the dispersal of peoples throughout the world and eventually God’s covenant with one man, Abraham, and one people, Israel. St. Leo the Great said:

For as of old on the fiftieth day after the Sacrifice of the Lamb, the Law was given on Mount Sinai to the Hebrew people, now delivered from the Egyptians, so, after the Passion of Christ, in which the True Lamb of God was slain, on the fiftieth day after His Resurrection, the Holy Spirit descended upon the Apostles and upon the people who believed; so that an earnest Christian might know beyond any uncertainty, that the sacred rites of the Old Testament had served as foundations for the Gospel, and that by this same Spirit was the Second Covenant laid down, by Whom the first had been established.

At Pentecost, the apostles were unified in purpose, following the commandment of Christ to wait for the coming of the Holy Spirit. When the Spirit descended, their unity was not manifest in some kind of cultural singularity, but in a blessed diversity of strange languages that they on their own did not know how to speak. This diversity gave them the power and authority to share the Gospel of Christ with all the people’s of the earth, each in their own tongue and in ways appropriate to their own understanding. As St. Gregory said, “For being poured from One Spirit upon many men, it brings them again into harmony. And there is a diversity of Gifts, which stands in need of yet another Gift to discern which is the best, where all are praiseworthy.”

To this day, the Orthodox Church honors the cultural differences between Greeks, Russians, Serbians, Arabs, and the numerous other nations who share in the same, unified communion. Each nation, like each person, possesses its own unique strengths and gifts, and each contributes in its own way to the unified whole. This is how God has fashioned the church: many parts, one Body.

Christians believe that someday we will all be unified in perfection with God. Until that day, our differences give us strength, so long as we love and serve one another in blessed unity. I wish all of you a happy and healthy Pentecost!

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