This post is the first in a three-part series. Dr. Um preached this sermon at the MTW West Coast Missions Conference 2015 held at Redeemer San Diego. Listen to the audio recording here.
Now I can here a voice in my head right now. Some of you are saying, “Oh boy, you’re just pushing this racial diversity because this is what the culture wants. And you’re trying to relevant, and you’re trying to understand it, and you’re over-accommodating and you’re over-contextualizing, and you’re capitulating, and you’re assimilating, and you’re accommodating because this is what the world says and this is the way we got to be also, right?” I told you, I began with the Biblical design of racial diversity. I’m beginning with scripture. I’m not over-accommodating. And I told you that this sort of beautiful, racial diversity is not the uniformity that the culture says when it says we need to have a pluralistic, multicultural, colorblind society. That’s not what the Bible teaches.
Then what does the Bible teach? What is the promise in the midst of our inclination for uniformity? How can we ever get to a point that we will be diverse? It is the promise of unity in diversity.
In other words, at the very end of time, we will graduate from a university and enter into a perpetual state where we will be in a university. We’ve never attended a university, we’ve attended pluriversities, but we’ve never attended a university where there is unity in diversity. Where we appreciate the cultural perspectives, not to be culturally prejudicial, but at the same time that we will be able to appreciate the oneness of the common bond that we share because of the blood of the Lamb. Where all the people from different tribes, nations, cultures, and races be gathered together and they’re able to say and sing the song, “Salvation belongs to our God.” Our God. The apostle Paul says it in Ephesians 2 - there was great animosity and hostility between Jew and Gentile, so he says that in the gospel when you understand the work of Jesus Christ that the two will become one. How’s that possible?
It also says later on in Ephesians 5, going back to Genesis 2, where it says that the two very, very different people, particular people, husband and wife, the two, male and female will be able to come together and become one. It is a picture of a one-flesh union. You’re two, but you become one. So what the Bible is teaching is this – it’s teaching us that everyone, from every racial culture, from all different genders, that we are created equal, but that doesn’t mean that we are equivalent. This is what multiculturalism says – equal, erase everything. The Bible says, yes we’re equal, we are also non-equivalent. In other words, we’re equal in terms of our essence. There is unity in that sense, but there is greater unity in diversity when you understand it’s not uniformity, but it’s actually the oneness of the common bond that you have in Christ. Because we are equal, but we are also non-equivalent. We’re not the same.
So where do we get this rootedness of having this promise of unity in diversity? We get it in the doctrine of the Trinity. We see that they’re worshipping God before the throne, the same preposition, before the Lamb. So you say which is it – are we worshiping God before the throne, or worshipping the Son before the Lamb? Well, yeah! Both. But you don’t have the Lamb saying, “Hey… give me a little bit more attention.” You don’t have the Father saying, “Alright the Son, you had the spotlight on you when you died on the cross, and you rose from the dead, and you’re seated at the right hand. Ok, I need a little bit more attention now.”
Because the beauty of the three persons of the Godhead is that the three persons are not the same. They are different but they equal in essence and substance. This is what the church has always taught about the doctrine of the Trinity. God is not a monad, but he is one God, three persons. He’s a triune God, he is not a monad. And that’s the beauty of what we find. That’s the only way, the only way we can have unity in diversity is to know that there is unity in diversity in the community of the Trinity. That’s the only way we’re going to be able to find the promise of this being rooted.
So if you were to look at it this way, if I were to use a spatial analogy. If you’re self-centered, it means that you are stationary and static. You want others to revolve around you. Listen, I’m not going to move for you, you come and you orbit around my life. You dance around my life. You revolve around my life. Everything centers around me. I’m going to stay stationary. That’s self-centeredness.
But what do we find in the diversity within the community of the Trinity? You have mutual affection, you have mutual adoration, you have mutual enjoyment. It is what one scholar has called an orbiting, or a dancing, or what some church historians have called perichoresis; there is a kind of orbiting around one another. It is a posture of a self-donating, one-way giving, posture of the Godhead of the Trinity. The Son delights in the fact that the Father receives praise. The Father delights in the fact that the Son receives praise. The Spirit delights in the fact that the Son accomplished what he did. The Son delights in the fact that he was able to send the Spirit, so that this beautiful unity and diversity within the community of the Trinity has landed within the hearts of individuals within the church and there was an explosion where now we’re able to look at others and appreciate them and to recognize that they’re equal, although they’re not equivalent, we’re not the same, but we’re equal. We appreciate that we live towards all those particularities.
You might be saying, again, are we erasing the particularities? No. Even when Jesus was resurrected, he still remained a male, and he still remained Jewish. That should tell you that the resurrected, glorified body will still be physical, so don’t be gnostic about what the New Heavens and the New Earth will be, that it’s just going to be a kind of disembodied spiritual soul, alright? That’s the theology from Hallmark, that’s not the theology from the Bible that we’ll have glorified bodies, both body and soul.
Let me see if I can bring it to a close. There isn’t another service after this one, so I know I have a little bit if wiggle room. I was tight in the last service, so you owe me a few minutes here.
There are two very insightful scholars. I might not agree with everything they say, but they are both from Yale. And one is named Miroslav Volf and the other one is Lamin Sanneh, an African scholar. And Miroslav Volf says, in order for us to know how to move forward in having this sort of unity in diversity is that we need to know that there has to be some sort of critical departure from our home culture. So whatever your home culture is, your home racial, ethnic culture, there has to be a certain level of critical departure. Not abandoning, a certain sense of critical departure, a movement. But at the same time you’re not completely assimilating into the host culture. There needs to be a little bit of that separation. And Lamin Sanneh says, the reason why Christianity exploded in Africa (he’s from a small country in West Africa called Gambia) and the reason why it exploded in Africa was when the African Christians realized that you didn’t have to become Western before becoming Christian. And it exploded.
Since we’ve mentioned two Yale scholars, let’s reference another one, Nora Groce. Keller writes in his book, Generous Justice, that she talks about the Yale professor in her book, Everyone Here Spoke Sign Language. He summarizes the story of this Yale scholar who went to a place in Martha’s Vineyard, which is near Massachusetts, and there was a history of hereditary deafness. She wanted to study what happened and she was eventually able to speak with an individual, an older person, and she asked her questions, “Hey do you remember, how were you able to communicate with all the deaf people?” And he said, “Oh, it’s no big deal, it’s like we treated them any differently because the people in the deaf community don’t want to be treated special. They’re just people.” And she said, “So how did you communicate with them?” He said, “Oh, everyone was bilingual.” Say excuse me? “Yeah, the ones that could hear spoke English and we also spoke sign language. We were all bilingual.” She was blown away by this.
She was blown away that he was saying there was a group of people who were willing to be disadvantaged as an entire community in order to include the weak and the potentially marginalized. They would go to places, and they would sign, and it was no big deal. They actually said there were other positive aspects where there were people out in the fields farming and they didn’t have to shout, they could just sign. There were all sorts of advantages that they found. Why? Because the ones who were privileged, the ones who had power, the ones who were part of the dominant, strong culture disadvantaged themselves for the weak.
I know this is counterintuitive, I know this goes against what we’ve been taught. We’ve grown up in a culture of competition. We don’t disadvantage ourselves for anything. But this is what the gospel calls us to. And the reason why it calls us to this is because there is a cosmic orbiting of the three persons of the Godhead where there is mutual affection and adoration and enjoyment. And in the same way, the Son came down, when he was in the form of God, but he did not consider his equality with God something to be grasped, to be held on tightly, but he let go of it. Even to the point of death. He humbled himself, became a servant.
I know we as Americans, and this might sting a little bit. But we as Americans are very, very entitled. We are an entitled group of people. We’re entitled. Let me say it this way – there was only one person ever in history who was ultimately entitled. If anyone can come forward and say, you know what, these are my rights and I will protect my rights, I have all the right in the world to hold on to my rights – there was only one person in history who had that right. That’s the person of Jesus. But that one person, who was entitled, who had all the rights to hold on to his rights, he relinquished his rights. He gave them up. He gave up his rights. He did not consider his equality with God something to be grasped or help onto tightly. He became nothing, he emptied himself, he gave of himself completely. Disadvantaged himself for the weak. This is the beautiful, one-way, self-donating power of the gospel and of the unity in diversity within the Godhead.
So friends, has there been this kind of impulse within your heart? I’m sure there have been and I want to encourage you. But you need to be intentional. If you really want to be able to understand this Biblical vision, which is our future, then learn something. Disadvantage yourself. Be humble. Listen. Don’t be too quick to speak. Don’t just assume that this particular racial culture is represented this way. Like the rigidity of time – oh they’re being disrespectful. They have a different view of time. Don’t place moral significance of cultural preferences. Respect the differences. And maybe you can sharpen one another. Maybe that other culture will begin to understand and show up at 11:10 next time. But this is the way the community works. And once that happens, you know what you will be? You know what you will become? The church. Let’s pray.
Dr. Stephen Um is the senior pastor at Citylife Presbyterian Church in Boston, MA. He is an associate training director for Redeemer City to City and is involved with The Gospel Coalition in New England. Dr. Um is a graduate of Boston University and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He completed his doctoral studies at the University of St. Andrews.