E Pluribus Unum. Out of many, one. Although this phrase expresses a motto that has historically been tied to the United States, when I think of this saying, I cannot help but look further back in time to the Day of Pentecost narrated in Acts 2.
In fact, in reading what takes place in Acts 2 with this early group of followers of Jesus who were waiting on the promised spirit, the very meaning of the phrase E Pluribus Unum comes alive as we read about how a diverse group of people gathered together from various regional backgrounds, and although they spoke different languages, the spirit empowered those there with them to understand their words, signifying not only a reversal of the Babel incident, but more importantly, the unifying work of the spirit.
E Pluribus Unum. Out of many, one. Out of the diversity of people with different backgrounds and different languages, come forth one people. And yet, these believers remain diverse, not giving up their individuality within the fellowship of believers. This suggests that the Day or Pentecost was not a day in which the church was established as a uniformed and static entity, but a day on which the church was created as a living body of diverse members open to the spirit’s movement.
In First Corinthians 12, Paul offers a theological argument for holding together both diversity and unity within the body of Christ. Paul is not requiring church members to abandon who they are individually in Christ. Yet, he is not promoting an irresponsible individualism in which each person seeks his or her own needs and desires above those of others. Indeed Paul seeks to persuade this congregation to embrace diversity as a part of unity and unity as the outcome of the work of the Spirit as the body of Christ works for the common good.
But although it does seem that Paul’s words to the church at Corinth are primarily concerned with the divisions within that church, and the need for them to see the spirit’s work as bringing together diverse peoples into one body, there is also a sense of mission here; mission that drives us to welcome all into the body of Christ. In other words, Paul might not be just concerned with the unity of the church as it now is. He is also concerned that the church remains open to the diverse people the spirit leads into the body of Christ.
We should recall, however, that the believers to whom Paul writes are Gentile believers, and there were no Gentiles in attendance at the Day of Pentecost. Those in the room on that day were all Jewish followers of Jesus. Yet, by the time Paul writes this letter to the Corinthians, the spirit has come upon the Gentiles. But when did the spirit come upon the Gentiles, and why was this significant for not only what Paul is doing, but more importantly for what the spirit is doing?
Although the Gentiles were not present at the Day of Pentecost about which we read in Acts 2, the coming of the spirit onto the Gentiles is also found in Acts, and it all begins with the visions experienced by two men; two very different men. In Acts 10 we read about Peter’s dream of a sheet coming from heaven on which were all sorts of unclean animals, animals he is forbidden to eat because he is a Jew. And yet, Peter is commanded by God in this dream to eat these unclean animals, as God declares to Peter that what God calls clean is indeed clean.
The point of the dream, however, is not so much about food, but about the welcoming of the Gentiles into full participation in the body of Christ. No longer are they to be excluded from the full fellowship of the faith. But Peter seems not to be convinced at first, and so in that same dream, Peter is commanded to go with the men who have been sent by Cornelius, a Gentile who fears God. Cornelius has also had a dream in which God commanded him to send for Peter.
While many have viewed this story primarily as a story about evangelism, this view misses the real crux of this encounter between these two men. Yes, the story does focus on salvation being extended to the Gentiles, as the Spirit of God is poured out on them. But the main point of the story is that God was creating a new and whole people through the welcome of both Jews and Gentiles into the new people of God.
In fact, though we treat this story as Cornelius’ conversion, it is really Peter that is converted; converted to the truth that God’s spirit is not one of division, but one that seeks unity. But perhaps more important than this is the idea that Peter understands that the spirit of God is not just seeking unity, the spirit also seeks to widen the expanse of the people of God to include even those considered unclean by Peter and his Jewish friends.
The world view that Peter had before his dream and before witnessing the spirit come upon Cornelius and his fellow Gentiles was one of exclusion. But the coming of the spirit upon him and upon Cornelius convinced Peter that God was not a God of one privileged people, which would have essentially meant that God was a God of division and not unity. Instead, Peter experienced God as the God of all people.
Again, Paul affirms this idea in 1 Corinthians 12:13 when he speaks of being baptized into one spirit, Jews and Greeks, slaves and free. Or, as he states it another way in his letter to the Church at Galatia, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
We must understand that Paul is not saying that people cease to be who they are; they do not lose their individuality in the body of Christ, and the church remains very diverse. What Paul is saying is that we cannot use labels to distance ourselves from others or exclude others from the body of Christ, no matter who they are.
What the spirit was doing at Pentecost, what the spirit was doing in the life of Peter and Cornelius, and what the spirit continues to seek to do is to bring the many into one, to break down the wall of exclusion and separation, and to unite people of all walks of life into the love of God. God is not an exclusionary God. God is a God of welcome and embrace who called Peter, Paul, and all of us to seek to welcome and affirm all in the body of Christ.