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Welcoming difference

On Sunday morning, we continued our exploration of what it means to welcome as Christ has welcomed us (Romans 15:7), by thinking about what it might mean to welcome difference. This seemed important, because we the more people we welcome the more we will encounter difference. Different backgrounds, different skills, different passions, different opinions...

That difference can be wonderful. It brings multiple skills to the table, it widens our opportunities and perspectives, and it reflects what Paul calls the manifold wisdom of God (Ephesians 3:10). The whole of humanity is made in the image of God (Genesis 1:27), and so it takes the whole of humanity to reflect that image. That's why I believe God delights in the kaleidoscopic brilliance and variety of God's children, as well as the endless and dazzling diversity of the rest of creation.

But difference can also be difficult and even destructive. It can put us into competition with one another, it can leave us feeling disconnected from those whose worldviews we cannot accept or understand, and it can lead to us excluding or being excluded. That latter point is one we will think more about next week.

So how might Christ's welcome speak into this confusing mix of wonder and frustration? Well I believe he gives us a model for welcoming difference, and hope that we can do likewise.

Our reading on Sunday was taken from Matthew 10:1-8, which tells of the commissioning of the twelve disciples, the men who spent more time than anyone else in the welcoming space Jesus created around himself. We don’t know much about many of them, but is at least clear that they were a mixed bunch. And we don’t know how well they all got on, but the gospel writers aren’t shy about their faults, so it seems fair to assume that they rubbed along okay for the most part. It seems that Jesus welcomed difference, and created from it a community.

I find the fact that Jesus' merry band included both Matthew the tax collector and Simon the zealot particularly interesting, because the brief descriptions we are given after their names suggest that they came from completely different ends of the political spectrum. Matthew worked with the occupying forces, while Simon worked (or at least wished) to overthrow their rule.

This was a fact that had completely passed me by, until it was pointed out by a member of my previous church, during a time in which we were having difficult conversations as a fellowship. We were managing our disagreements relatively well, but that still felt (to me at least) like a significant moment in the conversation, as it was really helpful to be able to look to the example of the disciples as a model for holding disagreements in tension within a community centred on Christ.

Perhaps Matthew and Simon disagreed to the bitter end but learned to love one another in spite of that. Perhaps they came to understand one another’s points of view. Or perhaps they came to share another perspective entirely. Whatever the case, it seems that being with one another in presence of Jesus changed things. Maybe they learnt, as my last church learnt, that putting our relationships with Christ and with one another before all else will hold us together, even when we don't all see eye to eye.

I'm sure Jesus wasn't immune to accidents and happy chances, but I'm also sure that he knew what he was doing when he called together this disparate group of disciples, a group which only becomes more disparate when we include other significant figures such as Mary and Martha. I'm sure that when he brought together this ragtag bunch, he was modelling the kingdom and giving a template for the church.

And so if church doesn’t look like a weird and wonderful mess of people with all their differences there to be seen, then it doesn’t look like the disciples and it doesn’t look like the kingdom. Paul may have declared that in Christ there is no longer slave or free, Jew or Gentile, male and female (Galatians 3:28), but the reality is that those distinctions didn't disappear, they just no longer determine who is in or out and who gets the best seat at the table. Christ doesn’t iron out all of our differences, but pieces them together into something new and beautiful and holy.

I really believe that God loves riotous difference. I found that expression in a book called Just Hospitality by late theologian Letty Russell, and I love the vibrancy and the excitement of it. I can't hope to do justice to the richness of Russell's theology of hspitality here, but I do want to pick up on a few of her arguments.

She sees an explosion and celebration of difference throughout the Bible, reinterpreting the confusion at Babel as a gift from God in an attempt to stifle the human tendency to dominate, and pointing out that Pentecost is about the joy of mutual understanding not the necessity of a common language. We could also point to Paul's image of the Body of Christ and his teaching on the gifts of the Spirit, both of which rely on difference.

She also suggests that it is not our differences but our failure to properly understand and respond to them that cause problems, citing the example of the conflict in Bosnia, where ethnic and religious differences did not spontaneously erupt into violence, but were manipulated in order to create fear and hate. It is all a matter of perspective, and learning to embrace our God given diversity.

And finally she argues that since unity and difference and hospitality are all givens in Christ, who prays for the oneness of the disciples and yet welcomes them in all their uniqueness, they should also be givens in the church, so that we are called to demonstrate a hospitality which is unity without uniformity. A hospitality whch has space for riotous difference.

A couple of words of caution here. First, there can be a fear that opening up to all the differences of the world will make us no different to the world, but difference need not cost our distinctiveness. As Russell points out, in the Bible we see a distinctiveness that opens itself up to difference, with Old Testament law marking out the people of God but consistently demanding that they welcome the alien. That is the same distinctiveness we are called to. Of course some of our differences will soften as we find common purpose and mutual love in the community of Christ, but we do not need to erase them entirely in order to fit some imagined mould, or demand that others do the same.

Second, welcoming difference means welcoming every person, but it does not mean welcoming every word or thought or action. Some differences of opinion come from the fact that some opinions are harmful, and so while we do need to hold different views in tension, we also need to hold one another accountable when those views are causing hurt and failing to reflect the heart of God. We do not need to accept prejudice or discrimination in the name of welcome. That is not what Christ modelled.

I don’t know how differently Christian history would have turned out if Jesus had not brought Matthew and Simon together, but perhaps it was the coming together of such great difference that made the disciples so effective. It certainly makes them a great model for embracing all the confusion and contradiction that comes with bringing a mixed bunch of folk together to follow Christ. Let us then look to the disciples as an encouragement that we too can welcome difference as we welcome one another for the glory of God.


And as a bonus extra, here is the text of the monologue Mike delivered on Sunday, imagining what it might have been like to be part of Jesus' mixed bag of disciples...

I think it was a Thursday, the first day I met him, although I can’t be sure. It was a long time ago now, and the days started to run into one another when I was stuck in that tax office. It wasn’t a terrible job. I always had a head for figures, so the work was easy enough, and of course it had its perks. The Romans left me alone for one. I can’t say I liked them much, but it seemed best to get on side. I wasn’t one to go looking for trouble. Although it came looking for me once I took the job. I knew tax collectors weren’t popular, but I had no idea how much we were hated until I became one. People could be really nasty, and I didn’t deserve the half of it. There were plenty taking bigger advantages than I ever did.

Anyway, that’s not where I started. I think it was a Thursday, the first day I met him. I was sat in the tax office, and he walked up to where I was sat counting the latest collection, and he said “Follow me”. That was it. Just “Follow me”. If you saw it written down you’d think the scribe was trying to save space, but that was really all he said. I was a bit taken aback at first. I’m not used to taking orders from strange passers by, but I had to at least admire his nerve. You’ve got to be mad or really sure of yourself to go around behaving like that, and I’ve seen enough raving madmen to know that this guy was as sane as they come.

And so that’s what got my interest. His complete certainty. He knew who he was and what he was about. I envied that. I’d started to feel like a very small cog in a very big machine. And so I followed him. I know I sound like the madman now, but if you’d have been there, I’m telling you that you would have done the exact same thing. And anyway, if I am a madman, I’m not the only one. There were twelve of us in the end, depending on how you count it. There were loads more that followed him for a while, and we’d never have done all we did without the women supporting us, but the twelve of us were pretty close and we were the first he sent.

We were quite the group, I can tell you. Later on people started to call us the apostles, on account of the sending, but we had a few less auspicious names before that. I mean, the first four to join him were fishermen from Galilee. Don’t get me wrong, they were all great guys, although two pairs of brothers made for some interesting sibling rivalry, but hardly the cream of the crop. And Judas was always an odd one, even before...well the least said about that the better. Perhaps it was on account of him being the only southerner. Not that I’m saying all southerners are bad, just that it must have made him feel like the odd one out.

Simon was the one that really interested me though. Simon the Zealot that is, not Simon that he called Peter. And by the way, he said that was on account of him being like a rock, but I think he’d just got sick of getting them confused. Anyway, Simon the Zealot. We didn’t call him that for nothing. He didn’t tell us everything, perhaps he felt too guilty about it, but he’d been in pretty deep with the rebels, plotting to kick the Romans out.

I felt sick when I first heard someone call him ‘the Zealot’. I thought was me done for. A good friend of mine nearly lost an eye when a group of zealots set on him, calling him a collaborator. You see they thought we were traitors for working for the Romans. Not that we liked them much better. We thought they were fools who were going to get us all killed. There was no love lost there, and so I thought about turning on my heels and running, but something deep down told me that if he’d called me and he’d called Simon, then he must know what he was doing, and so I stuck it out.

I think Simon must have felt the same. I saw his hand twitch when they called me the tax collector, as if he was getting ready to throw the first punch, then he shook his arm like he was shaking off the impulse, and smiled at me. No zealot had ever smiled at me before. And so I found myself smiling back. I’d never smiled at a zealot before. And then we both realised someone else was smiling at us. I said he knew what he was doing.

That was the day he first sent us. Told us to drive out demons and cure disease, to proclaim the coming of the kingdom and give as generously as we had received. If course we’d seen him do it all, but it seemed unthinkable that we could do the same. Still it gave us a shared purpose, and we needed something in common.

That’s what held us together through everything, that and knowing him. And it’s because we stuck together that we went out and did it, just as he told us. Because we did do it. But then I don’t need to tell you that. You wouldn’t be here listening to this if we hadn’t.

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