I spent last week emceeing the Miss Minnesota pageant. I love pageant week every year. I get to see people who I only ever see this way, I meet new contestants who give me hope for the future of Minnesota, and it brings back memories of when I competed some 15 years ago.
Every contestant in the Miss America organization has a platform, an issue for which they advocate and work. When I was Miss Minnesota, I worked on diversity and tolerance education. I spoke across the state about the importance of that vital American virtue “liberty and justice for all”. I centered this work in my true, passionate conviction that my call as a Christian required me to speak about how God made us all ultimately the same, with uniformity in our desires, our goals, our needs, and our abilities. We’re all really alike, I preached, in schools and social organizations and even from pageant stages. We are all one. I was so sure I had the answer to all our countries divisions. We just had to understand E Pluribus Unum – out of many, one.
I wish I were as smart now as I was when I was 23. The more I live into the truth of my created goodness as a child of God, the more I begin to suspect something completely different than that for which I advocated as Miss Minnesota. We’re really not all alike. We’re all really different. And it seems that no matter how hard I try to minimize those differences, the gaps between them keep growing. It’s like by insisting that we’re all one people I actually make us more divided.
I’m beginning to think that I’m wrong, and that I’ve always been wrong, and that there’s a really good reason for that. Our reading from Ephesians this morning makes that more clear to me. “Lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” The unity of the Spirit. I spent so much time talking about uniformity when I should have been talking about unity.
It’s a hairbreadth distinction, one that perhaps only a word nerd like myself would notice. But there is a huge difference between unity and uniformity. Uniformity means “having always the same form, manner, or degree; not varying or variable; of the same form with others; presenting an unvaried appearance”. Unity means “a condition of harmony; a combination or ordering of parts… that constitutes a whole”[i]. Do you hear the difference between the two words? Uniformity means being actually entirely exactly the same. Unity means taking that which is not the same and allowing it to work together.
The book of Ephesians does not call for uniformity. In fact, it makes very clear the wide diversity of the body of Christ, which is the church. It says that God has given various people various gifts, and “The gifts [God] gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ”. In other words, God has made us different for a purpose. With these differences, we all hold different roles, do different work, serve in different ways, authentic to who we have been made to be by God our Creator. And why are we all different? Again, from Ephesians, it’s so that “…all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.” Unity. We are all made different so that we may all work to one profound goal: mutual service of God for the sake of the world.
When we claim that our differences don’t matter, when we determine that someone else’s experience isn’t true because it doesn’t match our own, when we insist that we’re all really the same, as I did for so long, we deny the work of our Creator in making us distinct and individual for the sake of the gospel. I confess my sin to you. I confess my sin of forced uniformity, of expecting everyone to be the same so that I didn’t have to feel uncomfortable about how different we really are. When I preached uniformity, I accidentally told everyone that my way of life is the norm since it was the only life I knew. I implicitly demanded that everyone’s really just like me, negating the goodness in the many ways you are not me, and should not be, because that’s not who God made you.
It’s why this passage begs us to “lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness”, to speak “the truth in love”, to be wary not to be misled “by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming”. It’s hard work to affirm that someone else is indeed not just like you, and that your differences might actually serve for the good of God’s work in the world. We live in a world that puts so much stake in there being one singular correct answer, insists that there’s only one appropriate way to live, only one kind of Christian, one kind of American, one kind of right. But neither our scripture nor our lived experience of God’s created diversity conforms to that. We are called to something different, something much more difficult.
If there is to be true unity in the body of Christ, then we must be able to recognize and name our differences. Only if we can actually talk about them, actually understand them, actually start to see how someone else’s lived experience of God in the world is different from our own, only then can we start using our many and varied gifts to serve God in unity. We must be able to claim our identities and affirm each others’. We need to talk about our differences in race, culture, gender identity, sexual orientation, political party, economic background, zip code, even pizza preferences, because I might think that Hawaiian pizza is an abomination, but when I learn that you, a person I love, adores fruit on your pizza, I learn to understand you better, to hear your experience of the world, and to grow closer to you even as I learn what makes us profoundly different.
This is the unity of the faith that Ephesians expects. Not that our differences would disappear, but that our differences would make us stronger. That our differences would draw us out, draw us together, draw us a new picture of the multicolored, multifaceted truth of God’s good creation. We are the body of Christ, each part doing different and vital work, knit together, working as we should, with Christ himself as the one who directs and guides us. That God calls us to deny the sin of uniformity, and instead embrace the unity of Christ in our many differences, thanks be to God. Amen.