Embracing diversity New Testament style

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In my last post, I posited the argument that God loves diversity and based that statement on the obvious abundance of diversity found throughout the natural world. To me that abundance means we should not only accept people in the LGBTQIA community, we should recognize that they were born exactly as they were supposed to have been, and are a reflection of the myriad ways in which God loves human diversity. In this piece, I want to make the case that within the New Testament the practice of embracing diversity was modeled by Jesus, Philip, and Paul, therefore we who are practicing Christians have a model to follow when it comes to embracing diversity in our daily lives, our various relationships, and workplaces.

    Jesus was a faithful Jew, who as a human being learned his spiritual path by studying the Torah. He knew that the Jewish scriptures said to welcome the stranger, do no harm to the alien in your land, and to love one’s neighbor as one’s self. This latter commandment he expanded beyond its original context to include even those who were deemed “less than” when he used a Samaritan in his teaching moment with the lawyer who had asked, “Who is my neighbor?” He also said that we are to even love our enemies and bless those that curse us, which in an honor and shame society like the one Jesus was a part of, was a truly shocking thing to say.

    Jesus did not just talk the talk, he walked the walk when it came to embracing the diversity around him. The Gospel accounts are full of stories in which Jesus can be seen sharing meals with people from every walk of society. Consider the story in Luke 7 where Jesus is eating a meal at the home of Simon the Pharisee, when a woman who is identified by both the narrator and Simon as a “sinner” (there is no mention of what her sins are, and to assume that she is a harlot is to read something into the text that simply is not there). This woman who has been “othered” by the Pharisee, and the narrator, is openly accepted by Jesus and her humanity is truly seen by him. The True Human (Jesus) sees the humanity in everyone.  Starting at Lk. 7:44, Jesus looks at the woman while speaking to Simon, saying “Do you see this woman?” He then recounts her seemingly strange actions, which included weeping copiously, washing Jesus’ feet with her tears and hair, and then anointing them with perfume. Instead of “othering” her, he completely affirms her  and even affirms her actions towards him, never names her sins, and then tells her she is completely forgiven. Talk about grace…

    Consider too the story of Jesus healing the centurion’s servant (Mt. 8:5-13; Luke 7:1-10). Imagine the scene, one of Rome’s violently oppressive centurion’s, a man with the authority to persecute Jewish people in an authoritarian way, comes to Jesus and asks him to heal his distressed servant and instead of saying “Not, no but hell no…” Jesus immediately responds by saying he will come and cure the servant. The centurion recognizing that Jesus’ divine authority is superior to the earthly, military authority he enjoys,  demures when Jesus suggests he will come to the soldier’s home. Jesus marvels at the centurion’s faith (an early foreshadowing perhaps of Christ’s redemptive message for all peoples) and graciously speaks the word of healing for the servant. Again, what an amazing incidence of grace. He doesn’t upbraid the centurion, call him an unclean Gentile, rail against his oppressive actions, nor does he name him a sinner. He simply saw a human being in distress and helped him. He embraced the diversity that was there for him to embrace.

    Throughout the Gospel narratives Jesus can be seen healing the sick, dining with all manner of people from different backgrounds and levels of societal privilege and prestige. He is seen talking to people he “shouldn’t” be talking to, and generally accepting all who came to him for help, teaching, or simple human interactions. Some of the authorities didn’t like his way of behaving, his way of practicing open table fellowship with all manner of people, or his compassionate way of helping others even if it meant healing on the Sabbath. Jesus modeled a new way of being human in community with other human beings. I see this as enacting the Kindom of God on Earth.

    Now consider the disciple Philip, who on a journey to Jerusalem gets called by God to speak with an Ethiopian eunuch whom he encounters on the road. Eunuchs were among the marginalized in Jewish society, seen as unfit to serve as priests (Leviticus 21:20) and were prohibited from entering the Lord’s assembly (Deuteronomy 23:1). Despite this history of marginalization, Philip is told to sit with the Ethiopian, who has an important role in the Queen of Ethiopia’s court, to interpret the scripture the eunuch was reading and share the Gospel with him. In contrast to the aforementioned passages in the Torah, the eunuch is accepted completely into the faith as he is baptized by Philip. Jesus’ example was followed by Philip- he spent time with someone who was from a different place, who had a high social station as one of the Queen’s advisers, and was a eunuch. They could hardly have been more different, and yet…

    The Apostle Paul was the primary champion of the Gospel being preached to the Gentiles and advocated for allowing differences in tradition to be set aside so that Gentiles could become followers of Jesus. He also insisted that the usual modes of social stratification in relation to economic standing be dispensed with as outmoded. In 1 Corinthians 11:17-26 Paul scolds those in the Corinthian church who practice exclusion during what is meant to be open table fellowship amongst all of God’s people, rich or poor. He lets them know that excluding the poor is not commendable and only has to say so because the wealthy are showing up, eating and drinking to the point of drunkenness, while leaving nothing for the poor but their obvious contempt. Paul lets them know that this is no way for followers of Jesus to behave.

    In the letter to the Galatians, Paul’s focuses a good deal on the Law and whether Gentiles must be subject to it. The end of chapter three highlights Paul’s views for those who have accepted Christ and have been baptized into the church. For Paul, there is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female. All are one in Jesus, and our social distinctions do not matter any longer. As practicing Christians, should we not also see past our social distinctions (a truly difficult task), and welcome all to the table of Jesus? Should we not refuse to marginalize others in our daily lives whose skin color is different from our own? Should we not cease to engage in scapegoating those who are different from us like is currently happening (and has so often happened) towards immigrants, people whose language is different from our own, people whose religion is different from our own? Should we not embrace the diversity of peoples, cultures, faiths, and languages that abound on our little blue ball in space? Yes, we absolutely should, just as Jesus modeled for us, just as Philip modeled for us, just as Paul modeled for us. This is how we love our neighbors as ourselves. We meet them where they are, how they are, and we just love them. Sometimes the simplest things are the hardest to enact. It’s a narrow path, may we see it with clarity and walk it in love.

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