May 31, 2020
St. John’s United Church of Christ, Union, Illinois
E Pluribus Unum is Latin for “Out of many, one.” You’re familiar with the phrase, of course, from the Great Seal of the United States, which appears on the back of the One-Dollar Bill, among other places. It was considered a de-facto motto of the U.S. until 1956 when the United States Congress passed an act, adopting “In God We Trust” as the official motto.
At the time of the American Revolution, the phrase appeared prominently on the title page of a popular periodical, The Gentleman’s Magazine, which collected articles from many sources into one “magazine,” an old-fashioned news aggregate website, if you will.
The meaning of the phrase was that out of many states (or colonies) emerged a single nation. It has also come to mean that out of many peoples, races, religions, languages, and ancestries has emerged a single people and nation—the “melting pot.”
Now, I think the melting pot concept has a flaw, in that it suggests that, when we come together, we turn into a uniform material, that we all conform to one common culture. While this sounds nice, it’s not what really happens. I suggest that we – as a nation made of many different peoples – are more like a stew. The chunks of beef, carrots, potatoes, and other ingredients remain distinct while making one dish.
Most people adopt English as the language of interaction, while retaining their first language at home and in gatherings such as churches. For example, several years ago my wife, Felicia, led worship in Spanish at the First Presbyterian Church of Marengo. This church, like many of our sister congregations in the United Church of Christ, was formed by German immigrants, and worship services were, until the 1940’s, conducted in German.
In 2001, following the September 11 attacks, the Ad Council launched a public service announcement in which ethnically diverse people say “I am an American.” Near the end, the phrase E Pluribus Unum is seen with the English translation underneath. This is who we are today, a people made of many peoples, yet one nation. As the musician David Wilcox wrote, “We are children of slavery, children of immigrants, remnants of tribes and of tired refugees. As the walls tumble down, we are stronger together.”
As Christians, this concept of many becoming one takes us back to that moment, Pentecost, fifty days after the resurrection of Jesus when God’s Holy Spirit came like the rush of the wind. The church was born as the Holy Spirit entered in and rested like a tongue of fire on each of them. Though they, the disciples at least, were all Galilean Jews, the crowd that gathered were from every nation. The people heard them speaking in many languages, and each person understood, no matter where they were from.
Jerusalem is a crossroads of the ancient near-east. Travelers, merchants, and armies have long crossed through this region. And Jerusalem bears the scars of many invasions, as empire after empire conquered the land and ruled over the people. So, the crowd that gathered probably represented much of the region around Jerusalem, at least, and possibly from much further away. And within just a few generations, the Holy Spirit would be poured out, if not on all flesh, at least in nearly every nation in the Eastern Hemisphere.
The rush of wind, tongues of fire, and humble Galileans speaking persuasively in many tongues were dramatic signs that God was doing something new, something that would transform the lives of all those present, and far beyond, in time and place. Though the disciples, I’m sure, had no idea what was to come, in hindsight we can see that the church was destined from the beginning to circle the globe.
Now, it makes me sad that Sunday morning at 10:00 a.m. is the most segregated hour in this nation. Though we Christians share the same bible, are baptized, and share The Lord’s Supper, we have fractured into thousands of pieces. It is estimated that there are some 43,000 different denominations of Christians.
Now, it depends on how you count, of course. These “denominations” are defined in terms of being separate organizations, not necessarily separate belief systems. The largest component (something like two thirds to three quarters) are “independent” churches, mostly in Africa, which are not necessarily different in doctrine, but are simply independent. The estimate includes national branches of the same denomination, such as the Lutheran Church of Germany and the Lutheran Church of Australia, as separate organizations. And there are many so-called “non-Denominational” churches which have effectively the same teachings, just different locations, different leaders, etc.
Some sources suggest Christian denominations can be divided into 6 major groups: Roman Catholics, Orthodox, Anglicans, Protestants, Independents, and “Marginals”. Wikipedia lists about 40 major divisions, each of whom have some variation in belief. And there are serious disagreements between our various churches. Is this a bad thing? Not necessarily.
The differences among us, just as the differences among the members of the crowd that heard Peter preach that Pentecost morning, reveal the diversity of humanity united as followers of Jesus. Instead of dividing us, that diversity can provide a startling illustration of just how great the power of God is. Rather than dressing us each in a white robe and erasing our individual identities, God enters into relationship with us just as we are, wherever we have come from, no matter the languages we speak, and despite all that might cause us to turn away from one another.
Even as we have sheltered in our homes, worn masks when we ventured out, and avoided close contact with others, we have taken part in a global exercise in unity. “We are in this together” the signs read. By the simple act of wearing masks, meant to protect others from any droplets we may breathe out, we have engaged in a tremendous act of love for our neighbors. Most of us, when exposed to this virus, would survive. But, because a few of us would die, we have tried to save them by our sacrifice. And not just us, but people around the world. In a short video from late March, showing empty streets and closed shops, these words were spoken: “What you’re seeing in those empty spaces is how much we do care for each other… It isn’t the end of the world. It is the most remarkable act of global solidarity we may ever witness in our lifetime.”
Today, on the birthday of a church called to spread to the ends of the earth, the love of God is given for everyone. Not just the disciples, gathered in a room, trying to figure out what to do now that Jesus has gone. Not just the holiest or the most faithful or the most learned, not just the believers, not just those who were with Jesus on the road or who witnessed him resurrected. No, at this moment, “all flesh,” male and female, old and young, slave and free, all are invited and included—all of us members of one body, indispensable.
The same Spirit of God that inspired the tongues of those gathered in Jerusalem is looking to inspire a rebirth within us. It is the same Spirit that led Isaiah to envision a holy mountain for all people, and gave the vision to John of Patmos of a city with no walls and no temple, where God dwells among us. It is the same Spirit that is breaking in to our cloudy consciousness renewing us.
The differences between us don’t matter to God. You’ve heard it said: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” The rules that are designed to keep us apart have been broken by this God who loves all people. God is bigger than one group or another. There is no longer Catholic or Protestant, there is no longer Presbyterian or Methodist, there is no longer Congregational or Evangelical. God is bigger than any denomination. God is the Creator of the entire universe and all that is within it. God’s love is not limited to this people or that; God’s love is for all people, no exceptions.
This can be a time of great renewal for our church and all churches, an opportunity to re-examine the essential questions of how we are the church. This is a time to re-commit ourselves to the idea that “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it”. This is a time for our children to prophesy, for young people to dream dreams and older folk to see visions, a time to welcome the outpouring of Spirit that calls us into tomorrow.
Today’s story is our beginning story. The celebration of Pentecost, which began as a remembrance of God giving the Law to Moses at Sinai, now marks the giving of new life and the gift of the church, a new way of living for those who would follow Jesus in every land and in every age. Not just some kinds of people, but all different kinds of people, in all different places, different languages and customs, different cultures and backgrounds and experiences, different abilities and genders and races and orientations, all different kinds of people, loved by God and filled with God’s Spirit, a new creation just as it could and ought to be.
May you experience the fire of God’s Holy Spirit, anticipate it with joy and hope, give in to it with love. Live in solidarity with all people, so that they’ll know we are Christians by our love! Out of many, may we be one in living the gospel, bringing good news to the world that God loves. Amen.
 The scripture quotations contained herein are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
 David Wilcox, “City of Dreams” on Into the Mystery © 2003.
 Galatians 3:28.
 1 Corinthians 12:26.