E pluribus unum. Out of many, one. I can’t help but look further back in time, long before U.S. history, to the Day of Pentecost narrated in Acts 2.
In reading about this early group of Jesus followers waiting on the promised spirit, the very meaning of the phrase E pluribus unum comes alive.
People gathered from various regional and linguistic backgrounds were Spirit-empowered to understand each other’s words – signifying not only a reversal of the Babel incident, but more important, the unifying work of the spirit.
E pluribus unum. Out of many, one. 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 on which the church was established as a uniform 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 1 Corinthians 12, Paul offers a theological argument for holding 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.
Paul seeks to persuade this congregation to embrace diversity as a part of unity, and unity as a Spirit-outcome as Jesus’ followers work for the common good.
There is also a sense of mission here, which 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.
The believers to whom Paul writes are Gentile believers, and there were no Gentiles at the Day of Pentecost. Those in the room that day were all Jewish followers of Jesus.
But 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 important, for what the Spirit is doing?
The coming of the Spirit on 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 in 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 which 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 full fellowship of the faith.
But Peter seems not to be convinced at first. 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.
Many have viewed this story primarily as a story about evangelism, but this view misses the real crux of this encounter. 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.
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 of unity.
Perhaps more important, Peter understands that the Spirit of God is not just seeking unity, but also the expanse of the people of God to include even those considered unclean by Peter and his Jewish friends.
The worldview 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.
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.
Assistant Director of the Honors College at Henderson State University in Arkadelphia, Arkansas.