Diversity in the church, with everything that it means and implies and all the ways in which it should be manifested, is a hot and widely discussed topic at this moment. Is this one of those topics that will fall out of favour as time goes by, or is the church onto something really profound here? A reflection on John 4 should give us a clear answer to this.
Does diversity have its roots in the Gospel?
It is a well-known fact that Jesus, as a Jewish male, had very clear guidelines of places. He knew where he should go (and not go) and who the people were who He should engage (and not engage) with. These guidelines were called “maps of places”, arranged from more holy to less holy, and “maps of people”, arranged from more significant and favoured by God to less significant and favoured by God.
For example, descriptions of these are found in the Mishnah (an authoritative collection of exegetical material embodying the oral tradition of Jewish law and forming the first part of the Talmud) and the Tosefta (a compilation of the Jewish oral law from the late 2nd century).
We also know that cities were made up of two groups of people – the elite, who lived in the middle of the city, and the non-elite, who lived on the outskirts of the city.
In his book, The City in the Second Testament, Richard L. Rohrbaugh describes this division as follows:
A member of the urban elite took significant steps to avoid contact with other groups except to obtain needed goods and services. Such a person would experience a serious loss of status if found to be socializing with groups other than his own. Thus social and geographical distancing, enforced and communicated by interior walls, characterized both internal city relations and those between city and country. (Page 136)
In John 4, Jesus did exactly the opposite of what was expected from Him. He was scandalous, but also brilliant! He left Judea (more holy) and went to Galilee (less holy).
He travelled through Samaria, a place Jews thought of as low-ranked and below standard. He sat down at a place where He shouldn’t have been according to custom, at a time when He shouldn’t have been there, and spoke to someone He shouldn’t have been speaking to.
He had a conversation with a woman, listened to her questions, answered her, and offered her salvation and a new life. The only appropriate response from this woman was to tell others in her low-ranked, below-standard town in Samaria.
The disciples of Jesus were confused, because according to custom this was so odd and risky. To amplify the oddness perfectly, many Samaritans from that town believed in Him because of what the woman said when she testified. Lastly, Jesus stayed there for 2 days and many more believed in him!
Jesus transcended man-made, culturally relevant and approved boundaries.
The Good News reached the Marginal(ized)! Jesus transcended man-made, culturally relevant and approved boundaries. All of a sudden, His followers (that were later given a new identity as His family) were also diverse!
Why did Jesus do this?
If we read John 4, what could have compelled Jesus to do this, apart from the Father’s love for this woman, this town, its people, and all humans?
- He believed every single human being was created in God’s image.
- He was attentive. He tried to imagine Himself in someone else shoes and saw stories play off in front of His own eyes.
- He actively listened – not only to understand, but also to comprehend.
- He asked questions that were not front-loaded with assumptions. He thought twice before He asked.
- He dialogued. This means that two people spoke. It was reciprocal and dynamic.
Is it possible for us to transcend man-made boundaries and see diversity as Jesus did?
We all know the weight and significance of our historical narratives. We come from different countries and cultures, especially in Southern Africa. This did not scare Jesus Christ, the head of The Church, and the head of this church. This did not discourage our resurrected Messiah, because not even death could hold Him down. This did not change the nature of the Gospel, nor did it keep the Gospel from bringing people of all tribes and tongues to Jesus and back to the Father.
The church and all other churches to be planted are called to be a picture and testimony of this.
The Gospel can transcend all of this. The church and all other churches to be planted are called to be a picture and testimony of this. The church exists to show the world, which is divided by man-made boundaries, that the Gospel moves beyond these boundaries and that the Gospel transcends it. It should also show that Jesus Christ truly unites people and levels the ground at the foot of the cross! There should be no more maps of places and no more maps of people. It should all be gone, because of the Gospel!
It is possible!
As the church we should strive to see a world awaken to the wonder of God and His diverse Church. May God be abundantly gracious to us as we respond to this call.