Whenever a church is culturally inclusive and welcoming of a variety in cultural expression, word gets out, as we read in verse 22…
The largely Jewish church in Jerusalem sent the right man for the job. Barnabas, whose name actually means “son of encouragement,” was a Jewish follower of Jesus of the diaspora, originally from Cyprus, which is where some of the people who planted the church in Antioch were from. He would be familiar with the language and the culture, and since Antioch wasn’t too far from Cyprus, he may have been familiar with this city too. And true to his name, he went their to encourage the Jews and Gentiles that were in fellowship together. And here we learn that if we’re going to make disciples in a culturally diverse metropolitan area…
Unity in diversity must be celebrated and encouraged.
On the campus of Andrews University I experienced rich cultural diversity. Did you know that Andrews is one of the top 10 most culturally diverse universities in the entire nation? I remember worshiping at the university church, Pioneer Memorial, and hearing the blend of hymns, contemporary worship songs, gospel songs and spirituals all orchestrated by a diverse team of singers and musicians on any given Sabbath (Saturday). I remember the monthly Fusion Worship experience, which was one of the highlights of my time at the SDA Theological Seminary, which is on the campus of Andrews University. This student-led worship service got its name from its vision to fuse all the various vesper (evening service) praise teams on campus, which represented a variety of cultures and musical genres into one amazing worship team. They didn’t each go up and sing there own songs separately, but rather became one worship team, blending all of their variety of songs together into one set. And almost the whole campus came out and we all sang each others songs together. Imagine a contemporary praise band joined by a student-led orchestra and sometimes a gospel choir all flowing into each others genres and cultures and sometimes languages, all sending a beautiful sound up to heaven. These were just some of the experiences that demonstrated to me that at Andrews, unity in diversity was celebrated and encouraged as the norm.
When Barnabas showed up in Antioch, it says he saw the grace of God. What was the grace that he saw among the church in Antioch? He saw the power of the gospel of Jesus Christ to, not only transform lives, but bring Jew and Gentile, people from many different cultures that would normally be divided by their differences, together in loving community. This unity in diversity was tangible evidence of the grace of God and he couldn’t help but celebrate it and encourage it.
This was a diversity to celebrate, not tolerate. It was a unity to encourage, not discourage. This is why in Galatians, Paul publicly confronts Peter, who in word encouraged the unity in diversity among the Jews and the Gentiles, but discouraged it by his actions once the Jews from Judea came into to town, so much so that some of Paul’s Gentile companions almost got discouraged in faith.
By contrast, Luke says that Barnabas was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith and he encouraged these new believers to continue with the Lord. Now notice he encouraged them to continued faith in Jesus and not a commitment to become cultural Jews. This would be discouraging to them. The goal was not to make them Jewish, but followers of Jesus Christ. And we know this to be the case, because they did not require them to be circumcised, which later became a hot debate.
So how can we better celebrate and encourage our unity in diversity? We celebrate and encourage it by first engaging and listening to those of different cultures, tastes and preferences, without judgment. We affirm their experiences, languages and accents. We encourage their authentic cultural expression in worship as the norm and equally valid. We begin to see our diverse cultural inclusion as a revelation of the grace of God.