The story of Pentecost is one of my most favorite. I suppose part of it is that it has to do with languages—my first love, academically, was languages. I am fascinated with words and whenever I am in a position of wrestling with the meaning of things, I will always return to the words used, what they meant at the time they are spoken and what they mean to us now. Words are at the heart of how we communicate—and miscommunicate. Words are incredibly powerful, and that power can be used well or used poorly. Today’s story of Pentecost is the reversal of the story in Genesis that we call “the Tower of Babel,” and it’s worth re-telling the story.
Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. And they migrated from the east, they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone and bitumen for mortar. Then they said, “Come let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.” The Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the mortals had built. And the LORD said, “Look, they are one people, and they all have one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.” So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore it was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth; and from there the LORD scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.”
At first glance, God does not come across very favorably in this story. Here the people are all cooperating with one another and living peaceably in one place and not wanting to be scattered abroad upon the face of the earth, and God comes along and confuses their speech. This story puts the blame for our failure to communicate with one another squarely on God’s shoulders…Sometimes you wonder how such stories made it into the Bible!
But this is one of those “midrash” stories, a myth that explains why something is in the world—people spoke different languages—but also tells a deeper truth. God had created a world of great diversity, and the people preferred to stay in the safety of the little corner of the world they knew. Rather than spreading OUT, across the world, and trusting God to be with them and lead them in safety, they chose to spread UP, to try to overtake heaven. Once again, mortals were trying to replace God with themselves. Once again, they thought they could do better than God. They had confused unity with “sameness,” and thought that as long as they all lived in the same place and spoke the same language (and made the same bricks and built the same tower) they would be “united” and everything would be okay. They were trusting in themselves rather than God. This is an ongoing theme in our history with God. We try to trust ourselves rather than the One who created us, and it always gets us into trouble.
God had to do SOMETHING to get the people back to relying on God alone, and so God “confused their languages.” God made it harder for them to understand one another, so that they would have to ask God for help. God made it impossible for them to communicate in their own language, so that they could learn the deeper language of God’s love.
And so it went. The children of Abraham grew into a nation; that nation went into Egypt for safety and instead fell into slavery. God led the people of Israel out of that slavery into the Promised Land, and still they didn’t get it. God sent prophet after prophet to try to help them learn, but every time they fell back into old habits. Finally, God sent Jesus, God’s own self born in human form. God learned OUR language, our way of communicating. He lived with us, died for us, rose again into our midst and then ascended into heaven, taking our words, our vocabulary, our imperfect ways of communicating back with him.
Last week we celebrated the Ascension, that moment when Jesus returned to God. It was the fulfillment of the promise begun with his Incarnation. Jesus took a part of OUR existence to God, in order that we will always be with Jesus. But I think God also learned something in this process. Because rather than go back to the “I’m in heaven and you’re on earth” model that hadn’t worked so well in the pre-Jesus years, God did a new thing.
Remember that even as Jesus ascended, he made a promise to the disciples. He said to them, “I will be with YOU until the end of the age.” And that is what we celebrate today in Pentecost. Today, we celebrate that the Holy Spirit came to the disciples as they were gathered together, and through them, the Holy Spirit comes to each one of us. It is the beginning of a new promise. It is the beginning of a new way of understanding one another. If God dwells in each of us, then we can never have the same level of misunderstanding again. When we fail to communicate using our own words, the Holy Spirit in one will reach out to the Holy Spirit in the other. The Holy Spirit makes it possible for us to speak the same language again.
One of the things I particularly love about the story of Pentecost is that God did not simply return things back to pre-Babel days. God didn’t just make it so that everyone spoke the same language again. Instead, God taught us to appreciate that beneath the diversity of spoken words was a unity that came from being children of God. God taught us to look for our unity not in sameness, but in complementarity. None of us is complete by ourselves, but when we cooperate with one another in the Holy Spirit, we come closer and closer to wholeness.
The apostle Paul understood this when he wrote those wonderful words from the first letter to the Corinthians that we heard today:
“There are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit, and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord, and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone.”
God loves variety. If you doubt it for even one minute, ask yourself why there are so very many different kinds of plant and animal. If God chose such a diversity of beauty in the natural world, how can we doubt for a minute that God loves such a variety in the people, who are indeed the apple of God’s eye? The point is not that we all become the same thing, but that we learn to bring what gifts we have to a common purpose.
In just a minute we will reaffirm our baptismal covenant, and I want you to contemplate, as you say the promises, what YOUR gifts are. We all make those vows together, because we can only keep them together. One of you might be very blessed with the ability to pray deeply, but find it a real challenge to proclaim in word and example the Good News of God in Christ Jesus. Look to your left or right, I bet you’ll see someone who is gifted in those areas you find a challenge. And I’ll bet that if you asked them, they would admit that they are challenged in an area where you are strong.
And all of this giftedness is a result of the power of the Holy Spirit, which God has “activated” in each of us. That is what we celebrate today—that even as God took a part of our existence into heaven, through the Ascension, God returned a part of God’s own existence to be with us here on earth. We will never have to build a tower to find God again; God is already alive and well in the hearts of each of us. But just as God wanted those first people to go abroad to celebrate the wonder of God’s creation, God wants us to understand that the Holy Spirit dwells in us not simply for our own benefit, our own safety. And be prepared—the Holy Spirit likes to do things in a dramatic way. Like a mighty howling wind the Holy Spirit blows through our lives knocking down the barriers that separate us. Like tongues of fire, the Holy Spirit starts a blaze in our hearts that is eager to burst forth and set the whole world alight with the good news that God is with us, and God IS love.
Tthat has been God’s point all along. We just kept letting the words get in the way.