5.23.10 sermon notes – Pentecost
Gen 11 and Acts 2
I have always enjoyed learning new languages. I am grateful that I am one of those people who catches-on to languages fairly easily, which helped as I studied French and Latin, and later Greek and Hebrew in seminary. As you may have gathered from that list, 3 out of those 4 are totally useless for conversing with anyone in the 21st century. I regret that I haven’t learned Spanish yet and plan to work on that in the coming years. I like being able to communicate in other languages – it makes life more interesting and helps me better understand others on their own terms.
As far as biblical pre-history goes, we don’t have much discussion about what language anyone is speaking until we get to this famous Tower of Babel story in Genesis. God has just wiped the slate clean with the flood and is giving Noah and his descendants a chance to begin again. Theoretically, with everyone coming from the same family, It’s not too surprising that they might be a bit on the homogenous side. They want to stay that way though, and the story unfolds from there.
The Tower of Babel is often used to contrast this amazing Pentecost story from Acts, which is why they both appear as lectionary texts for Pentecost Sunday each year. From what I can tell, the usual preaching narrative goes kind of like this: At Babel, our lovely human race, blissfully united with one common language committed the sin of pride and tried to get too close to God. So God, in an act of classic (but slightly less severe) divine judgment, punishes them by scattering them all over the face of the earth, giving them many different languages. And it has been that way ever since. Poor humanity.
And then the traditional preaching narrative continues like this: But wait! The Holy Spirit fixed all of this! In Acts we have a phenomenal encounter with the Holy Spirit, who comes and gives birth to the Church as these disciples overcome the language and culture barriers that Babel had created! Everybody celebrate! It makes a neat story, but I am not sure it is very fair to the text.
More recently, many scholars have come to read the Babel story a little differently, noting that it simply explains the origin of cultural differences. When we look at the text, there is not really anything to indicate that the united human race was doing anything wrong when they tried to establish a city and build a tower. They were seeking security and uniformity. They spoke one language, and they wanted to keep it that way – it certainly made things easier. They were scared of venturing very far from their comfortable surroundings. They wanted to make a name for themselves, but they forgot…they already had a name. God had named them as God’s own. They admitted their fear: “we do not want to be scattered.” So they remained …. stagnant…no imagination…with everyone speaking the same thing, everyone believing the same…essentially…there was no diversity. But God envisioned more for them – for us.
In this story, I imagine God having the realization that if people were left this way, they would be a pretty boring lot – speaking the same language, agreeing on most things, looking pretty much the same – who wants that? So God mixes things up a bit – not to punish humanity, but to allow it to thrive. Babel is a celebration of diversity as part of God’s design for creation. And we can too easily come to the conclusion that diversity is bad if we interpret it as the product of divine punishment.
So Babel is not a story about how terrible diversity is so that we can celebrate the ways that the events of Pentecost overcame it. Babel is an ancient story that explains a fact: there are many varieties of people and they live all over the world and speak many different languages. And that’s not such a bad thing. So then, what is the miracle of Pentecost if it was not to fix what Babel broke?
The Pentecost story take place early in Acts, when the fledgling Christian Church was pretty small – most estimates are that those who “were all together in one place” in this story probably numbered only 120 or so people – made up of the original disciples who had been with Jesus and some of the women and men who had begun to join the movement during Jesus’ life and after his resurrection. Men and women, young and old, rich and poor – gathered together in this place. And note that everyone there receives the gift of speaking in other languages in this story. As one preacher notes, “the Holy Spirit does not have a tendency to discriminate based on our human standards” (Aymer, Feasting).
So we know who was gathered there, receiving the Holy Spirit and speaking in these other languages. But who were these others who encountered them? The text tells us that “there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem.” Often, this group gets described as pilgrims, religious tourists passing through for the Jewish festival of Pentecost. But that’s not what the text says – they were people from other nations, living in Jerusalem. They were immigrants. They probably would have learned Greek, since that was the language the Roman military and of commerce at that time in the city. But they would have likely continued to speak their native languages in their homes, with their communities of fellow immigrants. So how amazing must this have been for them to hear people who weren’t from their community speaking their language! Through the gift of the Holy Spirit, this ragtag group of early Christians were “speaking of the glories of God, not in the language of the empire, but in the languages of the people subject to empire” (Aymer, Feasting). And here, we have further support for the ways in which this text is NOT a reversal of the Babel story. If that were the case, the Holy Spirit would have miraculously made everyone speak the same language. But that’s not what happened. Instead, the Holy Spirit made it possible for Jesus’ followers to tell the gospel in every language. So as I shared with the children a few minutes ago, this Pentecost moment did not really give birth to the Church, because there was a seed of the Church before this moment. But it sure did expand the power and potential of this community of faith to bring the good news of Jesus Christ to the rich diversity of God’s people.
In a sense, this Pentecost story mandates that Christians be able to speak a variety of languages. But I worry that 2000 years later, we have too easily slipped back into the comfort of speaking one language and expecting others who come into our communities to learn our language. Now, I am not talking about English and Spanish and French and Hindi and sign language here (although it is important for faith communities to communicate with people from other language traditions). But I am talking about the languages of our lives and our experiences: the language of our worship, the language of our denomination. We assume everyone knows why we confess as a community, and what grace is, and why we share our offerings after the sermon. We assume that the hymns we grew up with are familiar to everyone else, and that the way we think and talk about God makes sense to others. And let me just say that I am just as guilty of this as anyone else. We need to be mindful of the language we speak and who we may be excluding because we are not willing to speak theirs.
So if, as one scholar says, Pentecost marks the day when “Christianity became a religion with a divine sanction to multilingualism and to translation”, how are we doing in that area?
-How well do we speak the language of the poor in our communities?
-How well do we speak the language of young adults?
-How well do we speak the language of immigrants in our midst?
-How well do we speak the language of those with disabilities?
-How well do we speak the language of children?
-How well do we speak the language of those who feel excluded by the church?
Who is not able to hear the good news of Jesus Christ that we have to offer, because we are not willing to trust that God can help us speak their language?
The Holy Spirit came to those gathered Christians at Pentecost so many years ago, and we still have much need for the Holy Spirit today. We need that pesky, unpredictable, fiery Spirit of God to stir us from our complacency and sameness and gift us with new gifts of translation, so that everyone can have access to the good news of Jesus Christ. So we pray this day, and every day, “Come, Holy Spirit!” And then we buckle our seatbelts, because only God knows what amazing things can happen next! Amen.