Pentecost is known as the birthday of the Christian Church, and every year on this day we return to the story of our ecclesiastical roots. It is a story of wind and fire, symbols of the outpouring of the mysterious Holy Spirit on a group of praying, but hiding, disciples, transforming them from fearfulness into boldness.
I have looked at Pentecost differently ever since a colleague made the observation to me, some years ago, that the miraculous events of Pentecost represent a kind of reversal of the Tower of Babel; that’s why I chose to have that passage from the Hebrew Scriptures read alongside the Book of Acts today.
That story, in the 11th chapter of Genesis, serves as a kind of bridge between the Bible’s most ancient stories — of creation, Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah and the flood — and the stories of the Patriarchs, beginning with Abraham. As such, it reads much like a myth, a fable or folktale, right down to its moralistic explanation of “why things are the way they are.”
You could read the Babel story as a commentary on the development of city-states in human history. And it is interesting to note that towers, called ziggurats, were a feature of ancient Mesopotamian architecture, and contained a shrine at the top — so you could read this story as a condemnation of other religions, a “my God is greater than your god” sort of tale,
Anyway, according to the Babel story, as it’s written in Genesis, human beings got too big for their britches. They wanted to build a tower that would reach all the way to heaven, and for some reason, God saw this as a threat. So God “confused their language.” (One possible meaning of the Hebrew word Babel is “confuse.”)
Pentecost reverses the state of confusion that exists at the end of Babel, by means of a miracle of understanding across language and culture. Many conceive of it as a “”miracle of the tongue,” but it could have just as easily been a “miracle of the ear,” since it’s not exactly clear by what mechanism understanding occurs (chew on that for a while, if you like!).
In any case, it’s an impressive list of languages and cultures in Acts 2 (thanks for reading it, Edith!). Maybe you missed it in the tongue-twister names, but that list includes a bunch of so-called “enemies,” as defined in different periods of history:
Parthians and Medes (Iran)
Egyptians (remember the Exodus!)
I find it quite interesting to note that there are some of those nationalities have been labelled “enemies” even in the present day — and that some have switched to and from the status of “ally” depending on the winds of change.
One of the verses in this story that is particularly fascinating to me is verse 5, which reads: “Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem.” These are the people whose languages are spoken, or understood, in that list that Edith read for us. They were people of the diaspora — Jews who grew up in other lands, because their parents or ancestors had moved to those other places. Somewhere in their family line, there was a migrant. More often than not, the diaspora was the result of some kind of conflict — so those ancestors were either refugees or captives. The instance we’re probably most familiar with in the Bible was the Exile of the 7th century BC, when the Babylonians conquered Judah and destroyed Jerusalem, and deported all the skilled artisans and the educated classes to Babylon for several decades. During this period, the prophet Jeremiah advised the people to make the most of this devastating loss, saying, “Build houses and live in them, plant gardens … take wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage … seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (Jeremiah 29:5-7). After some 70 years, some of the exiles returned, but many stayed, as did many of those who were “dispersed” earlier by the Assyrians, and later by the Greeks and the Romans. The development of the synagogue came from this phenomenon, places of teaching and preserving the faith in strange lands. So Jews were found all over the world.
But this group described in Acts 2:5 had returned in the time of Roman rule — migrants again. That they are labelled, in the Acts passage, by where they came from, indicates some conflicted sense of identity. They have this common faith, this common ethnic identity — but at the same time, they came from somewhere else. They’d grown up in two worlds — knowing they were Jews, but also steeped in the language and ways of another culture. We don’t know if it was religious devotion that brought them to Jerusalem, or the machinations of the Roman Empire; whether it was by choice, or opportunity, or some difficult circumstance that they were there. But it is rather startling that here, in this place, in Jerusalem, that their identity as “other” would be affirmed as a means of blessing in the Holy Spirit.
Do you ever feel like you’re living in two worlds — like there’s a conflict between the values or worldview of the culture around you and where your heart is? Does this sense of “otherness” play out in your conversation — the “language” that you speak, or what topic you choose to bring up where? Is there a disconnect or an identity crisis going on inside of you sometimes?
It’s been part of human consciousness for so many millennia that one might believe it’s intrinsic to human nature: our identity, our sense of belonging to a group, is defined and reinforced by the presence of an enemy. We define who we are by what we are not. A few years ago I heard theologian Brian McLaren speak about this at a preaching conference. He said that way of being — defining who we are by who our enemy is — really worked as civilization spread across the globe, one culture conquering another, forcing others to flee, pursuing adventure in search of more space or more resources. But the problem is, now there’s nowhere else to go. There is no frontier left. As a human race, we are stuck with each other. And continuing to define ourselves and strengthen our group identity by naming “others” as “enemies” is a construct that is no longer sustainable. In the name of religion, McLaren asserted, humanity is at risk of extinguishing itself.
This state of affairs is no less true today. Understanding and teamwork across cultures is still a desperate need. Lack of understanding, lack of the ability to communicate with those we deem “other,” plagues our politics, challenges our classrooms and workplaces, is the source of wrangling in churches and even in families, because we come from different places, different worldviews, different generations. Technology has sometimes helped bridge the gap and sometimes makes matters worse. But where the human heart is involved, the gifts of the Spirit are needed – especially when it comes to changing this “human nature” question of defining ourselves, getting our identity, from having an enemy.
In the Pentecost story we see the Holy Spirit reversing the old trend of separation and violence justified by distinction. That’s what’s so incredible. Babel is reversed. The idea of difference as threat is reversed.
In the Holy Spirit there can be difference without danger.
Love, it is often said, is the universal language. Much of this occurs in the non-verbal realm, which, I’ve heard, makes up somewhere around 90 percent, or more, of our communication. Welcome, hospitality, eyes that light up, and faces that smile, an offer to help lift a load, open hands. Whether we speak the same “word language” or not, the Holy Spirit working in our hearts can interpret and fill in the gaps with love and grace. The Holy Spirit working in our hearts can move us toward, instead of away from, “the other.”
Our “conversational language” may be English. It may be Spanish, or Tongan, or Taiwanese. It may be music. It may be rap. It may be image, or story. It may be listening as much as it is talking — dialogue and exchange more than lecture. It may be dance or movement or art or repairing a house or planting a garden. Communicating with passion, trusting in the Holy Spirit to intervene in the speaking and in the listening, doing so with humility and without demands for control, entrusting the results to God — if we just go where God is leading, the faithfulness and fruitfulness will follow. There can exist difference without danger.
Now there’s one other language on the list in the Acts passage that I didn’t mention earlier, because it is a particular mystery. It’s the language of the Elamites. It’s strange because it’s a language that was extinct by the first century; it had died out six hundred years before, was not spoken anymore. Why are the Elamites mentioned, do you suppose? Might that mean that there is a dimension to the Pentecost miracle that is not limited to any one time or place? Might the miracle of communicating understanding across cultures, and between so-called “enemies,” be available to the faithful everywhere? Might it not be too much to hope for, even expect, that the Holy Spirit transcends time and space and is available to us even now?
Holy Spirit, inspire again. Come revive again. Breathe your life again. Burn bright in our hearts, that fear might be banished, and differences be overcome. Amen.