Babel and Pentecost
By Ken Dale
Pentecost ?? birthday of the Christian Church ? gift of the Holy Spirit. It is interesting I think that if we look closely at scripture there are two instances of the giving and receiving of that gift. On Pentecost we always read Acts 2 ? it is to Pentecost what Luke 2 is to Christmas and John 20 is to Easter. It?s an amazing story ? would make a good movie no doubt with all the ?tongues as of fire? coming down and all those people from all those different places speaking all those different languages and yet ? somehow, probably as is often said ?by the grace of God? ? they all understood each other anyway. There was a unity there in the midst of all that diversity.
The other story is not so dramatic. It?s sort of tucked away in that post Easter story of the disciples gathered behind locked doors.?Actually, you could almost miss it. The resurrected Jesus stands in?their midst and I suppose, ?quietly? just says, ?Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.? When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ?Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the?sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained (John 20:21-23).? I kind of like that one better ? less dramatic,?probably appeals to that ol? Congregationalist in me. But that?s just me?? I?m sure others would prefer the more action packed version. In either case ? it is the same Spirit.
This morning before us we have that story from Acts and we have a story from Genesis. Both of them speak to us today as I think our journey of life and faith is a mix of both. The Genesis story is from early on in that wonderful on going story of God and God?s people.?Early on, people were multiplying ? well, very early on God said ?be fruitful and multiply? right? The people had one language but evidently they were afraid of being scattered. So they decided to build a huge city?? a fortress for themselves and their God. We?ve heard the story.
I?d like to share some thoughts I read this past week around Babel and Pentecost ? just to get you thinking about it. Some may agree and others disagree ? but they are thought provoking and were shared by?Douglas Donley who is a Baptist preacher in Minnesota ? I?ll weave my own reflections in. He begins that Babel has come to represent individualism. True New Englanders, and undoubtedly others, can relate and get on board with the thinking that each individual has the right to make a profit and better themselves. Donley says that our Babel component is our First-Worldness ? materialism, economic and military domination. He says the Babel component is that which builds up walls like Berlin, Israel/Palestine, US/Mexico, and disputes between Pakistan and India, Ireland and Northern Ireland, the overabundance?of denominations that seek unity by throwing others out.
?BUT! He also says Babel gives us cultural diversity, pushes us outside our own self-understandings, gives us humor and most things that are fun in life. Babel is comfortable and predictable. But Babel also makes injustice thrive, distinguishes the rich from the poor, makes people think they can condemn other people — makes enemies. Babel?is lived out in individual and corporate sin. And it?s all because we tend to not to look to God, but to ourselves for the ultimate answers. How?we doin???
PENTECOST. Our story from Acts that we have also heard. The Spirit comes and it comes to everyone! It comes to the intellectual and the unsophisticated, the committed and the apathetic, to the fundamentalist, the pagan, the man and the woman and those in between, to everyone ? the list goes on ? and when the Spirit comes, for an instant, even with all those differences ? they all speak the same language ? they understand one another ? even with all those differences.
Many of you have gotten a good laugh from the cartoon on my office door ? three pictures of sculls (those long narrow boats) with?every one rowing and one person standing at the end of the boat with a megaphone calling them to row. Those are the top two pictures and one says Harvard and the other says Oxford. But the bottom picture is different. The person standing at the end of the boat is rowing and everyone else has a megaphone and under the picture it says Congregational Church. The fun part of that part of the cartoon would be to know what each person is shouting through their megaphone.
Like most churches, we come from different walks of life, different parts of the country, different prior experiences of church. We are?different ages, genders, sexual and political orientations, educational levels, — different life experiences. And sometimes when we are talking to each other it?s like we are talking in different languages. We have a diversity of priorities and expectations of life and church. Sometimes?we live in Babel, work in Babel, worship in Babel, experience community in Babel, breathe Babel. As Donely says, we are children of Babel.
?But we are God?s children as well. Pentecost also happens and even with all those differences God?s Spirit comes and we are of one mind and even speak the same language. And when that Spirit comes we work together for the common good, for the good of another who is need in some way, helping people in their healing ? doing redemptive work! ? locally and throughout the world. Just as shadows make us appreciate the light ? Babel helps us appreciate Pentecost and that Babel component that we experience individually and corporately makes Pentecost meaningful.
In the early Christian Church Paul spoke about the gifts of the Spirit. And the Church?s response was to get confused about who would receive what gift and which gift was more important or better than another gift ? Babel. We can experience that Babel component in so many ways if we think about it ? both individually and in our life together as families, as church, as community.
So how important it is to pray that prayer at Pentecost ? ?Come?Holy Spirit, Come??
At our staff meeting this past Tuesday afternoon Jane Wilmot shared something as our opening devotion ? so good I share it with you in closing:
It is possible either to sustain and strengthen this burning of the spirit, or to quench it. It is warmed above all by acts of love towards?God and our neighbor ? this, indeed, is the essence of spiritual life ? by a general fidelity to all God?s commandments, with a quiet conscience, by deeds that are pitiless to our own soul and body, and by prayer and thoughts of God. The spirit is quenched by distraction of the attention from God and God?s works, by excessive anxiety about worldly matters, by indulgence in sensual pleasure, by pandering to carnal desires, and?by infatuation with material things. If this spirit is quenched, then the?Christian life will be quenched too.
With thanks to Douglas M. Donley ? ?Pastoral Perspective? Pentecost, in Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol 3.?
Closing quote is from The Art of Prayer as found in A Guide to Prayer for Ministers and Other Servants page 188.