Colossians 3:1-11; Psalm 107:1-9, 43; Luke 12:13-21
Have you ever been misunderstood? Have you ever come to realize that your words or actions have been completely misconstrued? In today’s world, it seems like it is the norm for folks to interpret the same event in very different ways—and to have widely varying opinions about what’s good and bad, what’s right and wrong. I think that’s because we have very different contexts—and different sources of information. We see the world in different ways because we are being led that way by the media and by our own tendencies to see everything as black and white. And all of that can make for an abundance of confusion, mistrust, and anxiety. No wonder we feel like we’re living in anxious times; there is good reason to be anxious?
As I considered today’s lessons, I found myself draw to the story of the Tower of Babel. It is a story I remember well from Sunday School—and I remember it as an example of God punishing people who got too big for their britches—people who thought they could rely on themselves and not God.
But I have come to believe that I have probably misunderstood the story, and, I think, God’s intention in this story.
This is part of what is called the pre-history of the Bible – the first eleven chapters of Genesis are the stories of the origins of our world, and the first illustrations of the nature of our God. If you’ve ever studied the Book of Genesis in an academic setting, you probably learned about the different sources that scholars have deduced hold the origins of the book. Scholars name the source of this pre-history section the Yahwist – because the primary name used for God in these sections is Yahweh, mostly translated into English as Lord. This source material dates from the tenth or ninth century B.C.E., and is the oldest source material of the Bible. This section is called pre-history because these early narratives can’t be placed in an historical context with which we are familiar outside of the narratives themselves.[i]
The goal of these first eleven chapters is to explain the origins of many of the peculiarities of our world, and also to introduce the hearer to our God, and our God’s nature. We get two stories of creation, the story of Cain and Abel, and the story of the flood before we get this story of the Tower of Babel. In each story we get the overreach of the people as they fail to recognize God as God, and in return various measures of the grace of God in reply.
This story in particular has been understood to be an etiology; that is a narrative that explains the origin of a custom, ritual, geographic feature, name, or other phenomenon.[ii] This story is meant to explain the diversity of cultures on earth, with many different languages, and also to explain the origins of Babylon, understood as one of the cradles of civilization.
But I wonder if it might also be about the diversity of thought, of points of view in our world? I think it could also be seen as a story to explain how we came to be a people with such wildly divergent understandings of each other, and each other’s actions. Perhaps it explains why we are so separated from one another not only in language, but also in point of view.
Today is the Day of Pentecost, and our primary focus for this day is on that story from the second chapter of Acts, when the Holy Spirit came upon the faithful gathered in Jerusalem.
Suddenly, people who spoke many different languages all were able to understand one another. This event is meant to be the antidote to the Babel story; where God once confused the languages of humankind, here God restores the ability for diverse people to understand one another.
When the passage opens, the disciples are gathered together for comfort as much as anything else. These men and women don’t quite know what to do next. They seem to still be reeling from the extraordinary events that have occurred following Jesus’ crucifixion.
And then we read, “suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.” Tongues of fire light upon them, and they begin to speak in many different languages.
Then a crowd gathers – “devout Jews from every nation.” it’s sort of a flash mob, Holy Spirit style. Just imagine – people were gathered from all over the world, and they each hear the word of God in their own language, spoken by these Galileans, people that one scholar reminds us are, “back country Jews unlikely to speak foreign languages.” I guess that everyone was confused, both those listening and those speaking. It was indeed a strange turn of events.
But Peter is not confused. Of course, it’s no accident that the writer of Acts has Peter speaking here. He is the founder of the Church, and what we have here is nothing less than the birthday of the church itself. Peter explains that this event is the coming of the Holy Spirit.
The Holy Spirit descends on all of them – and the various languages seem to be an indication of how wide God is casting the net.
I like to think of the events of Jesus’ life like a long camera shot – we start with wide focus on the regions around Jerusalem and gradually but relentlessly the camera zooms in to a tight shot of Golgotha and Christ on the cross. And now with the coming of the Holy Spirit, the camera zooms out quickly, moving beyond the Holy Land to encompass the whole world. With this moment, the church is born – the story of Christ moves beyond the immediate circle of those who encountered him in body, down through the ages, to us today and onto tomorrow.
And so with the gift of the Holy Spirit, the birthday party begins! It seems to me that there for everyone who witnessed this amazing event, there could be no mistaking that it was something incredible. The coming of the Holy Spirit and the beginning of the Church was surprising and exciting. But I wonder if the amazement that the disciples felt made much difference for them right away. I suspect that after the wonder of the event wore off, they still felt confused, and perhaps a bit tired.
Does that sound familiar? I wonder if some of you might not identify with the apostles just a bit. Maybe you feel a little left behind by the world. The pace of change today is so rapid, it’s easy to feel like you’ve been left in the dust. And maybe you feel a little bit misunderstood. Maybe you, like the disciples, feel a little discouraged and abandoned. The truth is that we all have these low periods in our lives when we are confused, or sad, or angry. These are moments when we can feel lost and alone.
What did the disciples have to lean on in an unsure time? In the midst of this confusion and loneliness, God sends the Holy Spirit. And the Holy Spirit manifests itself in this odd ability of each to understand one another their own native language. That’s something important to note: The passage makes it clear that it is not just that they understand one another, but rather that the disciples are speaking in all of these other languages. The Holy Spirit makes that happen!
But again, I wonder if it is not only about spoken words; maybe what is really happening is that the Holy Spirit does give them a common language: The language of love and grace. Maybe in that moment, as Peter says, God pours God’s Spirit on all of them, and suddenly they understand the gift of Christ, the newly unleashed power of love acting upon them.
The ensuing events in the Book of Acts seem to bear that out. At the end of Chapter two we read of the beginning of the church: “The believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching the community, to their shared meals, and to their prayers. A sense of awe came over everyone. God performed many wonders and signs through the apostles.” [Acts 2:42-43, Common English Bible] They became one! They put aside their differences and pursued the common good.
But over time, we have again become separate, divided. Not only in the church (with five major branches, and our Protestant branch including hundreds of denominations), but in our world. We have become siloed; a Boston Globe editorial from July 2018 begins, “We live a world of echo chambers and political silos, in which more and more Americans are reading, watching, and listening only to ‘facts’ and ‘news’ that fit into their preexisting world view. Truth is no longer the end result of a complex process of learning differing perspectives, arguing about them, keeping an open mind, changing one’s mind, and finally arriving at tentative conclusions subject to revision based on changing information. Truth, with a capital T, has become a rigid, fixed dogma, not subject to challenge by untruth.”[iii]
What if we, again (or maybe still) in a time of confusion and discord, chose not to speak our own truth, the language of our tribe, but instead chose to speak the language Jesus teaches: The language of love?
What if we opened ourselves to the Holy Spirit, that we might be taught the way of grace that Jesus promises?
I find myself thinking about John Lennon’s greatest song, “Imagine.” It is often understood as being anti-religion, but an interview with Lennon in 1980 sheds a different light. Lennon said: “The concept of positive prayer … If you can imagine a world at peace, with no denominations of religion – not without religion but without this my God-is-bigger-than-your-God thing – then it can be true.”[iv]
We are challenged to overcome our divisions—to strive for the peace of God. We are given the gift of the Holy Spirit, which we are told can fill us with peace and love; a gift that can help us see through our differences to understand that we are all in the reach of God’s loving embrace; that in fact the things that separate us are flimsy and temporal. My brothers and sisters, do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid. God’s peace is ours, if we will only accept it. May we learn to speak the language of love, and may we learn to hear each other with hearts of grace.
Let us pray:
We ask for your forgiveness, Lord, when we forget the power that lies within, and trust instead upon our human strength. Remind us of that glorious day when your Spirit transformed the lives of those who hid in fear, into people of love. Renew these hearts that have grown cold with flames of fire, as on that Pentecost, that we might become the people that you desire. Amen.[v]
[i] Bratcher, Dennis. http://www.cresourcei.org/lectionary/YearC/Cpentecostot.html, accessed 5/17/2013.
[ii] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tower_of_Babel, accessed 6/8/2019.
[iii] Dershowitz, Alan M. “The left’s desire to live in a political silo when it comes to Trump” The Boston Globe: https://www.bostonglobe.com/opinion/2018/07/06/the-left-desire-live-political-silo-when-comes-trump/OAS3UzM31pSTrnTWsJ3z7M/story.html, accessed 6/8/2019.
[iv] Interview by David Sheff in Playboy magazine, December 1980, as quoted at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Imagine_(John_Lennon_song), accessed 6/8/2019.
[v] From http://www.faithandworship.com/prayers_Pentecost.htm, accessed 6/8/2019. (Original prayer slightly modified)