“The Language of Pentecost”
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
Genesis 11 marks the end of what biblical scholars call the “pre-history.” It includes the two versions of creation, the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the garden, the flood, and God’s covenant with Noah. In Genesis 10, we hear of the global dispersion Noah’s sons – Japheth, Ham, and Shem. The purpose of that chapter is to affirm the diversity of families, languages, and nations of the world. The last verse of Genesis 10 reads, “These are the families of Noah’s sons, according to their genealogies, in their nations; and from these the nations spread abroad on the earth after the flood.” (Gen. 10:32)
After all that, Genesis 11 reads like a random cut-and-paste in some frat-boy’s unedited term paper that he threw together the night before it was due. Listen for God’s Word.
Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. 2And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. 3And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar.
4Then 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 shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.”
5The Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built. 6And the Lord said, “Look, they are one people, and they have all 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. 7Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.”
8So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city.9Therefore 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. (NRSV)
In the space between Genesis 10 and Genesis 11, we jump from humankind expanding to the entire known world, speaking all sorts of languages, and occupying all sorts of nations, to everyone clustered in one place speaking “one language [with all] the same words.” At the end of the pre-history, the nations destroy their uniquenesses. They build a city and begin constructing a tower that will reach to the heavens.
Come on,they say, let’s make a name for ourselves!
This makes the anthropomorphic God of the pre-historic tradition start wringing his hands. He turns to whomever it is that this human-imaged God has around him, and whose help he apparently needs at the moment, and says Oh no, if the people keep this up, they’ll be so powerful and proud, we won’t be able stand them. We have to stop this! Come on, let’s go stir things up and confuse them.
Why does God feel like all this cooperation is such a bad thing? Well, like Adam and Eve, they’re committing the most common of all sins: They’re trying to become God. And they’re going at it the way most nations and institutions inevitably do. Looking, sounding, and acting pretty much the same, they interpret homogeneity as an entitlement to stockpile power and pride. Then, as most powerful and proud human communities and institutions do, they fall into a pathological certainty that they have earned and own some kind of divine favor. So their power becomes increasingly violent and their mind- and heart-numbing pride reaches ever higher.
The building of the mythic tower of Babel stands as an unforgettable metaphor for humankind’s fear of and resistance to the God-willed beauty, and now the God-protected permanence of diversity in the Creation. In his commentary on Genesis, Walter Brueggemann writes, “the fear of scattering expressed in [Genesis 11] is resistance to God’s purpose for creation. The peoples do not wish to spread abroad but want to stay in their own safe mode of homogeneity. The tower and city are attempts at self-serving unity which resists God’s” purposeful scattering of humankind.1
Brueggemann then defines the unity to which God calls us in biblical texts. “The unity willed by God is that all of humankind shall be in covenant with [God]…The scattering God wills is that life should be peopled everywhere by [God’s] regents, who are attentive to all parts of creation, working in [God’s] image to enhance the whole creation.”2
For Brueggemann, the unity of the people at work on the tower of Babel reveals their fear and idolatry. Any time human beings work that hard to build monuments of self-exaltation, or monuments of exclusion of the other, we’re building doomed towers of Babel. We’re worshiping ourselves rather than God. We’re trying to impose and protect an artificial order of control and conformity. While nations often operate that way, the Church cannot – not without working against God. To be the Church means choosing to live in a new order of things, an order based on God’s people-scattering, speech-tangling, Creation-affirming unity. And that new order is evidenced and driven by something entirely different from monuments, wealth, and worldly power.
Today is Pentecost Sunday. And the usual text for this day is Acts 2, the coming of the Holy Spirit among the disciples in Jerusalem. In that story we find some interesting similarities to the story of the tower of Babel. For starters, all the followers of Jesus, like the people of Babel, are “in one place.” (Acts 2:1b) On top of that, Jerusalem is full of “devout Jews from every nation under heaven.” (2:5) They’ve gathered in Jerusalem for Pentecost, the Festival of Weeks, the yearly celebration of wheat harvest. And in Jerusalem, they hear the followers of Jesus, all of them Galilean Jews, speaking of and praising him in a multitude of languages. Acts names fifteen separate nationalities who hear the gospel in their own tongues.
Luke is making the same point that the ancient writers of Genesis make: God is the God of all humankind. All peoples, all nations, all cultures, all languages, and every skin hue imaginable belong to and are beloved by God. God doesn’t merely “tolerate” the diversity of the earth. Having created it, God is in love with it.
Today, the word Pentecostal is associated with a particular style of worship that feels alien and uncomfortable to many “decent and orderly” Presbyterians. And I confess to being one of them, bless my heart. But Pentecostal is a word, indeed a language from which we dare not stray too far. A Pentecostal community intentionally opens itself to the Holy Spirit’s unifying call to scatter into the world with words of mercy and deeds of justice. To be truly Pentecostal is to trust that, come what may, God surrounds and pervades the violent and suffering messiness around us, planting seeds of redemption and harvesting joy.
To celebrate Pentecost as Christians is to celebrate far more than “what God has done for us.” That phrase has been corrupted by the prosperity gospel to mean anything that makes our lives easier, even when our ease comes at the expense of some other person or part of Creation. To celebrate Pentecost is to follow Jesus in declaring with our whole lives – with our political, economic, social, vocational, and recreational choices – what God is doing, in and through us, now, in the power of the Holy Spirit, for the sake of all Creation.
Feeding people at the JAMA food pantry and Loaves and Fishes are Pentecostal acts.
Tending to homeless families at Family Promise is a Pentecostal act.
Working for social and economic justice is a Pentecostal act.
Calling ourselves and others to live in ways that allow the earth and climate to heal is a Pentecostal act.
Whatever we do to love ourselves, our neighbors, and our enemies is always a Pentecostal act.
As a community created by Pentecost, the Church’s purpose is not to build monuments – towers, steeples, walls, and elaborate, sacrosanct doctrines – but to scatter into an idolatrous, wagon-circling world to embody God’s transforming presence, and to give voice to God’s grace.
As we enter the world around us with the heart and mind of Christ, we discover the true unity being offered to us through the only lasting power at work in the world: The power of God’s Holy Spirit.
1Walter Brueggeman, Genesis, in the series Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching. John Knox Press, Atlanta, 1982. p. 99.