Pentecost: Unity and Reconciliation

May 15, 2016

Bible Text: Acts 2:1-21 |

From the beginning of human culture, we’ve told stories to explain the origin of things. “How did the tiger get its stipes?” “Why does the moon change its shape?” It’s easy to dismiss these stories as so much primitive mythology. And yet, beyond science and hard data, dwells the deeper well of wisdom. That is the real purpose of these stories: to explore the deep meaning of what it means to exist in this world.

And so it is with the Tower of Babel. On the surface, it’s simply a story to explain how humanity got different languages: “God got mad because people were trying to build a tower to heaven. So he confused their language and made it so they couldn’t understand and work together anymore. And that’s why there are different languages.” But there’s so much more to it.

The Bible begins with a series of ancient stories that keep orbiting around a fundamental issue: What is wrong with us humans? Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah and the flood: each is exploring another aspect of our general messed-upness as a species. The trees and butterflies and antelopes all seem to get on as they’re supposed to, but we humans are in constant enmity: with one another, with the earth, and with God. And the particular messed-upness that the Tower of Babel explores is the astonishing capacity we humans have to join our forces together for evil. Do you see that? When God looks at the tower they’re building, God doesn’t say, “Pff. Pathetic little peons. As if they’d actually be able to build a tower all the way to heaven.” No. God’s alarmed: “Look, they’re all joined together with 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” (Gen. 11:6). God recognizes that we humans do have extraordinary intelligence and a propensity to gather it together for our own destruction. Consider how many wars have been waged as a result of our political alliances. Look at the way our collective intelligence has created industry and technology that’s destroying the eco-system. Consider how a gang of mean middle-school girls can taunt and mock a classmate with such cruelty that it manifests in her as anorexia or cutting or even suicide. Think how our innate attraction to gossip galvanizes the worst parts of our spirits.

There is something wrong in us, something perverse and distorted in our human psyche. Few people are truly diabolical or sadistic; but when we gather together as a community – which ought to be a good thing – our individual brokenness gels together to create a powerful force to do evil, even though it’s rarely our intent.

And so the wisdom of this story is that we’re better off divided than unified, if indeed our unity will deteriorate into a greater brokenness. It’s like a teacher dividing two trouble-makers to opposite sides of the classroom. It’s not the ideal situation; she hasn’t solved the real issue that they enjoy causing trouble. But she has mitigated the problem for the time being.

And so the Babel story ends there: Humanity is geared towards godlessness. We want to do things our way, to our own self-centered advantage, and we will band together in ways that will ultimately lead to our ruin.

The Tower of Babel is the final story in this first section of Genesis that explores the general condition of humanity. But from this point onwards, the Bible begins to tell the story of redemption. It’s as if the first few stories are all meant to show us, “This is what God’s working with” and then the rest of the Bible is one story that says, “and this is what God is doing about it.” The remainder of the Old Testament and into the New Testament, with Jesus and the good news of the Kingdom of God, is all an unveiling of God’s steady response to redeem us from our mess and to call us into our true identity as children of God.

And this is what brings us to today – to Pentecost – to the revealing of God’s Spirit among us.

When we think of the Pentecost story, the symbol we always associate with it is fire – those “tongues of fire” that whooshed into the room and landed on each of the disciples. Paintings of this story often show a little fire burning on each of their heads. But really, I think our attention is on the wrong word. It doesn’t actually say “tongues of fire.” It says “divided tongues – as of fire – appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each them.” The emphasis is on “tongue.”

You see, Greek, like English, has a dual meaning for the word. It means the flappy thing in our mouth that we talk with; but it also means “language.” And so we’ll often say that someone speaks in a “foreign tongue.”

The point of the story is this: The Holy Spirit revealed itself among them by giving each disciple a tongue – the miraculous ability to speak another language – in order to share the good news of God’s deeds of power. Describing these tongues as being like fire certainly adds drama, but – more importantly – it emphasizes that these languages come from God, like when God spoke to Moses through the burning bush. And what is the underlying message? Babel is being undone. We no longer need to be divided to keep from doing harm. Today a new season of human existence begins, because we now have what we need to create the glorious, God-filled unity that God has always intended for us.

We have the incarnation: the divine Christ has joined us in our humanity. And if the nature of God is always to be one, then Christ has brought that oneness into our species. However sin has wedged itself between us, Christ has forgiven us that sin, that we – together – might be whole.

And with Pentecost we have the Holy Spirit. God is in us so we must be one.

It is this spirit of oneness that will define us as a people of God. In last week’s gospel reading Jesus made this so clear: “The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me” (John 17:22-23).

If the church wants to “seek and save the lost” – then we have to begin with ourselves. As a congregation we must pursue reconciliation with each other. If we cannot learn to love one another and to forgive each other in honest and meaningful ways, then we make a mockery of our gospel and of this Pentecost feast. As denominations we must strive to know and respect each other, even in the midst of significant disagreements. The world looks at the church, at our bickering and our foolish divisions, and concludes that our faith is a joke. And why shouldn’t they? The painful shame of the protestant reformation was how a spirit of divisiveness entered the church and never stopped growing.

If we want to seek healing from our divisions, though, we can’t simply wait for the “grown-ups” at the top of every denominational structure to hammer out their differences and turn us into one official church. Healing the divisions is our work – and it begins with relationship. We have to know one another and make choices that will cause our lives to overlap.

For various reasons – and against all my expectations – Cynthia and I enrolled our kids at Lighthouse Christian School last year – a local school with a very evangelical flavor. Now, I’m quite familiar with this flavor, because it’s what I was raised in and chose to move away from. I chose the Episcopal Church. I love our liturgy, our ethos, our sense of mission, the way we relate with the world.

It’s very easy for me to be dismissive and judgmental of evangelical culture. And I say this to my shame, because they are our sisters and brothers. Whenever and however I alienate myself from anyone, I am alienating myself from Christ. Lately, though, because my kids are at Lighthouse, things have been changing in me. I helped chaperone a three day middle school trip recently. And you know what I discovered? I liked all the parents who were there. All of them. And that certainly wasn’t the case just days before the trip when one mother shared her worries about the children’s vulnerability in public bathrooms. She was reacting to all this raucous surrounding the transgender community. It made me mad because it came across as so fear-based and prejudiced. And yet, a few days later this same mother and I were hiking along a trail together, chatting away. And in the midst of the conversation I learned that just the night before she’d shared her concerns, she and her daughter had been in a bathroom where a man came barging in, intentionally provoking a huge scene. I’d made false assumptions about her motivations – and –  in the course of our conversation I was able to share my concern that the transgender community is being falsely demonized as pedophiles – which they aren’t – and I could see that she was truly listening to me and questioning her presuppositions.

If we are going to celebrate Pentecost and proclaim the Spirit among us, then we must make actual choices that will help us to know ourselves truly as one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church. We don’t have to agree on everything. We don’t have to like worshiping with praise bands and drummers in acrylic boxes at the front and center of the church. Uniformity is not a requirement for unity. In fact, we can disagree over significant aspects of theology and mission, yet still conclude, “You are my sister in Christ and I trust that you are sincere in your faith. After all, our salvation does not come from right doctrine, or even from our goodness. It comes from our God who is loving us and drawing us, together, in an ongoing conversion to genuine godliness and life.”

So let us choose to keep our focus at the center of our faith: worshiping God, seeking the other’s good with humility, being gracious to one another with a love that conquers fear and suspicion.

The moment you commit yourself to the work of grace, the universe begins to move.[1] The Spirit rushes in like the rush of a violent wind, to meet you in your task and join you in creating that world where peace, love, and unity flourish.

[1] From Goethe

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