Trinity United Church of Christ, Deerfield
Kent M. Organ, Interim Pastor
Texts: Genesis 11:1-9; Acts 2:1-21
What Are You Trying to Say?
At Pentecost a group of people were able to speak in such a way that they were understood by everybody. It was a considered a miracle, a gift of the Holy Spirit: to be understood by everybody. It makes you wonder, what language they used.
The word “Pentecost” comes from the day when it happened. Pentecost is a Jewish festival that arrives fifty days after Passover – the word Pentecost meaning “fifty.” So, on this particular Pentecost, it was also fifty days after Jesus’ Resurrection.
The disciples assembled in Jerusalem. They were expecting something. Jesus had told them not to leave the city until they had received power there. So they gathered, and continued to gather, praying, singing songs, reading the Scriptures, sharing a meal “in remembrance of [him].” And suddenly, on that morning, there was a rush of wind, and there appeared to them tongues of fire.
In the Hebrew Bible fire and wind are familiar disguises of God. God approached Moses in the burning bush. God appeared in the desert after the Exodus as “a pillar of fire by night.” And the Hebrew word for Spirit is the same word as for wind.
So when fire and wind both appear, this is major, something world class. God is here in an extraordinary way, giving the followers of Jesus an unexpected gift, the gift to speak in such a way that everyone will understand you.
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Pentecost is a wonderful story in itself. But it is really the sequel to another story, about the Tower of Babel – Babel probably being the root word for Babylon, where there used to be a huge tower that dominated the city.
Archaeologists say Babylon was a magnificent city, a remarkable achievement of human civilization. But… given the threat that the empire to the north was for ancient Israel, in the view of the Bible Babylon was an evil city, built on the deadly sin called pride.
The Tower of Babel story begins, in the Revised Standard Version, with this intriguing sentence: “Now the whole earth had one language and few words.” What “few words” do you suppose they were if the world was the way God intended.
In the beginning, there was “one language and few words.” But then, according to the ancient myth, human beings built a tower climbing to the heavens. They are trying to usurp heaven, trying to take the place of God. In the stories of ancient cultures, we see this kind of over-reaching pride most often in Greek mythology. The Greeks called it hubris. Hubris is the arrogance that goes before a fall. Which is the point of the Babel narrative. With the result being: many languages, many words – and no communication.
The Tower of Babel story is a description of the human condition. Writ large in the news these days. Just listen to the bravado, the boasting and bluster, that emanates from the highest precincts in Washington these days. Illustrating humanity’s besetting sin, pride. And pride’s consequences are alienation and separation. Its cure is modesty, humility, which is a language spoken so that all can be included, all can comprehend. It makes you wonder, What could that original language have been that all people could understand?
* * *
There is something else about these texts that we shouldn’t miss. They both concern cities: Babylon and Jerusalem. Both were real cities in the ancient world. But in the Bible they take on a mythical dimension. In the Bible, Babylon symbolizes what is wrong with the world. And Jerusalem symbolizes God’s plan for the world.
Babylon is the image many people have of the city. That suspicion is deeply imbedded in middle-American consciousness. It is as if cities are intrinsically evil, and small towns are inherently good and virtuous. Generally, Americans feel little loyalty to cities – except maybe to their sports teams.
I remember my first exposure to Chicago. My dad was doing post-graduate study at the University of Chicago. I was in the eighth grade. I came home from my first day at Ray School very excited. In my class there were Filipinos, Japanese, Germans, a Swedish girl, a Finnish boy, Mexicans, “Negroes,” and… – to me, this was the climax – and… a boy from Atlanta, Georgia! Chicago is amazingly multinational, multi-ethnic, multi-religious. How much more so now, 60-some years later. A babel of tongues are spoken in Chicago. Is the city – like Babylon? Or Jerusalem?
“Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem.” Acts then proceeds to name them all: Parthians, Medes, Elamites, Mesapotamians, the whole lot of them, all named, so you would know every nation and culture was represented in that city.
If Babylon means babel, confusion, Jerusalem means peace, harmony, symbolically. The name Jerusalem is derived from shalom, the Hebrew word for peace: Jeru – shalom, the foundation of shalom. It was the vision of the prophets that some day all the peoples of the earth would come to Jerusalem, the city of peace, and live together as one family. It’s the vision of the Book of Revelation, the last book of the Bible, that the perfect city is Jerusalem, now existing in heaven, waiting until history is complete, when God’s will is done “on earth as it is in heaven.” Then Jerusalem, the perfect city, will descend to earth and God will dwell with us.
What a beautiful image: the city as the model of what God has in mind for the world, a place where all people of all nations, all of God’s creation, will dwell together in peace. And at Pentecost it was that way for a few days, or maybe just a few hours. The point is, the day of Pentecost is remembered as one extraordinary instance when it happened: God’s Spirit came down. And Jerusalem, the city of shalom / salaam, became for a moment what it is called to be, a place where all peoples are reconciled and remade as one.
Here’s the point: it happened because these followers of Jesus were empowered by the Holy Spirit to transform the city that was filled with a babel of tongues into one community, with a language that all people could comprehend. If we wonder what that language was, it was surely the language of reconciliation and understanding.
* * * *
We, in our time, face a similar challenge. America is now filled with people and traditions from every nation under heaven. Every one of the world’s religions can now be encountered in this country. The question is: What do we have here? Babylon? Or Jerusalem? Is this a curse? or a blessing? Clearly, a lot of middle America has decided that this is Babel. And wants to keep racial and religious minorities out.
But I would suggest in light of Pentecost that we, followers of Jesus, have no choice but to see this as a blessing. God has invited us – and others – to be ambassadors of hospitality and reconciliation, to speak in such a way that all people can understand, to challenge whatever continues to alienate peoples, and to create communities in which all the diversity of God’s creation may meet.
Jesus said to the disciples, “Stay in Jerusalem.” And they did, until they received power to discern a new city. That power enabled them to speak so as to be understood. The language they spoke was a language of reconciliation.
There is no question what the content of the message was. It’s recorded in the second chapter of Acts. It’s Peter’s sermon. In it he proclaimed what God did in Jesus Christ, and everybody understood that in their own language. That’s the crux of it. It has to be spoken in such a way that it will be heard.
I don’t expect it will be heard if we proclaim it the way Peter did, standing on the street corner and shouting it. Today, that delivers a different message. People just shake their heads and walk on by. Briskly. So, what language would recreate the miracle of Pentecost today, the miracle of universal understanding?
We search for such a language in ecumenical and interfaith efforts. Your Council sought such a language by signing the “Out of Many, One” anti-bigotry statement. The Rainbow Flag out front is an attempt also. Underneath such endeavors there is one original miracle. That basic Pentecost miracle is simple, transforming, persuasive – and it can’t be faked.
It is love. Love is the language that all people understand. Love is surely the original language with few words.
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