Sermon; Pentecost C; Gen. 11:1-9, Acts 2:1-21
Welcome to Pentecost, that great day of celebration when the apostles were filled with the power of the Holy Spirit. It was on this day that they began speaking in other languages and Peter reiterated the prophecy from Joel that God would pour out his Spirit upon all flesh, that sons and daughters would prophesy, that young men would see visions, and that old men would dream dreams. The Spirit of God would be poured out upon men and women to do great things. Pentecost is one of the three great feasts in the Church year. But before we get here, we need to go back to Genesis.
Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. As the people migrated from the east, they settled in Shinar where they began to build a city and tower in honor of their greatness. As they were building the tower, God came down to see what they were up to. After witnessing the people in action, God confuses their language and scatters the people over the face of the earth.
We know that this isn't how different languages actually developed, but it is a really good story. Like all good stories that aren't factually true, however, it contains elements of a larger truth within it. And who better to tap into those larger truths than John Chrysostom. He makes three points about this passage that are as equally true and applicable today as they were when he originally wrote.
First he says that this passage points to humanity's inability to recognize our limits; that we are always lusting after more. This doesn't happen overnight, but in stages. The people wanted a better place, so they moved out and settled in Shinar. That place wasn't grand enough, so they built a city. And because they wanted to announce their greatness to the world, they built a tower in the midst of the city. But that tower eventually was abandoned and fell into ruin. This is a tale of truth as to how we keep chasing after the things of the world only to have it fall into disarray.
Second he says that this story reflects our human tendency to use the privilege given us for evil purposes. Adam & Eve used their privileged place in the garden to see themselves as gods. The people in this story used their privileged place to create monuments and again attempt to elevate themselves to the position of gods. We continue to work to elevate ourselves to the place of gods where we have power and control over others. Whites have used their privilege to enslave blacks and sentence Native Americans to live in the very worst places and conditions of the country. Various peoples have attempted to commit genocide against other peoples. Humans have used their privilege to run to extinction various animals and clear-cut forests into oblivion. We were to be caretakers of creation and a blessing to others; but instead we have decimated the environment and abused our fellow humans.
And third, Chrysostom says this story reflects the inflated ego of humanity. He said that people want to be remembered through the ages, so they build grand towers to their honor. And when asked about their building projects, they most likely reiterate that it is to have their names remembered by future generations – that this tower belongs to so-and-so. But Chrysostom points out that this tower doesn't belong to so-and-so the great, it belongs to so-and-so the miser, despoiler of widows and orphans. This tower's expense was toward selfish reasons and helped not one-cent toward the benefit of fellow humans.
This story reflects the insatiability, abuse of privilege, and greed of humanity. But there is a corrective, and that corrective is the Holy Spirit.
We are now fifty days after Easter – Pentecost. The disciples have been, if not in hiding, living inconspicuously. On this day they are gathered all together in one place. Suddenly a violent wind rushes in and tongues of fire appear, a tongue resting on each of the twelve apostles; whereupon they each began to speak in other languages. People from various parts of the world heard the commotion and gathered around to see what was going on. Some onlookers passed it off as a drunken revelry.
“These men are not drunk,” Peter says, “but it is the fulfillment of prophecy and God's Spirit is being poured out.”
Note the contrast between the story of Pentecost and the story of Babel.
Chrysostom said the Babel story reflected humanity's need to always lust after more, to continually push outward. In the Pentecost story, note that the apostles have gathered together in one place. Unlike the people of Genesis, they are content to sit and wait upon the Lord. They have not used this time to get organized, form a mission statement, and march out in conquest. Instead they have taken the time to stay in one place and pray.
Unlike their counterparts in Genesis, they have not used their privilege for evil purposes. And they are privileged. They have been given the gift of the Holy Spirit. They have been given the ability to speak in other languages. They could have used this privilege to condemn the people of Jerusalem. Instead they use this privilege to acknowledge that God is seeking the salvation of all people.
And third, whereas the people of Babel exhibited inflated egos by desiring a great tower to bear their name, the apostles do the opposite. They do not take credit for this miraculous ability to speak in other languages. They do nothing to take credit for what is happening. Instead, Peter, speaking for the group, essentially says, “this is the Lord's doing. This is the fulfillment of prophecy and it is God who is doing a new thing.”
These two stories ask us to reflect on why we are here. Are we hear to build a great tower in our name and honor as a memorial to ourselves for future generations to admire? Are we here to use our privilege in an attempt to make others into our own image or eliminate those with whom we disagree? Or are we here to pray and discern how God is calling us to be in this world? Are we here to not proclaim our own greatness, but to speak about God in a language other people can understand?
If the former, we are doomed to failure. If the latter, then we will draw together people from all walks of life and varying languages as we fulfill the mission of the Church to reconcile all people to God.
This is the day of Pentecost. How will you speak to those around you, and how will your language draw in rather than scatter?