I will be preaching about Pentecost this weekend. The two texts are Acts 2:1-21 and Philippians 4:4-7. The passages don’t normally go together, but the Narrative Lectionary has taken us into Philippians for the past two weeks and then jerked us all the way back to Acts 2 for a late-in-the-year Pentecost. This mash-up creates an interesting connection between the texts.
These texts also intersect with one other text. We often connect Pentecost to the Tower of Babel story in Genesis 11:1-9. The people had one language, they built a tower (or a fortified city) for themselves, and said two key things: (1) Let’s make a name for ourselves, and (2) Let’s not get scattered into the earth. God saw this and did two things: (1) God confused their language so that they spoke multiple languages and didn’t understand each other, and (2) God scattered them into the earth.
The question is this. Was God’s action a punishment or a nudge to continue the work of creation?
Some have said that God’s actions were a punishment in response to the people’s pride. They wanted to be like God, and God was afraid that they might actually get there, so he confounded them in a kind of divide-and-conquer tactic to keep humanity at bay. Having one language was the original good that was lost because of pride. The goal of Pentecost, then, was to restore humanity to its original design and “repair Babel.”
What if there was another way to look at this?
God’s original blessing for humanity was, “be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth…” (Genesis 1:28). Human language and diversity is not a curse, it is part of God’s blessing. The sin of Babel was two-fold. First, they wanted to make a name for themselves, not for God. That is the sin of pride, but in a different way. Second, they were fearful of being scattered into the world. They wanted to wall themselves off and protect themselves from the world and all its dangers, thus not fulfilling God’s ongoing process of filling the world with rich diversity.
In Acts 2, God pours out the Holy Spirit on people who had been gathered from the “ends of the earth” for Pentecost. What is interesting is that God did not speak to them all in a mysterious angelic language. Rather, God met each person in their own particular language, and then scattered them back to their own particular cultures. Perhaps Pentecost was not a reversal of Babel in which God unified and homogenized humanity, but was a furtherance of God’s ongoing creative mission to scatter humanity with the good news of God’s grace–revealed, now, in the person of Jesus Christ–for the glory of God’s name. God allowed each person to speak God’s name in his or her own language and allow that name to do its work within the context of each culture, redeeming the rich diversity of humanity in the unity of the Holy Spirit.
The Spirit of God scatters us. It draws us together around the risen Jesus, like a deep inhale, and then exhales us into every nook and cranny of creation, in the name of God. God does not force us to speak one language and follow a rigid set of rules. God meets us each in our own language and culture, let’s us speak God’s name in our own language, and then transforms us within our own culture. The Spirit of God unifies the diversity of these various parts–various languages, cultures, and norms–and forms them–forms us–into one body whose head is Jesus. That is the Spirit of Pentecost.
Whenever God calls us to move outside the boundaries of our safe, well-fortified cities, it is a terrifying experience. Most of us naturally resist being scattered. It produces great anxiety in us. That is why Philippians 4:4-7 is appropriate. Paul comforts his friends in Philippi who were wrestling with their own “scattering” issues by saying, “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”1