The Narrative Lectionary jerks us out of Paul’s letter to the Galatians this week and takes us all the way back to Acts 2. Why? Because it is Pentecost Sunday and Acts 2 tells the story of Pentecost.
This time warp is appropriate, however, because the message of Pentecost reflects beautifully the message of Galatians.
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:
- Let’s make a name for ourselves, and
- Let’s not get scattered into the earth.
God saw this and did two things:
- God confused their language so that they spoke multiple languages and didn’t understand each other, and
- 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?
Let us consider two possible ways to interpret the story of the Tower of Babel and the story of Pentecost:
Option A: Punishment from God
God created humanity in a perfect state and everything was good.
Humanity sinned against God, so God plunged humanity into darkness, eternally cut off from God’s glory and perfection.
Humanity built the tower in order to find a way to get back up to God, or to become a god.
God was threatened by the tower and needed to destroy it before it was too late.
God scattered humanity and divided it by creating unique languages. This division would keep them from being united and building another tower.
Jesus came to build a proper ladder to let humanity climb up to God’s eternal glory and perfection.
The Holy Spirit came at Pentecost to reverse the curse, to call all people back into one people group–the church–so that they could climb the ladder to eternal salvation and unity with God. 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.”
An they all lived happily, eternally, ever-after (except for the billions that couldn’t figure out how to climb the ladder correctly. It didn’t work out great for them.)
Option B: Another Nudge to Carry on Creation
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.
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.
Our continual struggle as human beings is to create walls of protection around ourselves. We hide within our ethnic identities and live in fearful and destructive isolation from each other and God.
This is what Paul is highlighting in his letter to the Galatians. The work of the flesh feeds this isolation and destruction.
Jesus came to reconcile us through the cross. Paul said, “I am crucified with Christ, and the life I now live I live in the faith of Christ who loved me and gave himself up for me.”
We are called to that ministry of reconciliation.
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.
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