St George’s, Belleville—Acts 2:1-11
If you’ve ever done any foreign travel, you’ve experienced in a firsthand and practical way the fact that human beings speak different languages. And sometimes it’s the same language: Brenda and I once rented a movie that was made in northern England and we had to turn on the closed caption feature because we couldn’t understand a word of what anybody was saying, and they were speaking English! And I can remember being in a truck stop restaurant in rural Tennessee, and needing my southern-educated daughter to interpret for the waitress. The language barrier has a deep impact on the way human beings relate to one another. Wars have been fought because of misunderstandings arising from differences in verbal communication.
In one of the briefer and more obscure parts of the Book of Genesis, we find an attempt to explain the origin of linguistic diversity. It’s the story of the Tower of Babel. This is the stuff of legend, of course, rather than historical fact, and we can find similar stories in other ancient literature, but as we have it, as human civilization reached the point where people grouped themselves into cities, in a place called Babel, they began construction on a tower that was intended to reach all the way into heaven, the very dwelling place of God. Well, God obviously couldn’t tolerate that, so he confused the speech of the workers so that they could no longer understand each other and couldn’t work together anymore and therefore could not finish their construction project. And that’s how we got all the different languages that people speak.
From this perspective, then, linguistic diversity is understood to be a curse—a curse from God. Now, I’m an amateur student of the evolutionary history of human language, so I know there are more natural explanations as to why we talk differently. But one need not take the story of the Tower of Babel literally in order see its huge symbolic significance. Babel is a sign that points clearly to our very concrete experience of alienation from our fellow human beings. At the most basic level: I am not you and you are not me. I’m not trying to be cute by stating the obvious; I’m talking about the root of most human misery here. As hard as I might try, I can never reveal myself in such a way that you can perfectly understand me, and you cannot possibly reveal yourself to me in such a way that I could perfectly understand you. And, of course, most of the time, we hardly even make an effort to understand and be understood. This is what leads to everything from war to crime to social injustice to political oppression to economic exploitation to domestic discord and violence to depression and suicide, and the list could go on—all of which indicates that we are fundamentally disconnected—disconnected from ourselves, disconnected from one another, disconnected from our environment, and disconnected from God. And Christian theology has a one-syllable word—one syllable in English, at any rate—a one-syllable word that lies at the heart of this disconnection: Sin. Not my particular sins or your particular sins, nasty as they may be! Rather, I’m talking about the power of Sin, and principle of Sin, the force of Sin, that which drives us to do things that we know are destructive to ourselves and to others, but we do them anyway, because every one of us is enslaved to the power of sin and death.
If the Tower of Babel is the great sign of human alienation, then, on this Day of Pentecost, we see the great sign of God’s reversal of that alienation. We see an amazing outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the infant Church as it was gathered together in Jerusalem. There was a sound of rushing wind. Flames of fire appeared over the heads of the apostles. But the most startling of the signs that day was that people from all over the eastern half of the Roman Empire, people who spoke a diversity of languages—each of them heard the apostles speaking in their own native language. It was as if there were a meeting of the United Nations, and the French ambassador hears the Chinese ambassador speaking perfect French, and when he replies, the Chinese ambassador hears the French ambassador speaking perfect Mandarin, and, meanwhile the U.S. ambassador hears both of them speaking English as if they were from the Midwest, and the ambassador from Tanzania hears everyone speaking Swahili like they were born in east Africa. If the linguistic diversity of the Tower of Babel is a sign of alienation and division, the linguistic unity of the Day of Pentecost is a sign of reconciliation and unity in Christ. It is a sign of the very mission of the Church, which our Prayer Book catechism defines as “restoring all people to unity with God and one another in Christ.” The linguistic unity of Pentecost is a sign that we are invited to live into the call of radical unity—unity with God, unity with one another, unity with ourselves, and unity with our environment. Through Christ—through his cross and resurrection —we have been redeemed from bondage to the power sin and death. When we come to the waters of baptism, this redemption is sealed by the Holy Spirit, and we are gifted and empowered to become agents of the Church’s mission of reconciliation and unity.
The implications of this are astonishing if we really think it all through. Now, I don’t want to create the impression that we, as the Church, bear the burden of making worldwide reconciliation and unity happen, more or less on our own initiative. It’s God’s project, and God makes it happen. But we get to participate, we get to watch it unfold. And what a wonderful vision it is—the veritable re-weaving of the social fabric. We’re talking about a society that is free from violence, free from crime. We’re talking about a society where lawyers are unemployed, and have to be re-trained to do something else, because people settle their differences in a non-adversarial manner. We’re talking about a world order that has discovered creative alternatives to armed conflict. We’re talking about a society that helps marriages not only survive but thrive, rather than disintegrate when placed under stress. We’re talking about a society with no gouging or exploitation—where gasoline in the poorer neighborhoods isn’t twenty cents higher than gasoline in affluent neighborhoods.
We’re talking about a society that is soaked in the justice and righteousness of God. The coming of the Holy Spirit is the sign of that righteousness and justice, the sign of that society, the sign that the curse of Babel—the estrangement and alienation that Babel symbolizes—the curse of Babel has been reversed. This is precisely the good news that it is our joyful privilege to share with those in the world around us, those who are divided and enslaved by sin even as they are divided by a multiplicity of languages. This is work of evangelization that we have spent the last ten days in this diocese earnestly imploring the Holy Spirit to equip us for. We’re not going to see it come to completion during our time in this world, but we do get to model it, and hope for it, and, in God’s good time, enjoy it. Come, Holy Spirit, come. Alleluia and Amen.