Updated: Oct 2, 2020
Message for Pentecost worship at West Richmond Friends Meeting
31st of Fifth Month, 2020
Speaker: Eden Grace
Today is Day 57 of my journey with Covid-19, and I am mostly recovered, praise God. However, I may cough as I’m speaking. Thank you for bearing with me, and breathing with me!
As many of you know, I’ve been involved with the World Council of Churches since about 1995. I attended my first WCC Assembly in 1998 in Harare Zimbabwe, with about 5,000 other people from over 100 countries. In a gathering like that, language is a major issue. Most of the time, everyone wears a headset to receive interpretation into a language they can understand, even if it isn’t their first language.
However, in the WCC’s tradition, worship is not translated. Each person at the podium prays or reads scripture in their mother tongue, not a European colonial language. I find it indescribably profound to hear the Holy Spirit speaking through words that carry no human meaning for me. Most profound of all is the Lord’s Prayer. The entire worshipping congregation prays the Lord’s Prayer together in unison, each in his or her own first language. It sounds like a cacophonous noise – “like the rush of a mighty wind” – and it is utterly staggering. It’s immediately obvious that God speaks all languages and none — that language is a human experience that God both completes and transcends. That we are a gathered body, united in faith, speaking in one voice that embraces all of the cultural and linguistic diversity of the entire human community. It is a Pentecost experience.
Today is, of course, Pentecost Sunday, and even we Quakers who don’t make much of the liturgical calendar are drawn to this story, in which the Holy Spirit descends upon the gathered meeting and sends it out into the world with a universal, and universally-intelligible, message of good news for all people.
There are a multitude of potential sermons in this story, and I can’t possibly say everything that’s interesting to say. But in order to discuss the Pentecost story at all, I have to start with the Tower of Babel, since traditionally Pentecost is understood as a reversal or redemption of Babel. Something went wrong at Babel that was put right at Pentecost.
So, what does the building of the Tower mean? Why did it cause such offense to God, that it needed to be stopped? Since this is happening just three generations after the flood of Noah, some streams of interpretation focus on the height of the tower as a place of refuge from any future flood. In building a refuge, the people were not believing in God’s promise never to flood the entire world again. The tower would then signify fear and lack of trust in God. The problem with this interpretation is that the text itself doesn’t say anything like that. The text implies that the tower signifies arrogance and a power-grab, not fear or mistrust.
Josephus (the Jewish historian writing shortly after Jesus lived) interprets the King’s order to build a tower as a way of consolidating his power by undermining the people’s allegiance to God. Josephus wrote that Nimrod (the king, Noah’s great-grandson) “persuaded them not to ascribe [their well-being] to God, as if it were through His means they were happy, but to believe that it was their own courage which procured that happiness. He also gradually changed the government into tyranny, seeing no other way of turning men from the fear of God, but to bring them into a constant dependence on his power.”1 In other words, Nimrod was strategically decoupling the people from their faith in God in order to consolidate his own political and ideological power.
Note that God doesn’t actually destroy the tower or cause any loss of life. God simply makes it impossible for the laborers to continue cooperating in building this monument to tyranny. In this interpretation, the tower is a symbol of royal ambition and imperial idolatry.
Babel is the Hebrew word for Bab-ilu, or Babylon. The ancient city of Babel (which means Gate of God) was located about 55 miles south of modern Baghdad in Iraq. The word play referenced in v. 9 is between Bab-el (Babylon) and bal-al (to confuse).
Scholars believe the Tower of Babel story in the Hebrew Bible was written down during the Babylonian exile, about 1,700 years after it supposedly took place. This part of the Bible was written when the Hebrew people were held captive by an empire based in Babel. In such a context, this mythical history would have had profound meaning for its readers. They would have taken real comfort in the fact that God does not condone the consolidation of idolatrous imperial power.
In our generation, we too have seen towers brought down. We watched on live TV as monuments to power, wealth and empire collapsed into dust. We have witnessed the fragmentation of our civic life and the loss of ability to hear and understand each other. We have found our common discourse confused and unintelligible, as members of communities and even families are unable to hear and comprehend each other.
So what happened at Pentecost, that put right this confusion?
God gave the people ears to hear the truth. I need to point out that this isn’t a case of speaking in tongues. Glossolalia, as it’s known, is the ecstatic speaking of an unknown language. As Paul makes clear in 1 Corinthians, glossolalia requires interpretation. But the disciples speak here in a way that is perfectly understandable to the hearers from every language group. Is that because the disciples are given the gift of xenolalia – the ability to speak in a language which the individual has not learned? Not likely. There are only a handful of disciples, and the people in the crowd come from every nation in the known world. Or is it because the people have been given the gift of hearing? Has God united their comprehension in response to the message that Jesus Christ is Lord, overturning the confusion that prevented them from being instruments of the tyrant in Babel?
I’ve heard some Friends talk about “Listening in Tongues” – listening and attending to the Spirit of Truth that gives forth the words, even when the words themselves feel alien. Is that akin to what happened at Pentecost?
There’s a curiosity in the text. Why include the long list of specific languages? Why did the author, Luke, put this particular level of detail into the text? Is it just to befuddle the tongue of the person who is assigned to read in meeting for worship? (Apologies to Mary Alice!) Or does it perhaps signify something important about what this passage is trying to tell us?
In Jesus’s time, the vast fertile crescent of North Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia was occupied by two rival empires – Roman and Parthian. Jews, who had been in the diaspora since the Assyrian exile in the 8th century BC and the Babylonian captivity in the 6th century BC, were spread throughout the region, and spoke every local language. And, similar to the Muslim Hajj to Mecca that we witness today, faithful Jews made the pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the holy festivals, including the Festival of Pentecost, which celebrates the giving of the Law to Moses on Mt Sinai. (The word “Pentecost” just means 50 days, it being celebrated 50 days after Passover.)
The list of languages in which these people heard the testimony of the disciples makes it clear that they came from both of the rival empires, from both Rome and Parthia, and from all political jurisdictions, from the farthest reaches of the known world. The people were gathered in shared faith, in defiance of the political powers that would try to turn them into each other’s enemies. So this text, like so many others in the New Testament, carries a powerful, if covert, anti-imperial message. Empires, Kings and Conquerors have no real power when “God’s deeds of power” become known.
The manifestation of the Holy Spirit has called the people into a gathered community. “The Holy Spirit doesn’t erase difference, but renders difference non-divisive.”3 The entire Book of Acts is centered around this concept of the expanding Unity-in-Diversity of the Christian movement – this attribute for which theologians use the term “catholic” or “catholicity”, which just means Universal. The gospel is for all people, of all ethnicities, from all cultures, who speak all languages. The early church struggled to understand this concept. It had to be learned over and over again through the Book of Acts, and indeed throughout Christian history. Even today, it’s hard to hold onto. The catholicity of the church seems to slip through our collective fingers, as human power structures try over and over again to re-tribalize the gospel message.
This weekend, as we are yet again called to account for the hideous racism embedded like a cancer in the very fiber of American society, can we receive ears to hear? Can we hear and declare God’s deeds of power, standing in juxtaposition to the abuses of power displayed on our video screens? What does it mean for us to be “gathered” now? How does the Holy Spirit rush like a wind and fill our entire house, each house where we are seated now, and the common household of our city, state, country and world?
2 I’m of the opinion that there are no extraneous details in the biblical text. Every odd list of things, names, places, items of jewelry, etc, can yield a fascinating exegetical journey, as we discover what those terms would have signified to the community that wrote the text. The fact that, in our cultural context today, we are utterly disconnected from those signifiers, doesn’t mean that these are throw-away passages. Instead, they are invitations to enter into the cultural context of ages past and learn what might have been signified, and why. These are some of the most fun and revealing biblical exegesis projects!
3 Keys to the Council: Unlocking the Teaching of Vatican II, By Richard R. Gaillardetz, Catherine Clifford, p.130
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