In 2008, I ministered to a church in Preston Connecticut. One family was from Korea and the grandmother did not know English but still liked to attend worship every Sunday. So, to ensure that the service was worth something spiritually to her, we would work with the daughter to translate the service and the sermons into Korean earlier in the week. She found this to be a very touching way to welcome her into the church family and to share the presence of the Holy Spirit with people of all backgrounds and abilities. Like the passages from Acts about the first Pentecost, the word of God was translated into a language that others could understand. We were able to use the presence of the Holy Spirit to inspire us to create unity instead of divisions. In that instance, the church was using the differences of people culturally and linguistically as way to bring people together unified this time not by culture but by the word of God.
War, hate, crime, and violence happen in our world because humanity labels those outside of our culture as the other, as different, as scary, and as suspicious. This has been happening since the beginning of time. We see in Genesis 11: 1-19 the story of the tower of Babel. It is a story about why people are different, why people speak different languages and live their lives differently. What we see is that the people tried to build a tower to reach to the heavens, probably a Babylonian styled Ziggurat, and when God heard this he scattering the people by confusing their languages. After rereading this passage, I was left wondering why. Why would God not want them to build this tower? Why would the people even want to undertake this feat? Why?
As I read through some articles it became apparent that the people were putting the glory of human capability before the glory of God. If they succeeded in the creation of this Ziggurat, they would be putting themselves before God, putting themselves on equal footing with the Holy. This is regarded as a sin throughout our scriptures. So God confused them and scattered them. Since the loss of understanding, some kind of unifying force, humanity has gone to war with one another, humanity has been suspicious of all that is different. Humanity has been left in confusion and fear and scattered to the ends of the Earth. Xenophobia has loomed great in our world. In its extremes, it leads to events like the killing of Christians by the Romans, to the massacre of the Native Americans with the coming of the Europeans, to the killing of Jews in the Holocaust, to the extreme violence experienced by the victims of terrorism throughout our world today, anyone that is different: speaks different, looks different, lives differently is labeled as other and attacked at some point in history. Pentecost is a way in which we are encouraged to change how we view those who are different. Pentecost encourages us to see what we hold in common first and to look for the universal language of the Holy Spirit at work in all of us.
Acts recounts the first Pentecost and it says, “Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each”.1 These people had come to Jerusalem for one reason or another from all over the Mediterranean. Many of them did not speak the same languages natively. It is thought they all used Greek as it was the universal language of commerce at the time. Yet the Holy Spirit in one event undid the confusion enacted on the people at the Tower of Babel. Instead of looking at what separated them, they could now look at what brought them together, the universal tongue of God: the Holy Spirit.
In our world there seems to be more confusion and fear that separates us: Republican against Democrat, race against race, nationality against nationality, religion against religion. I look at the news and there it is staring me in the face every day. The separation and confusion enacted at the tower of Babel is still alive and well in our world. The first Pentecost and subsequent Pentecost celebrations
are to be a reminder to humanity to look for what we hold in common. The message of God’s love and care extends to all peoples, of all backgrounds, from all the corners of the world. It is up to us to allow the Holy Spirit to open our hearts, to calm our fears, and to reveal to us the spark of the Holy in the hearts of all peoples. We are encouraged to live by the Spirit and not by the fears of humanity. We are challenged to judge people by the love in their hearts and not by the differences in their lives. This is our challenge as we go forth into this week. So let the presence of the Holy Spirit inspire you towards a life of service, and love in the name of our Lord Jesus. Allow for it to transform your lives. Allow for the Holy Spirit to bring understanding to the confusion of this world. And remember the words of Steven Dighton, “Preaching on unity doesn’t unify a church. Preaching Jesus unifies a church”.2 If unity is what we seek, if peace is something we yearn for then let us all focus on the work of Christ through the spirit and then eventually the unity we seek will come.
1 Acts 2: 5-6, NRSV.
2 Steven Dighton, Author and Pastor, 21st century