A Reading from the Book of Genesis (11:1-9)
Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.” The Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built. And the Lord said, “Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.” So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore it was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.
Psalm 104:25-35, 37
25 O Lord, how manifold are your works! *
in wisdom you have made them all;
the earth is full of your creatures.
26 Yonder is the great and wide sea
with its living things too many to number, *
creatures both small and great.
27 There move the ships,
and there is that Leviathan, *
which you have made for the sport of it.
28 All of them look to you *
to give them their food in due season.
29 You give it to them; they gather it; *
you open your hand, and they are filled with good things.
30 You hide your face, and they are terrified; *
you take away their breath,
and they die and return to their dust.
31 You send forth your Spirit, and they are created; *
and so you renew the face of the earth.
32 May the glory of the Lord endure for ever; *
may the Lord rejoice in all his works.
33 He looks at the earth and it trembles; *
he touches the mountains and they smoke.
34 I will sing to the Lord as long as I live; *
I will praise my God while I have my being.
35 May these words of mine please him; *
I will rejoice in the Lord.
37 Bless the Lord, O my soul. *
A Reading from the Acts of the Apostles (2:1-21)
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. 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. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.” But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: ‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’”
The Holy Gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ according to John (14:8-17, 25-27)
Philip said to [Jesus], “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it. “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you. I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.
by the Rev. Michael Kreutzer
The story of the Tower of Babel has long been associated with the feast of Pentecost. In fact, St. Luke probably had it in mind when he created the other familiar story that we heard this morning: the account from the Acts of the Apostles about the descent of God’s Spirit on the early Christian community. But, as familiar as this ancient legend is, we tend to miss its central focus and its message for the church and the world in all ages, including our own.
The story, in its origins, tries to explain why — if the human race is all one family – why there are so many different languages in the world. But the story evolved with time. In creating or adapting this ancient explanatory myth, for example, those who told the story thousands of years ago came to call the city “Babel” in order to mock the city and empire of Babylon, with all its pretensions to greatness. There are other apparent references and intents in the tale as well.
But at its heart, the story of the Tower of Babel serves as an important conclusion to Israel’s pre-history: to the stories told in Genesis chapters 1-11, those that precede the account of the call of Abraham. That pre-history begins with the two great stories of creation; and the first of those stories concludes with God giving the command to the human race to go and fill the world: to scatter everywhere on the face of the earth.
Scattering everywhere on the face of the earth carries with it certain implications. Those who told the story in ancient Israel could see those implications in the world around them. Scattering everywhere, for example, meant that people would become different from one another. Not only would they have different languages, but also different races, different cultures, different ways of thinking and acting. Even in the biblical world, which seemed far smaller than our own, people would sometimes have struggled with the diversity of the people around them, both throughout the Near East and in the northeastern corner of Africa.
Dealing with diversity is not always easy; in fact, it is seldom easy. And so the people in our story tried to escape that diversity. They tried to make instead a place where, as much as possible, the people would all be the same. “Come,” they said, “let us build a city and a tower… otherwise we shall be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth.” In other words, let us do the exact opposite of what God told us to do. “Instead of being scattered over the face of the whole earth as God wants, let’s all stay in one place, living and working with people who look and act pretty much like us, speaking the same way that we do, having the same culture that we have, holding on to the same beliefs and values that we do. Let’s make ourselves and the place where we live as homogeneous as possible.” (If they were living today, these folks wouldn’t have had to build a city to do that. They could have felt just as comfortable in some of our carefully planned suburban developments as well!)
But God would have none of it. According to the story, God directly intervened, imposing on them the diversity that they had tried to avoid. They, who had feared that they would be “scattered… over the face of all the earth” ended up with God scattering them “over the face of all the earth.”
Sometimes, teachers and preachers have tried to portray the coming of God’s Spirit, as described in the Acts of the Apostles, as a reversal of this Tower of Babel story. “Back then,” they will claim, “the tale describes everybody being scattered and speaking different languages. But the coming of God’s Spirit brings all people back together again, everybody speaking the same way so that everybody can understand and be understood.” Well, that might seem like an attractive scenario, I suppose; but it is not at all what the Pentecost story says.
No, the familiar Pentecost story is not about speaking but about hearing. Luke tells us that there was a very diverse population living in Jerusalem: “Jews from every nation under heaven.” And when the disciples were filed with the Holy Spirit and began proclaiming the Good News of what God had done in Jesus, Luke says that “each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.” The people were amazed and asked, “How is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? …We hear them speaking, each of us, about God’s deeds of power.”
The wonder of Pentecost is not that God made everybody the same. That’s what the people at the Tower of Babel tried to do. Instead, the wonder of Pentecost is that God enabled all people — scattered all over the earth, just as God had intended from the beginning – that God enabled all people to hear and celebrate and live the Good News with all their God-given differences: in their own native languages, in their own cultures, with their own practices, within their own lived contexts. They did not need to be the same, to look the same, to speak the same, to act the same. Instead, God’s Spirit was alive and working within the wonderful diversity with which God has blessed the world and for which God created the human race from the very beginning. And it was within their many and diverse contexts and cultures that each could hear the same Spirit of God.
That understanding of Pentecost raises some fundamental questions about our entire ministry as a church. Seen within the context of that story, what is our role as a church in the world? Is it to bring everybody in to be just like us, thinking like us, acting like us, doing everything the same way that we do so that they can experience the presence and life of God in the same way that we do, as though God’s Spirit was working in churches and nowhere else? Or is our role as the church one of going out to the people of our community and world and finding ways to help them see that the Spirit of God is already alive and working among them, within the neighborhoods and schools and workplaces where they spend their lives, within their particular culture, within their particular set of experiences? Is it not one of enabling them to listen so that, like those gathered in Jerusalem on that great Pentecost Day, they each might hear, in his or her own language and culture and context, the Good News of God in Christ?
St. Peter, in his great Pentecost sermon, part of which we heard in today’s reading, quotes the prophet Joel: “‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.” Our role as a church, our role as a light to the world, is one of finding ways to enable all the people of our community and world to know that God’s Spirit has been poured out on all the world, to understand that God is already present and working in their lives, and to hear God’s saving word speaking to them in a way that they can understand and celebrate and live.