Day of Pentecost
9 June 2019
Unity and community need more than a Babel fish. ©The Rev’d Sue Grimmett
“The Babel fish”, writes Douglas Adams in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, “is small, yellow, leech-like – and probably the oddest thing in the universe. It feeds on brain wave energy, absorbing all unconscious frequencies and then excreting telepathically a matrix formed from ..nerve signals picked up from the speech centres of the brain…so..” put simply.. “if you stick one in your ear, you can instantly understand anything said to you in any..language.” Fans of Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide and IT nerds everywhere were last year excited by the development of Babel fish earbuds- new technology that worked with an app on your phone to translate many languages in real time directly into your ear. The fact that there seems to be some glitches with the technology didn’t prevent it being hailed as a creative breakthrough to bring us closer to living in a global community.
Language is one of the great divides. Not only is it necessary for any communication beyond gestures and body language, but it is also the bearer of the mysteries of the way we understand ourselves and make
sense of the world in our cultural context. To lose a language is to lose history, to lose story, to lose the sense of the thread of our lives caught up with others. Just ask Aboriginal people of Australia who are striving to keep their language and culture alive.
Not only does the language barrier prevent us from understanding one another, it also lessens our sense of what we share in common, and accelerates our surrender to the temptation to see others as different, “other” and separate to our own life and experience.
The story of the tower of Babel we heard today is a reversal of the narrative of the Pentecost story where people are united as they hear and understand the languages being spoken. In the Babel story, the there is one people, with one language, and, if we are paying attention to the text, it appears that it is God who scatters and confuses the people, sending them out, divided from one another across the earth. Rather like the God who withheld knowledge in the garden of Eden, this God on the surface seems to be threatened by the humans, saying that if the tower construction is not prevented, “nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.” But if we look a bit closer we will learn that the Hebrew word for confusion, (balal) is a play on words poking fun at the Babylonians, with their building of huge towers (or Ziggurats) as symbols of the potency of their empire and sacred places for the gods to visit the earth and receive worship.
In its Southern Mesopotamian context, the ziggurat was part of a transactional approach to currying favour with the gods. The people would meet the needs of the gods through ritual and by creating a sacred point of entry down from the heavens. In return the gods would meet their needs. The story of the Tower of Babel tells us that God has rejected this type of relationship to the divine along with any human plans for and limitations on where and how God’s presence would be mediated. Instead in the very next chapter of Genesis, God is beginning a new thing with the call of Abram. Through God’s own initiative, the Divine presence will be established amongst the chosen people, Israel. God will be present in the midst of the people. This story is a key waypoint in the narrative of how God’s presence is going to be experienced. Through the long story of Israel, God’s presence and loving will is revealed for the salvation of all people, not just one tribal or language group. Israel is to be a light for all the nations. Through the Jewish man Jesus, God’s presence is revealed in the fullness of humanity. On the day of Pentecost, because of the self giving death and resurrection of Christ, the Spirit of God begins a new unity of humanity. The temples, the sacred spaces, are revealed to be the hearts and lives of all the diverse people of God. Jesus promises that the Father will send another advocate to be with us forever; one who will never be absent because this advocate, the Spirit, now dwells within us.
It seems to me that unity in difference is at the heart of this Pentecost story. The Spirit will be poured out upon all flesh, revealing God not to be jealous of and threatened by the agency and autonomy of creation (traits which are projections of our own human fear and violence) but blessing all humanity with the gift of the very presence of God – as evidenced by this gathering of Jews from every land suddenly speaking in diverse tongues. Peter stands with the other disciples and recalls the words of the prophet Joel declaring the signs of the Spirit’s presence,
…your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams.
Pentecost is not just a day where we commemorate the birthday of the church as an historic event but rather a revealing of the truth that the Spirit has been poured out for all time. Through this power, God in Christ is with us and will never leave or forsake us. The Spirit continues to work, but that work is not always comfortable, is rarely predictable, and we need to be humble enough to recognise that this transformative action can occur with or without the established church. God is not limited by or to our religion or our particular denominational expression of Christianity. In confidence that the Spirit continues to exercise a prophetic power, inspiring our sons and daughters to speak, the question begs, “Are we listening?” As we dream the dreams our God lovingly places in our hearts, can we also be challenged and changed by the visions of the young? As we cast visions for the future church, can we allow them to be shaped by the reflective dreams of our elders? Sometimes it may seem as if different generations speak different languages, but Pentecost carries the promise that we are all children of God and when the Spirit enables us to see one another through the eyes of love instead of fear, we discover in the other a priceless gift.
We all need one other, and the Christian church is diminished when the voices and dreams of some are silenced or absent. Our community here is also diminished when the giftings, resources and potential of each and every beloved member are not brought to the table. As we consider our stewardship commitments today, it is timely to hold up the Pentecost vision of unity in diversity and the historic commitment of the earliest followers of the way of Jesus to give first to God of what we can: whether that be money, or time, or personal talents and abilities. We are a new creation, living by the breath of God, and each exhibiting a beautiful and unique reflection of the nature of God, which the Spirit joyfully invites us to share with others.
Self-giving love is the way of the Spirit, but because we are the church and all have experience of living together in community, we know that it is far from easy, even when we all speak the same language. I heard once that the definition of community is a family where there is at least one person you wish wasn’t there!
Douglas Adams sadly notes in The Hitchhiker’s Guide “Meanwhile, the poor Babel fish, by effectively removing all barriers to communication between different races and cultures, has caused more and bloodier wars than anything else in the history of creation.” Just being able to talk together is not enough, so even with Google’s nifty inner ear translator, world peace will not be achieved. The key to the coming of the kingdom is to be willing to open ourselves to receive the love and forgiveness so freely poured upon us by the God whose mercy never fails. This is the place of communion with God that enables us to forgive each another and become as one together, co creating our humanity by the power of the Spirit.
May this fiery Spirit cleanse us of all the old divisions and separations that we may recognise one another as children of God. And may we have ears to understand the language of love and freedom that the Spirit would speak through us to the world.