Unity and community need more than a Babel fish


Day of Pentecost 

9 June 2019 

Genesis 11.1-9 

Psalm 104.26-36 

Acts 2.1-21 

John 14.8-17 

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.