And I will pray the Father, and he shall give you another Comforter, that he may be with you for ever, even the Spirit of truth: whom the world cannot receive; for it beholdeth him not, neither knoweth him: ye know him; for he abideth with you, and shall be in you.
I was traveling with my mom when I was young and we were staying in a hotel with a pool. I went for a swim and met some other young girls there. I don’t know whether they were sisters or friends, but they were traveling together. They came to me and spoke an odd language, but we found a way to communicate. They were giggling a lot during our ‘conversation.’ It didn’t take me long to realize that they weren’t foreigners, but they were girls who were playing a trick on me. They were pretending to speak another language, and made fun of me because I believed them.
I was excited to meet people from another country because at that point I hadn’t really had that experience. I don’t find it surprising or unusual to hear other languages spoken now. People from all over the world visit San Antonio. It is not unusual to see many families from Mexico shopping at the outlet center. The Riverwalk and local theme parks are filled with people from many nations. Most find a way of communicating during their visit, but when they are talking to one another they revert to their own language. We are far more comfortable speaking in words that we know, using language that is familiar.
But we also know that we have to find a way to communicate. Many businesses have staff members on hand that are bilingual to meet the needs of their customers. Signs are written in multiple languages. Even the products on our grocery shelves have information in two, three or even more languages. It is interesting, though, that sometimes we even speak the same language and find it difficult to understand one another. People from different regions use different words for the same thing. Though most languages have a common root, geographical differences have caused the words to change to match individual cultures and accents.
I suppose we could say that all languages have a common root, although that ancient language has long been forgotten. Language is not always a barrier. You can go to an opera that is sung entirely in Italian and understand what is happening. Missionaries often visit other countries with very little knowledge of language and no knowledge of the regional dialects, and are able to communicate with the people and serve their needs. I have heard that a Lutheran can attend church in Germany and know what is happening throughout the service because the liturgy rises above language. Music is a language that crosses borders.
The common root of it all is found in the story of the Tower of Babel. The word ‘babel’ has come to mean to ‘confuse’ or ‘mix’ based on the biblical story. However, the word actually means ‘Gate of God.’ The people of Babel were the first people to gather in one place to live and work. When humans were hunter gatherers, they spent all their time and energy on the business of survival. But when they learned how to plant seeds, they didn’t need to travel so far to support a community.
The people of Babel were the first agrarians. They had learned how to harvest water, to tame the land, to work together to have food enough for a large group. They were no longer nomadic. They settled down and stayed in one place. They had time to do things other than survive. They built permanent homes and other buildings. They were beginning to form business methods, writing, art, government and religion. They established temples for their gods. This freedom gave them time to ponder life, the universe and everything. They believed in the gods, but they also began to see themselves in a new way. They were not only stronger than the animals, they were intelligent. They could build things. They could create things. They could transform things. They began to think like gods.
And so one day they got together and decided that they, too, could be like their gods. They worked together to build a tower to heaven. The tower was more than just a ladder. The people wanted to make a name; they wanted a reputation. Archeologists have found ziggurats throughout the Middle East, including one that they believe is actually the original Tower of Babel. These towers were designed to reach toward the heavens to impress the gods so that they would bless the people with prosperity, health and wealth. Yet in the story of the Tower of Babel, we get the impression that they were building it for another reason. They were afraid that they would lose it all and that they would be scattered. They didn’t want to go back to the old nomadic ways.
I will admit that I’m very glad that we stopped being hunter-gatherer nomads. I like living in a house, in a city, in a country. I like being able to get my food from the grocery store. I like having the extras in life. I am so happy that I don’t have to spend most of my day providing for only the most basic needs of my family. I love art and I enjoy the leisurely activities that our modern life has afforded to us. But I get that they were afraid. You would think that the nomads would have more fears because they never really knew if they’d find food. But they didn’t have time to be afraid. They only had time to do what was necessary to stay alive. Once you begin to collect things and you have time, then you begin to worry about what will happen if you lose it. We enjoy the freedom from want, but then worry how we will live without those things we collect.
The Tower of Babel must have been an extraordinary accomplishment because God saw what they did and He knew that it was not good for the people to reach too high. He is pleased when we use our gifts and develop our talents. He created man to be co-creators with Him in this world. He wants us to reach to the sky. But we can’t become gods and we shouldn’t try. Fear manifests as ambition. If only we could become great, then we won’t have to worry about losing it. If only we could become immortal, then we would own the world. But we can’t become immortal by our own human deeds.
God was not impressed. “And Jehovah said, Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is what they begin to do: and now nothing will be withholden from them, which they purpose to do. Come, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another's speech. So Jehovah scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth: and they left off building the city.”
This scattering would not be permanent. We know that even in the days when Jesus walked the earth, many different nations found ways to communicate and trade. The variety of nations and languages represented in Jerusalem during the Pentecost season was diverse. Luke tells us in Acts that there were “Parthians and Medes and Elamites, and the dwellers in Mesopotamia, in Judaea and Cappadocia, in Pontus and Asia, in Phrygia and Pamphylia, in Egypt and the parts of Libya about Cyrene, and sojourners from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians.” We know, at the very least, people spoke Latin, Greek, Hebrew and/or Aramaic. The visitors to Pentecost likely spoke other foreign languages.
Somehow they found a way to trade and dwell, even temporarily, in the city. Pilgrims from the four corners of the known world visited Jerusalem, both believers and non-believers. During a festival like Pentecost, the city was full of strangers. They had to buy food at the market, haggle for rooms, and make offerings at the Temple. Though there were diverse languages, they found a way to communicate. Look at any modern city and you’ll see that we’ve even learned how to build structures that reach toward heaven.
But the confusion that God created at Babel was about more than working together. At Babel, God limited their ability to seek immortality by human efforts. It was something that they couldn’t do anyway. Our mortality was based in the reality that we rebelled against God. Human beings are imperfect, broken creatures. We fail. We sin. We can never be good enough to accomplish the impossible. Immortality is impossible for man. But God didn’t intend for mankind to live separate from Him forever. He didn’t intend for us to be divided by our language or religion. He wanted us to be one, as He is One. And so He promised that there would be another way.
In today’s second lesson from Acts, Peter quotes the prophet Joel, “And it shall be in the last days, saith God, I will pour forth of 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: Yea and on my servants and on my handmaidens in those days Will I pour forth of my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. And I will show wonders in the heaven above, And signs on the earth beneath; Blood, and fire, and vapor of smoke: The sun shall be turned into darkness, And the moon into blood, Before the day of the Lord come, That great and notable day. And it shall be, that whosoever shall call on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”
The promise of Pentecost is not that we will be able to understand one another even if we speak different languages. It is about becoming one people again: His people. The power of God’s Spirit came at Pentecost to make it possible for disciples of all ages to share the Gospel message with the world. We are unified—made children of God and heirs to His eternal kingdom—not because we have done anything right or have earned the honor. God comes to His people and by His Spirit grants them faith and gifts to make His name known throughout the world. We are called to be Christ’s body, to share the Gospel and to bring others into the unity of the Church.
The language that we now speak is not English or Spanish or French. It is faith. And that language unifies those who believe in God. By His power we continue the work that Jesus began when He dwelt among the disciples. He couldn’t do it alone. Jesus was human, too, even though He was also divine. He was limited by time and space. He was limited by His human strength. He did amazing and incredible things, things that no human has the ability to accomplish, but He did so for a very limited number of people. He couldn’t heal everyone in the world by Himself. That’s why He left.
The festival of Pentecost for the Jews had several purposes. First of all it was the feast of weeks—a celebration of the first fruits. The people went to the temple to offer the first grain from their harvest. The timing of the festival mattered because it was also connected to the Law given at Sinai. They believed that it took Moses and the Hebrews fifty days to get to Mount Sinai, so the festival occurred fifty days following the Passover. Pentecost was an agricultural festival, but it was also a festival about God’s Word.
After the Ascension, the disciples went to the Upper Room and they waited. That must have been the hardest thing to do. They had a message to tell and a city full of people to whom they could tell it. I suspect that they were anxious to get out there into the city and begin this work. The pilgrims were all there seeking forgiveness by the blood of animals when they should be seeking forgiveness through the grace of God. They were there offering the first fruits of their fields to the Temple when they should be sharing their blessings with their neighbors. They were there celebrating the Law when they could have been celebrating the Creator and Lawgiver.
Yet, Jesus told them to wait. They could not have accomplished anything without the Spirit. The Word would have been spoken to deaf ears. They message would have been lost to those unwilling hearts. On that day, when the wind blew and the fire came, everything was changed. Jesus was no longer gone from them. The Kingdom was no longer far away. They were part of it. They were one with God and He was one with them. They were one with each other. At that moment, God reversed what He did at Babel. Though He once confused the language and sent people to the four corners of the earth, at Pentecost He gave the world a language that everyone could understand.
The girls in that hotel pool were just playing a silly game. They weren’t my enemies although it might have seemed that way to me back then. We do, however, face people in this world who do not understand and who reject the grace God has given through Jesus Christ our Lord. They make fun of us, just as the disciples experienced the jeers of the crowds on that first Pentecost. They didn’t believe that it was real, but how could the disciples have spoken in foreign languages if it was by their own drunken power? Even their own language would have been garbled. But God gave them the gift of speech to make His power and mercy known to the four corners of the earth. And the disciples willingly proclaimed the saving grace of God to those who would hear.
The psalmist reminds us that no man is righteous and that the persecution we experience might just be deserved. We have reason to be downtrodden, for our hearts to be desolate. But when we are overwhelmed, we need only remember what God has done and what God has overcome. We can seek His grace to cry out to Him. The Gospel is a message of forgiveness. Whatever it is that we have done wrong, whatever failures we have experienced, whatever sins we have committed are forgiven and forgotten in the name of Jesus. He is the manifestation of God’s lovingkindness. It is passed to us not in the flesh of Jesus, but in the power of the Spirit. By His hand we are saved and gifted, we are welcomed into an everlasting relationship with our Creator. We don’t have to build a Tower to heaven because God has come down to earth to dwell among us. This is the promise of the Resurrection and the promise was fulfilled at Pentecost.
Before Jesus ascended into heaven, Jesus made a promise to His disciples, a promise He made in many ways during their time together. “But the Comforter, even the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said unto you.” In the Gospel lesson for today, this promise is repeated and Jesus tells the disciples about the connection between He and the Father, a connection that will reach out to us and make us a part of His family.
Phillip asked Jesus if He would show them the Father. “Have I been so long time with you, and dost thou not know me, Philip? he that hath seen me hath seen the Father; how sayest thou, Show us the Father?” Everything that Jesus did was the Father, because the Father abided in Jesus and Jesus abided in the Father. He went on to tell the disciples that when He abides in them and they abide in Him, they will do all that He had done.
This is an amazing promise. Jesus healed the sick and cast out demons. He told people about the love of God and forgave them their sins. He crossed over societal boundaries and broke down walls between people. He even overcame language barriers. And then He promised the disciples that they would do the same. He restored families, changed lives, and provided hope to a confused and separated world. I suppose we can think of examples of ways we have done these things. I’m sure most of us can say we have fed the poor and hungry, but Jesus did the miraculous. Have you healed a leper? Or made a paralytic walk? Or cast out any demons? Have you raised anyone from the dead? How can we do anything greater than Jesus?
These acts of grace were incredible. They were signs of God’s power in Jesus. They were mercy incarnate. But the most important thing that we have been called to do is to pronounce the Gospel of forgiveness to the world. Our task is to bring reconciliation and peace to the world. Just as we have been restored to a relationship with God through the blood of Christ, we can invite others to join us in the Garden. The gift we have been given transcends all bounds. The gifts are given to all types. The message is heard by all the nations. What was once a world divided is now made whole and one again with God’s grace.
We often talk about Pentecost being the birthday of the Church. Perhaps it is. But Pentecost is more than that; it is the day when God restored His people and gave us one language: the language of faith. We don’t have to strive after the things of the world. We don’t have to be frightened to lose everything we’ve collected. We don’t have to worry whether we’ll live to see another day because even in death we will live forever. God didn’t make it impossible for us to dwell together in this world by confusing our language, but He helped us to see that we should not strive to be gods. Instead, He gave us the most amazing gift that makes us one with Him and each other, the Spirit, who helps us to live in whatever world we have created with grace and peace.
A WORD FOR TODAY
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