When the ancient Hebrews attempted to explain how in the world the human race came to speak different languages, they told a story. It was a story about human arrogance, a story related to the other story about Adam and Eve defying the command of God not to eat from the tree of good and evil in Genesis 1, desiring to be equal to God. In today’s story, all the people came together and agreed to work together and build a great city and a tower that would reach all the way to the heavens. The story says God did not want them to be successful, and scattered the people around the earth and gave them different languages. That is a story of origins which attempts to explain things like why people speak different languages, why they are different colors, why they basically look different.
The point is that when people don’t speak the same language or look the same, the tendency is for those different people not to trust each other or want to work together. They are no longer going to work on a common task like building a tower to the heavens. Instead, one is going to try to build it and the other is going to try to destroy it. This is one of those things that seems to be true in all times and places. No matter how much the human race may progress in knowledge, medicine, technology, and every other field, this basic mistrust of people who look or talk differently never seems to waver. Certainly there are people who move beyond it, but it continues to be a societal reality. Examine your own attitudes about different races, people who speak different languages or come from different parts of the world. There are still cities in America which have an Irish section, a Polish section, an Italian section, a German section, and so forth. Many of the wars we don’t understand result from the world redrawing the lines of nations after wars and grouping people who don’t want to be together or separating people who do want to be together.
So the most radical movement brought about by the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost is the move towards restoration of unity among peoples. It is a reversal of the Tower of Babel story. Instead of people suddenly no longer being able to understand each other, now people are all able to understand Peter’s teaching in their own language. Language no longer keeps them apart, this barrier is brought down.
And through the stories of the early church the Spirit continues to lead this work of unity, of throwing people into situations where they are surprised into new relationships. Think of Philip being led by the Spirit into Gaza where he met, taught, and baptized an Ethiopian eunuch. Think of Peter being directed by the Spirit to the home of the Gentile Cornelius, where he told about Jesus and the Spirit fell upon Cornelius and his household unbidden by Peter. In amazement, he baptized this household.
Think of the strict Pharisee Saul, being converted and led to a new mentor by the Spirit in Damascus. He not only was led to minister to Gentiles, but led the way in removing the barriers of obeying Jewish laws and rituals for them. He insisted that the Spirit was bringing Jews and Gentiles together in one body. There was not to be a Jewish church and a Gentile church. He said, “There is no longer Jew or Gentile, male or female, slave or free, for we are all one in Christ Jesus.” He said that Jews and Gentiles were “no longer strangers, but fellow citizens and members of the household of God.”
Eating meals together with strangers is one of the most difficult barriers. Up to the time of Christianity, Jews would not eat with Gentiles, believing it made them unclean. Peter came to visit Paul’s church in Antioch, and he sat down and ate with Gentiles. But a few days later a stricter group of Jewish Christians from his home arrived, and he quit eating with the Gentiles and segregated himself with these Jewish Christians. For this, Paul called him a hypocrite.
To be faithful, the Spirit requires us to understand this table symbolically as a table around which all who profess faith in Christ are welcomed regardless of language, color, nationality. Jesus said that people will come from north, south, east, and west to sit at table in the kingdom of God. He wasn’t talking about the four regions of America, but of the world.
One of our great hymns proclaims, “In Christ there is no east or west, in him no south or north, but one great fellowship of love throughout the whole wide earth. In Christ shall true hearts everywhere their high communion find; his service is the golden cord close binding humankind. Join hands, disciples of the faith, whate’er your race might be. All children of the living God are surely kin to me.”
The table speaks of what everyone on earth needs. We need forgiveness, we need grace, we need love, we need a Savior. Here we are offered all of this. The gifts of God are for all, we are meant to be unified by our common need and hunger and the Savior who gave himself for us all.
After we receive from this table and remember God’s wonderful gift, we will sing a joyful hymn which summarizes all of this. “I come with joy, a child of God, forgiven, loved and free; the life of Jesus to recall in love laid down for me, in love laid down for me. I come with Christians far and near to find, as all are fed, the new community of love in Christ’s communion bread, in Christ’s communion bread. As Christ breaks bread and bids us share, each proud division ends. The love that made us, makes us one, and strangers now are friends, and strangers now are friends.”
There is a lot of “babbling” going on in the world. Much more is being done to create division than to create unity and harmony. Let’s make it our intention to join the Holy Spirit of Pentecost in its work of building up, bringing together, creating unity in Christ.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
David J. Bailey
May 15, 2016
Central Presbyterian Church