The Persistent Work of the Spirit
Way back in the beginning, way back on the first pages of Genesis, we are told that all the peoples of the earth had one language and the same words. Everyone could understand everyone else…until one day…one day, God decided to confuse their language.
Now, confusing people’s language seems like an awfully malicious thing for God to do, doesn’t it? Indeed: confusing people’s speech and rendering them unintelligible to one another is an absolute recipe for mayhem. Which is apparently just what God wanted. As Genesis tells us, God decided to scramble the speech of the Earth’s people because God thought they were getting a little too confident, a little too ambitious.
You see, the Earth’s people had organized themselves, and they had begun an ambitious building project. They were building a tower that reached into the heavens. They wanted to put their stamp on the face of the earth. Wanted to do something that said: “We are strong; we can build a great tower that reaches all the way to the heavens. From our tower, we can practically wave to the gods. Now that we’re on their level, they don’t seem quite so high-and-mighty anymore!”
Now, God was not at all pleased with the construction plans that the people were making. The people seemed to think that they were in charge, and that the Earth was their dominion.
So, as the people began construction at Babel, God came up with a plan to derail them. God had gotten really nervous about this project of theirs. God 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.”
So God decided to confuse the people’s language. This confusion divided the people into groups and they were scattered all over the Earth. No longer was humanity comprised of a single unified people.
Well, this is really a fantastically creative way of explaining how the diversity of peoples and languages first came to be, isn’t it? It’s an origin myth, par excellence. Well, yes…but it’s also more. Because there is an important and fundamental anxiety at the center of this text. In this text, we see a God who is anxious about humans gaining too much power. Anxious enough that God is willing to create division, and the strife that will inevitably come along with it. God simply doesn’t see any other way to curtail humanity’s ambitions to establish totalitarian rule over all of creation.
God’s response is troubling, isn’t it? Just pages earlier in Genesis, God had established a covenant with Noah, after the flood God said:
“I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark. I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.”
Now, while God doesn’t exactly violate this covenant when God confuses humanity’s speech at Babel, it does seem as if God was having second thoughts about leaving humanity to its own devices. God was getting worried, it seems, that humanity was trying to take God’s place.
And that we have done. And that we continue to do. Over and over again. Humans try to be God. Try to take God’s place.
We try to build towers into the heavens, having no sense of boundaries or limits, no sense that Creation is a delicate and intricate balance of forces, no sense that the Creator has been trying again and again, gently and not-so-gently, to put us in our places.
The good news, of course, is that God eventually realized in the course of history that control might not be the best way to relate with humanity. God discovered that dividing us would cause ever more division. God discovered that we would resort to violence to protect what we thought was ours.
As God witnessed the vicissitudes of human life, God decided to build a special relationship with the Israelites, calling them to be a light to the nations, to show the world a people living in harmony with God and with all of creation. As time went on, God seems to have gotten even more ambitious. While chosen people, Israel, would always have a very special place in God’s heart, God seemed to want to draw more and more of humanity into relationship, into harmony with God and with all of creation. So God sent One among us who endeavored to draw the scattered nations back together. God sent One among us who habitually transgressed divisions and taught us to transgress them, too. God sent One among us who could speak to the heart of every person no matter their language or culture or condition.
In Jesus, then, God’s inaugurated a mission to bring humanity back together, to restore the human family, to teach us to live peaceably and to love justice.
But of course, it simply couldn’t stop with Jesus. Following his death and resurrection, Jesus was back for 40 days, showing his face in all kinds of places, reminding people that they did not need to be afraid to live as he did.
But eventually, Jesus returned to God. Those who loved Jesus were bereft at losing him again. But he had promised to be with them always. Always. So they waited for his presence in hope and trust.
And then it happened. As the story goes:
“The disciples 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.”
As the disciples all began to speak in other languages, a crowd gathered, with people from every nation and language under the sun. The crowd quickly discovered that they could understand what the disciples were saying. Every last one of them could understand. With joy, those in the crowd exclaimed: “We hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power in our own languages.”
What an amazing moment it must have been! A message for everyone. A message of healing and love. What joy!
Now, what’s fascinating to me here is that in this moment, the Spirit did not return the people to a single language, nor to a monoculture, as they had been at Babel. Rather, their diversity and difference remained. In and through the power of the Spirit, the disciples were able to communicate across difference, to communicate cross-culturally on that first Pentecost. The Good News could be easily shared with all. Because it was for all!
Indeed, when the Holy Spirit came, rather than “restoring humanity to a common language, She declared all languages holy and equally worthy of God’s stories; She wove diversity and inclusiveness into the very fabric of the Church. She called the people of God to be at once the One and the Many.”[i]
And for me, this is really extraordinarily Good News. Because it means that becoming a Christian isn’t ultimately about conformity, no matter what you may have been told in the past by those who desire the predictability of a monochrome faith. Rather, becoming a Christian is about the richness of life in the Spirit. It’s about learning to live in a way that can include more, and more, and more–always more. More people, more perspectives, more ideas. No one and nothing left out. The Spirit makes room for all!
Now this may sound a bit loosey-goosey at first. A spirituality without a center or a focus. But in fact, it takes a lot of discipline, a lot of courage, and a lot of inspiration to live this way–in communion with the breathtaking diversity of life inspired by the Spirit. Because it’s easier–it’s always easier–to stick with our own kind. It’s easier to speak with those who already understand us, who require no translation. It’s easier to go about our business, as if other people are mostly irrelevant to us. None of our business, not our problem.
But as Christians, we discover sooner or later, that everyone and everything is our business. Because God cares about all of it!
At the 11:00 o’clock service, several children will be baptized, and their parents and godparents will join the whole congregation in answering these vitally important questions from our baptismal covenant.
Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?
Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?
You see–this is what life in the Spirit looks like: expanding our horizons of care, loosening the boundaries we draw between “us and them,” being permeable to the crazily beautiful diversity of the world that God has created and has called good.
The Christian life may not always look or feel very mystical or ecstatic, but the Spirit is always working in interesting ways–creating understanding, facilitating communication, instigating relationship. We can look for the activity of the Spirit wherever and whenever new understanding is breaking through.
Maybe it’s even happening right now, somewhere in our city, as parents of some LGBTQ kids are attending their first Pride and coming to better understand their children. Maybe it’s even happening right here, somewhere in this church, as one of you is inspired to go back and try to work through a difference with a loved one: something that has seemed intractable, something that you just haven’t been able to understand. This is the Spirit’s work. Not always very flashy. But persistent….ever so persistent at breaking down the barriers between us.
The Spirit is among us, and though we may try to resist her inspiration, though we may sometimes wish that she would mind her own business….along with generations of our faithful forebears, may we learn to rejoice that: “Nevertheless… nevertheless, she persisted.”
[i] Adapted from: https://www.journeywithjesus.net/essays/2241-the-one-and-the-many