Returning to God, Returning to Wholeness

Genesis 11:1-9, Acts 2:1-21

You may not know this about me, but the first religion that I really studied in depth was not Christianity, but Buddhism.

And although I’m not, and never was a Buddhist, I took a fair amount of college classes studying it, and there’s a lot to commend about the religion, particularly the focus on mindfulness, and the study of how consciousness works. 

Western science is just now catching up to where Buddhists were centuries ago in that regard.

And as I became Christian, it was inevitable that I would compare what the two religions had in common. One of the major differences between Christianity and the Buddhism is said to be how we see time.

Buddhists, for their part, believe explicitly in cycles- that the universe has begun, will end, and will begin again.  For them, souls do the same thing- people are born, will live, will die, and then will be reborn. Circles within circles. This is the cycle they wish to escape.

Our Christian faith on the other hand, tells us that history is closer to a line than a circle. History began with the creation, time marches ever onward, and one day, history and time will functionally end in an eternity with God.

And while this is true, I believe our bible texts today show us that it’s a little bit more complicated than that. That perhaps history is closer to a spiral, reaching back and moving forward.

Our story in Acts, the birth of the church, and the coming down of Holy Spirit is both a reversal and a fulfillment of our Old Testament story.

Our Old Testament story today is the story of the tower of Babel.  It’s a pretty famous story- perhaps not Noah’s ark level, but pretty close, that explains why there are so many languages in the world.

It’s the story of a city and their efforts to build a tower so tall that they would reach the heavens. This story implies that if they were to reach heaven, perhaps this would put them on the level of God.

It’s a story of human pride in technological achievement overriding our sense of place in the universe as God’s special creation. It’s a story of us attempting to grasp and seize control of divinity, and the power that comes with it. As punishment, humanity becomes separated into different languages, different tribes and kingdoms and ethnicities. People go their separate ways, never to live again in harmony.

Yet as Walter Bruggeman, author and United Church of Christ pastor note, even in the midst of the great tragedy of the fracturing of the human race, God’s love and grace were there.

For one of the fruits of this dispersal was the expansion of humanity to all ends of the earth, the realization of God’s command to us to be fruitful and multiply.

This is the origin story of the diversity of the world and the peoples who live on it. It reminds us that even in the midst of tragedy and fracturing, God’s grace is there.

If there is a grand pattern in the bible of this sort of fracturing and eventual reconciliation- started in genesis and ending in revelation, then it happens in little ways too.

Let us take note of what happens in between this story and our story in Acts.

There’s the initial journey into and out of Egypt commemorated in the end of the book of Genesis and the book of Exodus. Once established in the land of Canaan, the Israelites eventually create the Kingdom by Kings Saul and David. King Solomon builds a temple, but soon the Kingdom descends into civil war and fractures into the Northern Kingdom and the Kingdom of Judah. The northern Kingdom is scattered as dust into the wind, while many in the kingdom of Judah are sent into Babylon, dispersed into the world. And yet, there is still healing and reconciliation. The Persian King Cyrus defeats the Babylonians, and the Israelites rebuild the temple.

If that sounds like a lot, that’s because I just summarized the first ¾ of the bible in 4 sentences.

But we can see patterns emerging in the midst of all that, patterns of creation, separation, and reconciliation. And if we see the tower of Babel as a separation story, we cannot help but see the story of Pentecost as a story of reconciliation.

The Pentecost story starts with the apostles in a house together, and a rush of violent wind.  Tongues of fire settle on them, and they began to speak in other languages. Outside, a crowd begins to form, and in this crowd are Jewish folks from all sorts of different places. There are Jewish folks from modern day Iraq and Rome, and everywhere in between, speaking a number of different languages.

We can’t help but be reminded of the Babel story at this point. But instead of the presence of multiple languages being a hindrance to cooperation and a source of division, here we see the presence of diverse peoples as an opportunity for God’s Grace and Power to shine.

For when Peter begins to speak, the people understand him.  And this is important, I believe-the people do not suddenly learn the Aramaic spoken by the country bumpkin Galileans- no, the people each understand the Gospel- God’s deeds of power- in their own languages.

The people to not have to learn to speak like the church does- God gives power to the church to speak as the people do.

This tells us that the church is called upon to testify to the deeds of God, speaking, through God’s grace and power, in the language of people who are outside of the church.  

This miracle of Pentecost is what some folks call a “sign”; the message is not only that it happened, but what it tells us about what will happen, and maybe how we should behave to help make it happen.

So if this story is a sign, what is it pointing to?

It tells us that although the Pentecost is the beginning of the story of reconciliation and healing of the world through church, it is by no means the end of that story, and indeed, it is a story that continues to this day, and will continue to the day Jesus comes again.

We know this for a few reasons: the first is that this story happens quite frankly, at the beginning of the book of Acts, not the end.  There are churches to be planted, people to be reached, struggles to be had, victories to be won.

Furthermore, if we think of the first and second chapters of Genesis as telling the story of the beginning, and Revelation chapters 21 and 22 telling the story of the end, there’s still a lot to happen in between.

We know this too by looking at the world around us. The people of the earth are not united in terms of language, although English, Spanish, and Chinese are providing strong cases to be the languages of the future, spoken alongside indigenous languages. 

English, especially, is spoken alongside indigenous languages in India, Africa, and Asia, a legacy of the British Empire. But in regards to our faith, when we join the church, we do not gain the ability to speak fluently so that others can understand us.

That said, there are some universalities in the church that can cross culture and language, and those are truly a gift from God.  But the truth is that my sermon in English would not be understood by someone who spoke no English.

The Tower of Babel has not been fully reversed, the peoples of the world aren’t one, but as a sign, the story of Pentecost provides us a sign of what it might look like when it finally is. Not that people give up their uniqueness and culture, but that we have ways of communicating that allows us to understand each other.

The other reason that we know that this story is not complete is because if we’re being honest, we aren’t in it yet. The story of Pentecost is about ethnically Jewish apostles speaking to an ethnically Jewish audience. This story of Pentecost happens before the conversion of Saul into Paul, before Peter and Paul begin preaching to non-Jewish Gentiles.

This is Christianity’s big religious innovation, quite honestly, a religion that crosses, or at its best, demolishes, ethnic lines. We can see the seeds for that in this Pentecost story.  If Jews from all the nations needed to, and could hear the stories of the power of God, why not all people?

Paul tells us that there is no Jew or Greek, male or female, slave or free, all are one in Christ Jesus.

And while the church has often failed to live up to this statement in practice and thought, as Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. noted- there is no more segregated hour than 11AM on Sunday mornings, it is there for us as a guidepost.

This is the sign we should be following on our road to healing and reconciliation.

History hasn’t followed a straight line on this, but neither do the stories of the Bible.  There are periods of division and periods of unity, periods of disconnection, and periods of connection. We can think of these as little spirals moving us closer and further away from God, much as happens in our own lives of faith, and quite honestly, in the life of this church.

Right now, people are feeling a bit fractured, and it’s good to name that.  Low points happen to everyone and everything. But better times, times of healing and wholeness, times of reconciliation will come again.  Things don’t necessarily become the way they were before- they never do that, but hope tells us that new future is not only possible, but inevitable. 

Just as it was for the people at Babel, going out to the ends of the earth, for the people at Pentecost, spreading the gospel in different languages and cultures, and to us here, in this church.

Thanks be to God for that. Amen.