A Pentecost Sermon
Preached by the Revd Dr Trevor Jamison for
Saint Columba’s United Reformed Church, June 5th 2022
How do you feel about human diversity? Are you positive or are you negative about it, or does it never enter your head? They say that birds of a feather flock together, but then variety is the spice of life! Where do you come on the continuum between those two sayings?
I’ve told some of you before, so forgive me if you are having to hear this again, about the time I was in a McDonalds restaurant in France, next in line behind a Dutch man. When he got to the counter he put in his complex order to the young French woman behind the till. He spoke fluently to her … in English! When she stood there in mute astonishment he responded by restating his order … in English again, but in a louder voice, so that she would understand better.
My image of the Dutch nation as masters of many languages received a sharp knock from which it has never fully recovered. Given that I scraped a pass in O-level French I’m in no position to criticise. That said, I can usually stretch to ordering food and drink for a meal when in France.
The ability to speak more than one language is no guarantee that one looks kindly upon those who are different. Both the Netherlands and various Scandinavian nations have a reputation both for speaking an additional language, and for socially liberal attitudes, but this has not translated into a universal welcome to citizens whose ancestors were born outside the ‘homeland’.
We who are native English speakers enjoy the advantage and curse of speaking the language that most other peoples know. We don’t have to try as hard for our words to be understood, but we are less likely to understand their words when they speak in their language. And all of this brings us to the Tower of Babel and the Day of Pentecost.
‘Now the whole earth had one language and the same words’ (11:1) it says setting the scene in our OT reading. In the history of the interpretation of the Bible that’s understood to be a good thing, except that this unity is then misused by humankind in order to cooperate in achieving godlike status: ‘let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens.’ (11:4)
Then God, perceiving the project they have in mind, thinks, ‘this is only the beginning of what they will do,’ and that ‘nothing that they propose to do now will be impossible for them.’ (11:6) Some see this as evidence of God being jealous and insecure, but I view it as God stepping in before the children who have learned how to turn on the ignition, decide to take the car for a drive.
God confuses their language so that they will not understand one another’s speech. (11:7) The place ends up being called ‘Babel’ (11:9), from which we derive the word ‘babble’. We ought to be careful about what lessons we take from this story. These might say as much about our attitudes to languages and diversity than about what’s in the text.
First, this a confusion caused by God among people who do not acknowledge God, and want to be above everyone else. Second, the Book of Genesis, if you read the chapters as representing chronological order, suggests that variety of human languages was already developing as part of God’s ongoing creation. The preceding chapter – chapter ten – consists of lists of the peoples descended from Shem, Ham, and Japheth, the sons of Noah. And the list relating to each son ends with ‘these are the descendants of X, by their families, their languages, their lands and their nations.’ (10:5, 20, 31)
In the Babel story, language variety was part of God’s multi-faceted creation project, accelerated on one particular occasion, in order to avoid humankind taking a catastrophically wrong step – again! The story may also be a dig at the Babylonian Empire – ‘Babel’ – and its project to bring all nations under its control, imposing its identity and gods, but that for another day. Instead let’s fast-forward to the Jerusalem and the Day of Pentecost.
On that day, when the members of the embryonic church of Jesus Christ were ‘all together in one place’ (2:1) God’s Holy Spirit arrived with a rush of wind and tongues of flame. (2:2, 3) ‘All were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.’ (2:4)
But see how things are so different between the two occasions. The arrival of many languages at Babel causes confusion and distancing from God. In Jerusalem, at Pentecost, however, Spirit-enabled multiple languages lead to understanding and reconciliation with God.
Note what actually happened. This was not the coming of one universal language that everyone understood; not some Holy Spirit Esperanto. Rather, everyone heard in their own language: ‘amazed and astonished, they asked, Are not all these men Galileans? And how is that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?’
And the content was as important as the language used to deliver it: ‘in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.’ (2:11) It’s not just that they could speak in all of these languages, but that they made use of this gift to speak about God. All the language speakers ‘were amazed and perplexed,’ and who could blame them, though, as is so often the case there were some who were not so impressed.
‘But others sneered and said, They are filled with new wine.’ (2:13) These ones heard nothing that impressed them. I wonder if that’s because their normal expectation was that others would speak their language, whatever that was. Was that Hebrew? Was it Latin? They were like today’s native English speakers who have a sense of entitlement that others will speak their (our) language and speak it well. It’s easy to forget that if someone speaks English as a second language well enough to be understood, even if they do so imperfectly, then they certainly speak at least one other language much better that I can.
But the key verse here is verse eleven: ‘in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.’ Whether or not we like human diversity, and on the whole I do like human diversity, what we celebrate is the gift of the Holy Spirit which enables all peoples to be in union with God through the work of Jesus Christ. It’s no coincidence that the Apostle Peter seized the opportunity to respond to questions about what was happening by preaching a sermon about how God had acted decisively for the world through Jesus Christ. (2:14-36)
Today then, Pentecost Sunday, is a celebration of how God gifts us to speak to all sorts of people about God’s love. Pentecost is a reminder of our need to use all of the gifts God gives us to put that gospel message across in ways that are appropriate to the personality, culture and experience of the people with whom we are speaking.
So let’s give thanks for the presence of the Holy Spirit, and the gifts she brings, so that we can carry out God’s work in this diverse world. Amen.