Pentecost Acts 2:1-11, Psalm 104:24-35, 1 Corinthians 12:1-13, John 14:8-17
Before Abraham was called away from his father’s house and the gods of his ancestors, to go to the land that God would show him, all the people on the earth had gathered together in one place, speaking one language. And all the people said to themselves “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.”
Though God had given humanity a calling to Adam and Eve to “be fruitful and fill the earth”, humanity had rejected this calling and desired instead to make themselves famous, to build a great tower that would stretch into heaven, as though by their own efforts they could transcend the limitations of this plain of mortal existence, to touch the realm of God and his Angels.
And God looks and sees this effort from his exalted throne in the heavens, and God came down to see this think the human race had attempted. No tower built by humans could possibly reach the throne of God, though in their arrogance they had believed it possible. So God stoops down to see this thing that they had done and says “Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, so that they may not understand one another’s speech.”
This is not the first time in Genesis we have read of the tendency of human beings to choose for themselves what they believe to be good, or evil. Adam and Eve transgressed God’s word to them to take and eat of the tree he told them not to eat.
Cain murdered his brother in envy, rejecting the call to be his brother’s keeper.
Lamech boasted that he had killed a man for wounding him. That “If Cain’s revenge is sevenfold, then Lamech’s is seventy-sevenfold.”
The tendency of the hearts of all people was towards violence begetting violence with no end in sight. They would not abide by God’s word but chose for themselves what is right or wrong.
And so it is no wonder that God looks and sees this effort in this tower of Babel, the plot of this people who over and over again reject the reign of God, and condemns it. With primordial humanity’s ignorance of God and tendency to murder each other, what would be the outcome of all people living in one city than the further corruption of their souls to abandon the good things they were created for, to live forever not in a pleasant garden walking with God, but in a brick-built monstrosity where the blood will flow constantly into the gutter. God wills for those made in his image to fill the earth and have dominion over it, to form it into something beautiful, to draw their sustenance from its goodness, to rejoice in all that he has made. But the tendency of a corrupt nature is to build ourselves up, to reject the limitations of our creatureliness, to forget our dependence on our Maker, to make gods of ourselves.
So God confuses the languages of the people and disperses them over the face of the earth.
Now this story is a little confusing to me, because that desire to be at peace with my neighbors and to be close to God is imprinted on my heart and soul and mind. It is a sadness that there are so many people I will never see or meet or know, because God’s image is in them, and they have something wonderful to give, and I have something wonderful to give them. And together surely we could dwell in some common life which touches the perfect heavenly fellowship of the Blessed Trinity. But as that primal technology of brick-making unlocked for ancient humanity this ability to imprison themselves in some festering colossal city, we now have gun-power and steel and microchips that have allowed us to eradicate those neighbors with whim we find too hard to make peace with terrifying efficiency.
The era of regional and later global political unity through senates, lords, monarchs, and emperors promised in some ways a more peaceful and prosperous world but peeling back the veneer historians show us the rampant injustice and abuse which so often accompanied these regimes. The ubiquity of instant global communication appears today before us with the hope of gaining once again that universal language and common word between all of us, but we know it isn’t enough. It seems God was right to send us on our way and drive us far apart from one another. We cannot be trusted to be our brother or sister’s keeper.
And yet the Apostles when writing the epistles of the New Testament expected exactly this of us.
Throughout Easter we have read the First Epistle of St John who teaches us that we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers and sisters in the church. If we see a sister or brother in need but do not help them, the love of God does not abide in us. Whoever loves God must also love their brother and sister.
And this morning St Paul reminds us that we are one body of many members, with no distinction between our background, ethnicity, social or class status, or anything else because we have been baptized and born again into a new humanity, in Christ.
The Apostles write about this reality as though it is a fact of life, as though the enmities between Roman and Hebrew are long passed, between Greek and Persian, or women and men or slaves and free people. Yet this era is one of an escalating ethnic conflict between the Hebrews in Judah and the Roman empire, resulting in the destruction of the Temple in 70AD. The Apostolic writers of the New Testament insist that the people of God, now constituted by Baptism into Christ, are now living not as the unbelievers in their violence, but now in peace and familial unity.
How could this be?
Our savior, Jesus Christ, loved the unlovely enough to shed his blood to make them clean. He is the king of love, who dined with the tax collectors and sinners, who embraced the lepers and raised the dead. He delivered those afflicted by demons. He fed the ungrateful masses. And on the night before he was betrayed by those who he had called to be his friends he said “whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I am going to the Father”.
It is the case that our Lord has called us to be better than we otherwise might if left to our own devices. He has taught the way of love in his commandments and parables. He has given signs and wonders. He has stooped down to wash his disciples feet. In all of this, he shows us how to be like him, how to walk in the love that he shares with the Father. But if that was all he did, we would be no better than proud humanity building a big tower thinking we could get ourselves to heaven.
But he says, you will do greater works than me, because I am going to the Father.
We are confronted again with this notion, as expected in the Apostolic epistles, that we ordinary Christians will be capable of a love which defies all our expectations and seems unachievable to us as we are.
He tells his disciples: If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you.
This promised helper, the Holy Spirit, will be the one who will give those who belong to Jesus that which by their fallen nature they otherwise cannot have. Namely, the love of God as shown in Christ.
But surely he is asking os us something impossible. Keeping his commandments, on the face of it seems to dash any hope that we would ever meet this Helper, the Spirit of Truth. If that is the condition. Jesus expects that it will be our love for him which will cause us to keep his commandments, and it is remarkable that he would say such a thing on the night of his betrayal, when all of his disciples will fail to love him, will fail to stay up and keep watch while he prays. Fail to be with him as he faces the unjust trial. Fail to protect him from the gruesome death upon the cross.
If you love me, he says, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper
It is wonder then how it is that the Holy Spirit is with us today.
The glorious resurrection of Christ is the guarantee of our forgiveness. For if he had not been raised to life, he could not have come back to his disciples and forgiven them of their sin. And before he is taken up into heaven, he commands his disciples to remain in the city of Jerusalem until the Holy Spirit comes upon them. They loved him, and they obeyed his commandment.
And on the day of the Feast of Weeks, which is called Pentecost in the new Testament, the feast marking the wheat harvest, on that day the disciples heard the sound of a rushing wind and saw tongues of fire come to rest on each of them. And the Disciples went out from that house of hiding to meet the masses from all over the earth who had gathered for the festival, and by the power of the Spirit each person heard the message of the Gospel in their own language! All the peoples of the earth, who had been divided by language, were now hearing of the one savior of all people, told to them in their own language! For it was the day of the wheat harvest and God had sent out his laborers equipped with all they needed to bring in the sheaves, those who were ready to hear the Gospel and follow Christ.
Here in the city that God had chosen to make his dwelling, not Babylon where humans had defiantly chosen to build their great monstrosity, here in Jerusalem God himself mediates between the people not with words of power and control, but with the message of forgiveness through Christ. He makes from many people, and many languages, one people who share in common one Word, the Word of God in Christ. This is the beginning of the new humanity, the one that we strive for in our own strength and through coercion, God brings it about by calling people to repentance and faith in Christ.
This is the unity of people from every ethnicity and nation that St Paul mentions in his First Epistle to the Corinthians where he reminds them, and us, that we have all been baptized into one body and given one Spirit. Jesus said that if we love him we will keep his commandments, and he will send a Helper to be with us forever. On the face of it this seems like we are being asked to do the impossible: To love him, and to keep his commandments.
But every single one of us has come into the church, the new humanity constituted through faith and Baptism, and filled with the Holy Spirit because someone else obeyed Jesus’ command to make disciples and to baptize them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. None of us gets the Holy Spirit because we deserved it. We got it because while we were dead in our sins, someone shared that divine word of forgiveness in a tongue we could understand, and someone brought us to the waters of Baptism, where we found and drank the water of life. We do not baptize ourselves. Our Christian life begins with an act of obedience to Christ’s commandment, but it isn’t our obedience. We are here because someone before us love the Lord and kept his commandment, to share the Gospel with us, to make disciples of us, and to baptize us.
Like that startling sound of rushing wind on that day in Jerusalem we know something has changed, and now we perceive that all those who belong to Christ are different, though now not with the visible sign of a tongue of fire upon their heads, but with the invisible mark of divine love, which has made us sisters and brothers when once we were disparate and divided people. On this great feast of Pentecost that we celebrate today we give thanks that God has broken down the divisions between us, by giving us a new and everlasting Word, the proclamation that Jesus is Lord. And we remember today that we are united with all those who share that confession, here in Annapolis, and all across this nation, and all over the world.
And with our sisters and brothers may we go forth in the power of the Spirit in the way of Jesus, proclaiming his glorious name so that his Church may be filled with every tribe and nation and tongue, a new humanity which will continue forever in his love. Amen