The new season of Pentecost starts on the day of Pentecost. Today we gather together to recognize and give thanks for God’s gift of the Spirit to the Church. The gift of the Holy Spirit to the Church at Pentecost prompts and guides our lives through this coming long season of learning discipleship. The season of Pentecost lasts for about six months. It ends just before the season of Advent. I invite you to pray with me that in this season of Pentecost the Spirit strengthens, directs, challenges, empowers and unites our lives and the lives of the whole people of God.
In his 1964 book, Understanding Media, the iconic Canadian intellectual Marshall McLuhan said the world’s many distinct national “tribes” were converging into a “global village.” Today we are experiencing the effects of living in a global village. Our world seems to be getting smaller; events in one part of the world affect other parts very quickly. However, what McLuhan did not predict was the persistence and dominance of some tribes in the emerging global village. So, while new digital media connections often make us feel that the “world is one,” we are still divided into nation states, and one of these, the US, reigns over the global village.
The idea of the “powerful” tribe is not unique to our time. In Genesis chapter 11, the people started to build the tower of Babel, believing it would make them powerful. They believed that if they built a tower reaching up to heaven, they would be the most powerful people in the world. They were filled with pride and God did not like that. God didn’t want them to be too proud. God was concerned they might think they could do anything they wanted, so God changed the words that came out of their mouths. The story, of course, is not a historical account of an event, but a metaphorical description of the human condition as understood by the writers. When we try to compete with God to become powerful, we become fragmented into various groups and build high walls to protect ourselves from others.
Probably most of us grew up in church being told that on Pentecost, the purpose of the gift of the Spirit was to reverse the punishment God meted out at Babel. However, I consider this is a significant misunderstanding of Babel and the gifts of the Spirit. Is it really a punishment from God that we are all different, that we speak different languages and live in different cultures? Is difference a problem in need of a solution? Is the solution to make a “melting pot” and to put us all into that pot, encouraging us all to speak only one language? I don’t think so. I hope you do not either. The story of Pentecost is one of the stories we Christians often misunderstand, perhaps, or particularly if we misunderstand it as a historical fact.
The Pentecost story was always explained to me as a miracle of tongues – that is, the Holy Spirit gave the disciples the power to speak in different languages in order to communicate the mighty works of God. I understand that this interpretation is widespread around the world.
However, if we read today’s scripture, verses 6 and 7, carefully, we hear:
And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans?”
Here we are presented with a different understanding of Pentecost. The multitudes knew that the disciples were speaking in the Galilean dialect, and yet people could all understand the disciples in their own languages! It was a miracle of listening. People spoke in their own tongues, but at the same time, they were understood by others in their own first languages. I like this miracle. I shouldn’t need to struggle to speak English. If I preached this sermon in Korean, you would understand it in your mother tongue, English or Mandarin, without translation. Wouldn’t that be great!
The miracle of Pentecost presents, in spite of the walls we humans build and all the schemes that develop high walls to distinguish each of us from the other, the miracle of Pentecost manifests the inbreaking of God’s purpose for all humanity. Beyond their differences, God brings humanity together for the common good. On the day of Pentecost, we celebrate our differences. Difference, in a way, is the name of the Creator who makes all things possible and beautiful. Difference is the work of our Creator. Today, God continues to speak in English, French, Mandarin, Korean and all other languages. At Pentecost, God makes God’s choice clear. God joins us in different understandings of the holy, speaking different languages and eating different foods and living with different customs. This is good news indeed.
As we are striving to build God’s community here at West Point Grey United, four people have joined our faith community through membership transfers and a baptism today. With Meg, Tony, Lancey and Anna, we will continue to celebrate God’s presence so that the Holy Spirit strengthens, challenges, empowers and unites our lives and the lives of the whole people of God for the common good. On the day of Pentecost, we are invited to the communion table to celebrate our differences and union with God. Come, come to the table of Jesus. Thanks be to God who lives among us. Amen.