Sermon audio is available here: Babel Undone
If you were here last week, you will recall that we left things at a cliffhanger. How, we asked, is it possible for Jesus to be present with us to feed us? How is it possible that every Sunday we are called upward into God’s presence and forward into God’s future to participate in the life of Christ communicated to us through the sacraments? How is it possible that, having eaten at the Lord’s table, we are then sent to take that life into the world? This past week, I felt a little like the narrator in the old Batman TV show. Come back next week. Same bat time, same bat channel. Well here we are, next week has come, and you’ve come back.
You’ll recall that the answer to all these questions was embedded in part of Jesus’ departure speech in last week’s Gospel: “See, I am sending you what my Father promised.” Christ has ascended, and the first act after his coronation, the earthly echo of his exaltation, is to send the Holy Spirit upon the Church. Christ’s Ascent is verified by the Spirit’s descent.
The sending of the Spirit on the day of Pentecost is our Acts lesson this morning. Try to imagine being there. In the Upper Room. With the 120. Having been told by the risen Lord to wait, they had been. Worshipping in great joy. Worshipping in anticipation. And then, Sunday, at nine o’clock in the morning, heaven and earth, eternity and time, intersect. The taking up of the risen One is now complemented by the descent of his Spirit. True to his word, he has sent the Promise of the Father. The Spirit of God who will, the prophets of Israel said, would renew the face of all creation at the end time. We have quite a good depiction of the event in our Pentecost window. With the disciples praising God, arms upraised, the tongues of fire dancing above their heards. What that picture cannot capture, however, is just how noisy the scene is. Immediately, the Spirit inspires them to proclaim the Gospel (you will be my witnesses) in the languages of all those Jews who had come to Jerusalem for the festival (already, the implication is that the Gospel is going to explode beyond the borders of Palestine). What are we to see here? Three things.
First, the sending of the Spirit is the undoing of Babel. That is the story that is our Old Testament lesson today. The story of a human race united in culture and language and aim—to make a name for themselves by building a tower. By ascending—note that—on their own terms to the level of the divine. Humanity, it seems, has an inbuilt desire to become divine. We encounter this desire innocently expressed in the Garden, when the tempter says to the woman, eat the fruit and you shall be like one of the Gods. We find it less innocently expressed in our OT lesson, the story of Babel, where on the plains of Shinar, humankind decides to make a name. To build a tower into heaven. To be joined with the divine.
Now, it is tempting here to get tangled in debates about what actually happened. Was this some sort of Ziggurat, the ancient near eastern structures similar to the Egyptian pyramids whose ruins we still see today? Probably. Was the entire human race really once so geographically limited, and to this place? Well, things get more thorny there. Fortunately, that’s not the point of the story. The point of the story is, even after the Flood, human beings are still hardwired both to seek after God and to insist on doing it their own way. Let us make for ourselves. Let us cross the barrier between creator and creation. Let us make him pay us heed. And God does. As humankind plans and plots to ascend, God descends. He confuses their languages and he scatters them.
At Pentecost, after the ascension of the one human to God’s right hand, God descends again. This time not to confuse our language, to separate and counfound and frustrate our utopian dreams, but to draw all languages into the saving scope of the Gospel. To begin the exaltation of all humanity that was begun in the ascension of Jesus Christ. To create the space in which all human beings might ascend to their rightful place in a new creation. And because the Spirit descends to undo Babel, there is no language in which the Gospel cannot be proclaimed. On the contrary, it seems that, for the Gospel to be faithfully proclaimed, it must forever leave the language of its founder behind so that it can be told and re-told in many tongues. And that task—the task of translation and proclamation in the language of the people—continues up to today.
At Pentecost, God descends again. Not to scatter humankind across the globe, but to draw them together, Jew and Gentile, into one people. The drive to become divine that seems hardwired into us is planted there by God. But it will be realized not on our time and in our own power, but by the God who seeks us out in the sending of the Son, who finds us in the sending of the Spirit, who sends us in that Spirit. His Gospel—the sending of the Son to redeem the world—is the means that will undo Babel And now, empowered by the Spirit, we have been sent to announce this Good News to all. The sending of the Spirit is the undoing of Babel.
Second, the sending of the Spirit makes the many one. Which is to say, the sending of the Spirit is the fulfillment of human hope and destiny. The desire to become one of the gods—the desire embedded in us as expressed in both the Fall and Babel narratives is not wrong. It is part of the fabric of our make up. It is implanted in us in by our creator. It is part of what it means to be made in his image. Corporately, this desire is found at the heart of every human utopia—whether ancient as the story of Babel, or medieval—Christendom or the Caliphate, or modern—the stories of fascism and communism in the twentieth century, the stories of unbridled capitalism or radical Islam in the twenty-first. And yet, in the working out of each utopia, horrendous evil results. Why?
Because even as much as we might want to deny it, the gift of a renewed creation is just that—a gift. It is not something that will ever be accomplished by human endeavor but can only be received as God’s crowning of God’s own work in creating and redeeming what he has made. Think about John Lennon’s “Imagine.” The construction of a perfect world with a united and peaceful human race is not easy if you try. It is, short of the coming of Christ, impossible.
It is only the Spirit who can and does make the many one by uniting them to Christ, who reigns even now and whose kingdom will never end.
Finally, the sending of the Spirit makes the one, many. The overcoming of Babel is not the reduction of the world’s many languages to one especially holy tongue, but the proclamation of the Gospel in every language. One people of God is, at the end, made up of many peoples, many nations, many tongues. This, Pentecost proclaims, has been God’s plan from the beginning. This is what was accomplished in the death and resurrection of Jesus. This is what is being proclaimed now even as we are sent in the power of the Spirit into the world to proclaim, to love and to serve.
And now, we gather again in the power of the Holy Spirit to be drawn further into Christ, to hear again the Good News, to feed again in our hearts with faith and thanksgiving, in order that we might be sent again as announcers of God’s kingdom and agents of its coming.