When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
(Acts 2: 1-5)
In the novel, The Mermaid Chair by Sue Monk Kid, Whit, a member of a Benedictine monastery, reflects on the frustrations of living in community. He is angry at the older members of the community who only want to watch the news or listen to opera in the Common Room they share for recreation. Whit tried as often as he could to commandeer the TV set to watch baseball…his great passion, and the older monks always complained and left the room when he had on a game. Reflecting on the monks’ inability to agree about something as simple as TV, Whit is reminded suddenly of the whole point of living with these curmudgeonly old men – “that somewhere on the face of the earth, there needed to be a people bound together with irrevocable stamina, figuring out a way to live with one another. He’d come to the monastery with such idiotic notions, expecting a slight variation on utopia – everybody loving everybody else, returning good for evil, turning the other cheek left and right. Monks, it turned out, were no more perfect than any other group of people. He’d gradually realized with a kind of wonder that they’d been picked for a hidden but noble experiment – to see if people might actually be able to live in genuine relatedness, to see if perhaps God had made a mistake by creating the human species.”
It’s not an idle question to ask if there is some way available to all of us that provides a foundation on which people can live in genuine relatedness. In the Christian church, where we might hope to find the answer, the tragedy of rejection and alienation can be clearly seen. Instead of living out Jesus’ commandment to love one another, Christians hurl accusations at one another over issues of sexuality and interpretation of scripture. Looking out over the world we see all kinds of other people who can’t seem to live together, whether it is people of different races, ethnic groups, religions, people in families and marriages…the list goes on and on. History is full of stories of ruptures between people. Stories about divorce, war and genocide, fill the pages of history books and newspapers. According to Jennifer Baker of the Forest Institute of Professional
Psychology in Springfield, Missouri, the divorce rate in America for first marriage, vs. second or third marriage is 50% of first marriages, 67% of second, and 74% of third marriages end in divorce. It is estimated on the website, security.org that there are 37 wars currently going on in the world. Each of these wars is defined as a conflict in which at least 1000 people die per year. Some estimates are much higher. Most of these are civil or “intrastate” wars, fueled as much by racial, ethnic, or religious animosities as by ideological fervor. Whether in Burma or Israel, Somalia or Iraq, people seem to be unable to live in peace and harmony with their fellow human beings. We all know well the stories of ethnic cleansing in Germany, the Sudan and Rwanda. The Bible gives us an astute diagnosis of this problem and offers us an alternative to living in chaos and alienation from one another. In the first chapter of Genesis God commands Adam and
Eve to “be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it.” God intended this filling of the earth to be a peaceful process where people were generous and respectful of one another. By the end of the following 10 generations the Bible tells us that “The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. And the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth and it grieved him to his heart.” (Genesis 6: 5-6) So the first bit of evidence we have in answering Whit’s question about our ability to live in genuine relatedness is that from the very beginning of time people haven’t been able to behave well and get along.
Sorry that God had made humankind and that the “earth was corrupt…and was filled with violence” God decided to destroy life on earth and start all over again at the beginning. God called Noah and his family together and instructed them to build a boat to carry them safely for 40 days while it rained and God flooded the earth. Then for 150 more days Noah and his family waited in the ark until the land was dry. Then God gave them the same command God had given Adam and Eve to leave the ark and to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth” (Genesis 9: 1). Maybe now, God hoped, humankind could exist together peacefully. So Noah and his family left the ark and moved into the great valley of Babel to live together.
Six more generations passed and, according to Genesis 11, “the whole earth had one language and the same words.” They built a Tower and gathered around it saying, “let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.” They had fulfilled God’s command to multiply but not to fill the earth. According to Walter Bruggemann, creation now found itself in a crisis, and it was a crisis of its own making. “Human language ha[d] become a language of disobedience.” With one voice the very people that God had promised never again to destroy and with whom God had made a covenant, rejected God’s vision for the world. They built a tower that flaunted God’s command to spread across the face of the earth and live in reliance on him. Fearing scattering across the world, they plotted to live together, with one language and determine their own future. They attempted to achieve a unity of place and language which went against God’s vision for them. Here is our second piece of information for Whit. People continually resist God’s vision for how the world is to be. Of course it is easy to get along with your own people who speak your own language and have your point of view. The scary challenge comes when we spread out and expose ourselves to those who are different.
Martin Buber maintained that there is no community without a common center. True community, he believed, does not just arise out of people having feelings for one another (although this may be involved). Rather, it comes about through: first, people taking their stand in living in mutual relationship with a living Centre, and second, their being in living mutual relationship with one another. The center of a community is like a seed from which the community grows and develops. That center can be fixed on any number of concerns, ideas or beliefs – social justice, art, agriculture or religion for example. In the case of Nazi Germany the community was mobilized around anti-Semitism. The community of the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas centered on the belief that Bible prophecies of a final divine judgment were coming to pass as a prelude to Christ’s second coming. Their beliefs drove their actions. The common center chosen by the people at Babel was, writes Bruggemann, a kind of self serving unity, symbolized by a common language, that sought to survive on its own resources grounded in the belief in its own autonomy. This is in contrast to a community that God desires where, writes Leo Sandon
Jr., “our self-centeredness is melted as by fire in the gift of the Spirit.” The gift of that Spirit is told in the story of Pentecost, undoubtedly written with the Babel narrative in mind, it is a story about unity in God’s spirit. Through the gift of the Holy Spirit, each person heard every other person speaking in his or her own tongue. The confusion of Babel had been overcome.
According to Scriptures in the Book of Acts, the Church came into being on the day of Pentecost. As 120 worshipers, including the Disciples, were fasting and praying in an upper room in Jerusalem, the Holy Spirit descended upon them in a violent rushing wind that was heard throughout the city. Small flames of fire rested upon their heads, and they began to speak in other languages. As crowds came to investigate the commotion, the Apostle Peter spoke to them about Jesus and exhorted them to repent. From the crowd of Jews and converts, 3,000 realized the truth of his words and became followers of Jesus.
In the book of Ezekiel the prophet wrote, “A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. I will put my spirit within you, and make you follow my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances. (Ezekiel 36: 26-27) The prophet Joel proclaimed, “Even now,” declares the Lord, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning.” Rend your heart and not your garments.” “And afterward, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days.” (Joel 2: 12, 28) Early Christians believed Pentecost was the fulfillment of these promises and that it was through the gift of the spirit a new community was born.
The community that experienced Pentecost wasn’t formed in a unity founded in comfort and a self-serving unity. Rather it found its unity in God. Diverse as the group was that gathered in Jerusalem, all were able to experience the message through the miracle of hearing, each in his own language. This made it clear to those present that it was God drawing them together as a community in spite of their own needs, fears or desires. Pentecost, according to Brueggemann, is a story about the restoration of genuine speech and listening where we truly listen to each other and are transformed by one another. John Calvin said that our languages may differ but we all speak the same thing when we say “Abba.” God creates a unity of response to him in communication and community with one another if we are open to the Spirit. Pentecost is the answer to Whit’s question. No, God didn’t make a mistake by creating the human species if, by our willingness to live through the power of the spirit we are able to live in genuine relatedness to one another. In an early episode of the TV series LOST, the hero Jack Shepherd, says to his
fellow survivors of a plane crash stranded on a remote and unknown island, “Every man for himself’ is not going to work…we’re all here now. And God knows how long we’re going to be here. But if we can’t live together, we’re going to die alone.” The “live together or die alone” credo was a steady refrain throughout the show’s run, underscoring what was a central theme of the show: the value of living in community. The “Lost” community struggled for 5 years to get along, and in the last episode of the final season Jack was able to steer his friends toward, not just survival but to a deeper commitment to and love of one another.
In a talk given at the Christian Century Magazine’s annual dinner a number of years ago Walter Brueggemann addressed the crowd about the counter -script the Bible provides to the predominant script the world follows. That script says that life should be easy and never inconvenient, everything can be fixed and made right through human ingenuity, and lastly it assumes that more is better. He quoted an advertisement that says, “It is not something you don’t need; it is just that you haven’t thought of it.” This script promises to make us safe and happy. The Bible articulates an alternative script seen in the story of Pentecost. Hard as it is to believe, according to the Bible, safety and happiness can only be truly and lastingly experienced through the power of God’s spirit blowing over our community and breathing into our lives, empowering us to live out a shared vision of life lived for one another. It is this script of a people bound together with the irrevocable stamina of God’s spirit that Whit hoped to live and work. We all have a script. Our church has a script. We can all change our script. The script we accept and choose to live out, Babel or Pentecost is our choice. Let us choose wisely. Amen.