Life beyond Babel

Rev. Dr. John J. Lolla, Jr.

Text: Acts 2:6, Old Testament: Gen. 11:1-9, New Testament: Acts 2:1-21

             Pentecost is one of the Bible’s great miracles that almost equals the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Yet it goes unnoticed by most Christians. We don’t value what God’s Spirit did at Pentecost at any level near what God did at Easter.

We should value Pentecost a whole lot more than we do.

Perhaps our problem lies in the overwhelming significance of heaven’s existence. Jesus’ resurrection shows us heaven is real. It’s not an idea or a myth. It’s a real place where people who believe in Jesus go after their life ends.

There’s something personal that Easter represents. It’s a gift for each person exclusively and isn’t dependent on what anyone else does but Jesus for each of us as individuals.

But Pentecost is almost as important.

Pentecost shows us where people can go on earth after their life ends on earth. Pentecost is just as much the end of one life and the beginning of another life as Easter is the end of one life and the beginning of another life.

What makes Pentecost different is that God performs a miracle that is communal. Pentecost’s miracle is a miracle of forming community. This miracle is about Jesus forming each of us into a community. He forms that community despite our differences. He forms that community despite our divisions.

God forms our community despite everything we do to one another, against one another, and for ourselves at the exclusion of one another. God’s Spirit does this simply because Jesus blesses His believers.

Jesus prayed that we might become One as He is One with the Father.

The Father answers His Son’s prayer by making us One who believe in Jesus – despite our differences.

Maybe our lack of interest in Pentecost is because we’re so concerned only about ourselves and our eternal future that we don’t value as much the community God forms from a collection of individuals who other than Jesus, share nothing in common.

Except for our humanity. We share our humanity with one another.

Our humanity doesn’t always mean a lot to us. In fact, most of the time we invest a lot of time focusing on the differences rather than the similarities.   Pentecost forces Jesus’ followers to look for what they share in common rather than argue over what makes them different.

Our self-interest doesn’t let us look that far. Easter is all about us and our salvation as individuals. Pentecost is about coming together because God makes us One through His Spirit.

Perhaps we as Presbyterians are exceptionally guilty of this. We pride ourselves in freedom of conscience – God is the Lord of “MY” conscience. The “MY” is more important than the “US.” Otherwise, wouldn’t we say God is the Lord of “OUR” conscience. We wouldn’t be so free to assert our independence of opinion if we believed God is the Lord of “OUR” conscience.

Such an article of faith would compel us to look for the “US” rather than the “ME” in church conversations. We would be obliged to yield to the position of the “US” and stop asserting our personal right to be independent. We would compromise more easily and give up our pride more willingly.

We wouldn’t say so easily, “God told me” this or “God told me” that.  Or this is what I want out of Church. We would be more like the Church at Pentecost who began to understand each other despite their differences.

If we were more united by the Spirit of Christ than we were by the Spirit of self, we would find common ground more easily and have less divisiveness than what is happening in Presbyterian congregations, and between Presbyterian congregations, let alone between Presbyterians and non-Presbyterians in Christ’s universal Church.

Pentecost reminds us of what we’re not today. But it also reminds us of what we could be if we let the Holy Spirit do it’s work and not get in its way with our stubborn refusal to change.

You see Pentecost is the story of how God overcame the divisions of human kind by the power of the Holy Spirit that was unleashed by Jesus Christ’s suffering, death, and resurrection.

Pentecost calls us to live beyond the divisions that separate us on earth with the power of the Holy Spirit giving us new ears to hear, and new words to speak. When we seek the power of the Holy Spirit to change our pride, to change our hearts, we will hear Christ speaking to us in each other’s words.

It will bring us together on earth as we will be together in heaven.

The resurrection of Jesus is the great miracle of eternal life in the Kingdom of Christ in heaven. Pentecost Day is the great miracle of united life in the Kingdom of Christ on earth.

If Easter represents how God possesses the power to make life out of death, Pentecost represents how God possess the power to make One what is helplessly divided. God reverses the human condition by the power of His will.

The Biblical story of human development is unlike that of any other religion. From the very start, humans possessed the capacity to be like God. The problem is that when they tried to be like God, they thought they were God.

This is the meaning of the tower of Babel in the Book of Genesis. Despite God creating us good, humans wanted to be like God and know the difference between good and evil. We weren’t content with God’s supervision of good and evil. We took it upon ourselves to figure it out for ourselves.

Once we began trusting in our own resources, we began to work together to build a tower of knowledge that brought us closer to God’s kingdom in heaven. Our cooperative efforts weren’t for the purpose of praising God or to encourage others to praise God.

Our cooperative efforts we to be like God – to use our creative energy so that we didn’t need God.

So God put a stop to it. He gave us different languages, which is like giving us different opinions. Opinions are a language game of hearing and interpreting. Even when we use the same language we find ourselves having different opinions about what we are saying to each other.

A mother says, “You shouldn’t do that,” to convey her love to her children. She wants her children to be safe and so she tries to warn and then to stop her children from doing something that would harm them.

What does the child hear from their mother?

“You should do that,” means control, authority, mistrust. Anything but love. That’s when we share the same language.

Give us different languages and the linguistic problems humans face are compounded even more. Language differences mean cultural differences.

Entirely different views of God, ethics, common decency, and goodness emerge. When Pilate says during Jesus trial, “What is truth?” he is conveying the problem of linguistic differences that come from a person’s relationship with God.

The Romans lacked a category called truth, that was fundamental to Judaism’s understanding of God. There is falsehood and there is truth.

Falsehood and truth represent the opposition of death with life, the absence of God’s love with the presence of God’s love.

Pilate had no clue what Caiaphas, or Jesus was talking about when they were debating the truth about who Jesus was. But even Caiaphas and Jesus had fundamental differences about truth from falsehood and they shared the same language.

Language is the sticking point in human relationships. Getting on the same page as humans means sharing a common language that is understandable and

acceptable as true for all involved.

Human sin in building the tower of Babel generated the necessity for God to divide us linguistically in a helpless squabble of direction, meaning and purpose. Overcoming human sin that is compounded by language differences is what God did by the Holy Spirit on Pentecost Day.

He reversed what He had done earlier to prevent us from becoming like God. He recognized a new human need had emerged as a result of the resurrection of Jesus. That need was for a community at peace, without conflict and division.

God sent the Holy Spirit on Pentecost to give Jesus’ followers what the rest of the world would never get with their endless divisions and conflicts that were complicated by language differences.

God showed the world that faith in Jesus Christ could do what earthly governments and industrious people inevitably get wrong – how to live together in peace.

God made it possible for people to get on the same page. To hear what Jesus’ followers had to say about salvation through Jesus Christ accurately, without distortion, misinterpretation, or by the mistakes made by a human translator.

There was no one who could botch the translation to the Polish people like the government translator who said “President Jimmy Carter lusted after the Poles.”

God is love was understood in the life of Jesus Christ. God is love was understood in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. God is love was understood in the Word of God proclaimed by the Apostles of Jesus Christ. God is love was understood to be for all people through the unity of the Church of Jesus Christ.

We Presbyterians have a lot to learn about the power of the Holy Spirit to make Christ’s people One. But the promise of that power remains for those who genuinely pray in their hearts to be One.

Oneness in Christ is more than a symbolic act of sharing bread and taking a cup to remember Jesus. Oneness in Christ is using the same words of faith, hope, and love that Christ has given us to convince the world that He is Lord. Oneness in Christ is being a consistent example together of faith, hope, and love in Jesus Christ’s name that convinces the world His Spirit is among us!


Leave a Reply