Sometimes a Little Fire Is a Good Thing

Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.” The LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built. And the LORD said, “Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.” So the LORD scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore it was called Babel, because there the LORD confused the language of all the earth; and from there the LORD scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.       Genesis 11:1-9

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. Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 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? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs–in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?”        Acts 2:1-12

Today’s scripture is a funny balance: Pentecost and the Tower of Babel.

One represents the birth of the Church and the other the defining event that separated the nations from one another.  Both are acts of God.  At least, Scripture represents both of these events as acts of God.

I’m not sure I buy that idea when it comes to the Tower of Babel.

Do you really believe that God looked down on humanity, saw us doing something massive and accomplished, and utterly freaked out?  I have trouble believing that God, who created us in imitation of His very powerful self, would get weird over humanity doing incredibly powerful things.  Especially when you consider that the Tower of Babel was essentially a very tall building, not something like the hydrogen bomb, or unraveling the mystery of DNA, or cloning sheep.  If God is going to get His panties in a bunch over something, I’m guessing that nuclear bombs would have trumped a giant building, hands down. (There is no veiled reference to the presidential candidate there, I promise. No. Really.)  So I’m calling BS on this story in the Bible.  Sometimes you read the scriptures and you realize that the writers cannot possibly be describing God’s action as much as they are trying to explain why things are such a mess here in Humantown—and things are a mess here in Humantown.

Humans have been struggling with division from our inception, and I think that’s because God divided His image into two genders and created us male and female. Having two separate genders in humanity has created so many problems all by itself that I’m pretty certain that God did not expect unity to exist naturally within humanity…ever.  Add in a few more divisions like race, nation, culture, sexuality, and socioeconomic situation…holy smoke!  Trying to squeeze unity out of all that division is a fine task indeed.

Before you get all twisted up about how I’m accusing God of causing all our political and racial problems, let me point out that the same God that created us to be different and experience conflict and division also created us to have moments of clarity, unity, and profound experiences of connection with each other.

Today’s evidence of this is that God created Pentecost.

This is the point is when I would normally blather on about how Pentecost and the coming of the Holy Spirit is a powerful sign that we are empowered disciples of an Almighty God who builds the bridge that helps us cross the barriers that separate us so that we can spread the Gospel.

But that is a post for another day, because today, something else popped out at me.

When I read about Pentecost today, I suddenly focused in on the verses starting at Acts 2:5, where the “Jews from every devout nation under heaven” suddenly start asking how it is that they are hearing the Gospel in their native tongue.

Simulcasting is cool, but it isn’t the point of this passage of scripture.

What I realized is that at that moment, a group of very diverse people were suddenly having the exact same experience at the same time.  A very diverse group of people—a group that probably included women and men, adults and children, Jews and Gentiles, slaves and free men—all heard the Gospel at the same time, in their own language, and the scripture says that “all were amazed and perplexed.” (2:7)

Another thing you may not have noticed is that while the disciples were “all together in one place” (2:2) that the diverse crowd of people who witnessed the event were not gathered in any way at all before Pentecost started.  As the tongues of fire appeared and the disciples began to speak, “…there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.” (2:5-6)  In other words, the group of observers were going about their own business, totally uninvolved with each other, until the arrival of the Holy Spirit, and then suddenly the people began to draw together, drawn in by the Spirit.

Well, hot dog!  There it is!  Unity in the midst of total diversity, created by the Spirit.

God didn’t create humanity as a unity.  Our very creation makes us divided because we weren’t created like cookie cutter people.  We were created to be divided and to be divisive.  And yet at the very same time, we were created in God’s image, bearers of our own spirits and the spark of His Spirit, and therefore so very succeptible to the movement of the Holy Spirit and its unifying power.

And this is the best news ever.

Today, this news is giving me hope. Lots of hope.

Because I believe that the Holy Spirit will always be more powerful than the details that divide us.  

It gets easy to get lost in the details of our identity and our daily lives, but the Holy Spirit always has the power to sweep us up in experiences far greater than our individual details.  It only takes a moment to remember experiences like the 9/11 tragedy and the Paris bombings, and suddenly you know without a doubt that nation, culture, and race all fall away and we find ourselves in solidarity with victims we cannot know and have never met.

The Holy Spirit will always be more powerful than the details that divide us.

This is the gospel/good news for today.

 

On a personal note: Lord God, as the worldwide United Methodist church meets in Portland, may the spirit of Pentecost come to each and every delegate.  May the flame of your Spirit create understanding and respect where division once existed. May the flame of your Spirit illumine minds and create clarity, so that the Church may follow Your will.  Unite us Lord, for we cannot do it on the strength of our will alone.  Amen.

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