June 5, 2022

Pentecost C – George Yandell

With a rush of a mighty heavenly wind and with holy flames dancing on their heads, the disciples received the gift of God’s own Spirit. On the 50th day after Easter, God was preparing the tiny band of Jesus’ disciples to go public- to broadcast the incredible news of Jesus’ teaching, his death and resurrection, and ascension. Their witness would be so personal, so profound, that today, Christians are found in every nation, in every culture. What does the news of Jesus mean to diverse people today? And how do we proclaim or stifle His proclamation?

From the collect for Pentecost: “Almighty God, on this day you opened the way of eternal life to every race and nation by the promised gift of your holy spirit: Shed abroad this gift throughout the world by the preaching of the gospel, that it may reach to the ends of the earth.”

Reaching to the ends of the earth- that’s always been God’s desire for the world. In the first account of creation in Genesis 1, God tells the humans God created in God’s own image: “Be fruitful and increase, and fill the whole earth.” After God flooded the world and delivered Noah and his family safe and sound, God again said, “Be fruitful, people the whole earth.” Yet God’s people resisted God’s command to fill the earth. God found instead that Adam’s descendants wanted to live apart from others. They kept clumping up together, resisting the insecure frontiers. They made cities, sheltering themselves from people different from themselves.

One group of people became famous for their homogeneity. They wanted to preserve their closed group for all time: from today’s Hebrew scripture: “All the earth was one language, one set of words. And it happened as they journeyed from the east they found a valley in the land of Shinar and settled there. And they said to each other, ‘Come, let us bake bricks and burn them hard’; and the brick served them as stone and bitumen served them as mortar. And they said, ‘Come, let us build us a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, that we may make us a name, lest we be scattered over all the earth.’

“And the Lord came down to see the city and tower that the human creatures had built. And the Lord said, ‘As one people with one language for all, if this is what they have begun to do, now on nothing they plot to do will elude them. Come, let us go down and baffle their language there so that they will not understand each other’s language.’ And the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore it is called Babel, for there the Lord made the language of the whole earth babble. And from there the Lord scattered them over all the earth.” [This translation from The Five Books of Moses by Robert Alter, 2004.]

When I was young, my Sunday School teachers taught an interesting thing- they told me God was punishing the people who built the tower of Babel. How many of you were taught this as a punishment story? That says something interesting about our culture, doesn’t it? But there’s not one mention of punishment for the tower builders; instead, God scatters them out over all the earth: accomplishing what God had intended from the beginning- that the people of God should fill the whole earth, and speak many languages. Something in God loves diversity. God wants the earth filled with many different languages, multiple cultures. God wants the world rich and complex. Yet God’s people always try to confound that richness. They cordon themselves off, shutting out those different from themselves.

Why does God love diversity? Because it’s powerful when people of diverse backgrounds and cultures choose to live together with God. Throughout his earthly ministry, Jesus met with folks out of the mainstream. He even talked to non-Jewish women, something patently forbidden. His parables kept prodding people to see their world through the eyes of heaven: no barriers can keep people from loving one another if they seek God’s love in human relationships. Jesus knew that God’s own power is unleashed when people with profound differences seek the kingdom of God together in the here and now.

And that brings us to Pentecost. Once more the disciples were separated, apart, together. They’d witnessed the crucifixion and resurrection of their friend and rabbi Jesus. They’d been waiting for the coming Counselor Jesus had foretold. They were waiting for God to act. And God did act. The Holy Spirit danced on them all. They received the Spirit on behalf of people everywhere. Peter looking at John saw the fire, felt the Holy wind, and realized John was seeing it on Peter too. The Spirit drove them out into the streets of Jerusalem. They were given words of foreign languages spontaneously- they were bursting in enthusiasm, speaking to Jews from all over the known world. Each was telling the wonderful work of God in raising Jesus. It’s very important to note: the people were not united in one tongue. Rather God’s Spirit confirmed their diversity. God loves it!

I’m convinced God’s original intent, to fill the earth with people who know God’s name, was confirmed once more on Pentecost. For God, the diversity of the many people God created is meant to be the decoration of humankind, not the seed of human division. The many colors, the ethnic traditions, the accents of the tongues from many different regions are rich embellishments. Our idiosyncrasies are the jewels in the crown of humanity. God spoke clearly, in exotic foreign tongues, through the mouths of simple Galilean fishermen- who had been transformed by the Spirit. God confirmed the news once again, “Go into all the world, be fruitful, tell the story of Jesus Christ, and let your own tongues glorify God to all the corners of the world.”

Now the challenge: how to make our diversity in Christ our power? Diversity itself doesn’t create power- it is unity in diversity that yields power. I believe God thrives on rich expressions of unity in diversity. When I served St. James the Less Church in Nashville, I was active in the Madison Ministerial Association. We struggled to attract ministers from all the denominations to the annual community observance at Thanksgiving and during the week of prayer for Christian unity. We couldn’t get the Church of Christ ministers to come. One year one of us said, “Let’s give up on them, save our breath, they’ll never participate.” The 7th Day Adventist minister quietly said, “We can’t stop trying. We need the people most different from us to complete our understanding of God. And they need us.” I asked him, “How did you come to this knowing?” He replied, “It’s all because of Pentecost- God wants all the diverse people of the world to be filled with God’s spirit, so they can love God and love neighbor as self.” Wow. The Holy Spirit is the unifying clasp on the cloak of faith. That’s the message of Pentecost. There’s a name for that miracle of cohesion against the odds. A name for the world-filling body of Spirit-led people. We call it Church. It is the world’s hope. God rejoices that the Church seeks the Spirit in all things, in all places, bridging the differences that clump us all together and make us fear one another. May the Spirit lead us into God’s world in love, that the whole earth may be filled with the giddy joy of resurrection hope.