…These people start out to build a tower that will reach up to heaven, so they can ‘make a name’ for themselves, so that it will scare people away and they won’t be, as they say, ‘scattered’. In its most primitive form, the story was probably about the Babylonian ziggurats, trying to enable people to climb up to heaven, where the gods are, and become gods themselves. But the Biblical author, the one we call ‘J’, is more subtle. He puts the story at this spot in the first book of the Bible, like many of the stories around it, to answer a question, in this case, ‘Why doesn’t everyone talk the same?’ Why are there so many languages in the world? A good question. He (or she) sees that the real danger for a people is as much from the inside as the outside. An enemy can attack and scatter them; but they are just as much at risk from what can happen in their internal politics – there can be division and dissension; they can scatter themselves just as effectively as an enemy; they can be their own worst enemies.
So they build a tower against the enemy without – but their success depends on keeping the enemy within at bay. The Lord sees it as he looks down on the project. ‘Look, they are one people, and they have one language – nothing that they imagine will be impossible for them’. Because they can talk to each other, they can do anything they set out to do. Doesn’t that just blow your mind? – that as long as people are at one with each other and all speak the same language, they can do, literally, anything. Even a word-person would have trouble exaggerating that kind of power. And since that’s something it’s dangerous to entrust to people as unreliable as the human race, the Lord messes it all up for them. He ‘confuses’ their language (the Hebrew word means ‘confused’ – that’s why we call it ‘babble’), so that they can’t talk to each other any more, and their worst fears are realized – they are ‘scattered’ over the earth, and that’s the end of that particular project of human pride….
Fast forward to the time of Jesus. Jesus has come and gone; his followers are convinced that he hasn’t really gone, since they have met him after his death and are expecting him to come back very soon to establish his Father’s reign on the earth. They have done, Luke says, what the people back there in Shinar were doing: they are at one with themselves. They live together, share all their possessions in common, spend their time worshipping, telling other people about Jesus, taking care of each other. They are not the least interested in making a name for themselves; but they do want to proclaim the name of Jesus to the whole world. And that’s a problem, because the world of the ancient Mediterranean was, after all, the world where all that confusion of languages took place. There was a sort of common language –a rather debased form of Greek that every-body knew a little of, like the English of today – and among Jews you could probably get away with Aramaic, a rather debased form of Hebrew – but you could hardly hope to master all the languages around that great sea, from the Latin of Rome to the hundreds of local dialects from Jerusalem west to Spain and back around North Africa to Egypt, east up into Iraq. The Lord did his work well!
But the job of the church is unity, not confusion. The job of the church is to get people to heaven not by way of bricks and stone, but by putting them, like those ancient people, in the way of one-ness with each other and with God. The job of the church is to proclaim the message of Jesus Christ dead and risen, teacher of the ways of God and mediator between God and us – and you can’t give the message if you can’t speak the language of the people you’re trying to get the message to. That’s what Pentecost is about. It started out as a festival celebrating the barley harvest, 50 days after the first sheaf of barley was offered up to God, then got attached to Passover; then it got to be a remembrance of the giving of the Law on Mt. Sinai ( in fire and wind up there, just like in the story today). It was a pilgrimage feast – that’s why all those people are in Jerusalem from all over the place. So it’s the perfect occasion for the bestowing of the Spirit that was in Jesus upon the church. Here is the church being faithful, doing what they think Jesus wanted them to do, ready to fulfill his mission – all they need is the power to do it, the power to call the whole world into unity with itself and God.
And so the Spirit comes with power, and the power is specifically the power of language – the power to speak and hear and be understood. What happened that day was some kind of ecstatic experience, and it might have included what the NT calls glossolalia, people speaking, as they say ‘in tongues’ like what St. Paul describes in his churches, like what modern ‘Pentecostal’ Christians experience , a language of prayer that no one else understands. Luke is probably as suspicious as Paul was about glossolalia – so when he is writing about it he makes sure to explain that that’s not what this was. The most important thing about this talk is that it is under-stood. The key thing about it is not the speaking, in fact, but the hearing: ‘How is it that we hear, each of us in our own native language?’ Luke is absolutely convinced that for the church to reach out to all the world, it has to be able to speak the world’s languages, and so this is the form that the ‘pouring out’ of God’s Spirit must take in this new age of the church.
And so here we are on this Pentecost 2016, in a society in which, apparently, nobody can talk to one another. We have no common language because we have no common anything else. We no longer have shared goals – the goals of one segment of our society are diametrically opposed to those of others. We have no common history any more – ‘history’ is now what any crackpot on TV says it is, whether it has any foundation in fact or not. “Give us back the Constitution’ is the rallying cry for people, half of whom have never read the Constitution, and most of whom have no idea how to understand its historical context if they did read it. (They read the Bible the same way, and use it in the same way, as a weapon, not a guide.)
Even science, the one truly universal language – like history, it is now whatever the loudest and latest crackpot says it is. In a time when we need the insights of science more than we ever did, with our very survival as a species on the line, half of our people and more than half of our legislators regard it as either evil or just negligible. When Katherine Jefferts Shori was elected our Presiding Bishop the Erie Times called to ask for my opinion on the election of a woman to this job. I said that I thought the most significant thing about her election wasn’t that she was a woman but that she was a biologist, a scientist, a witness that our church sees no conflict between science and Christian faith – but we are in a small minority in this nation that constantly tries to substitute crazy religion for even crazier science.
We have no common language even of faith. Those who think that their way is the only way to be Christian want nothing to do with the rest of us, and those who believe that being Christian entitles them to hate and persecute, are the loudest voices of all, certainly the most powerful in our politics. Bp. Katherine believed in continuing to talk to people, even when they don’t speak the same language. I’m not so optimistic. It seems to me that our problem is the problem of Pentecost, in spades: How do people who don’t speak the same language talk to each other? (Well, you know how they do it: they keep saying what they were going to say anyway, very loud, getting louder and madder the less they are understood. Doesn’t this describe most of our public ‘conversation’ today?) How can we bear witness to the risen Lord to a world in which language itself is now exactly what Babel made it out to be, an instrument of division, not unity? How can the Holy Spirit empower us to speak the ‘word’ of power, of compassion, of justice to a world whose other voices are so loud and so furious?
For a word-person the answer is disheartening: the possibilities of language itself in such a world are, I think, very small. In such a world the only ‘language’ we may be able to speak is that of action, not words, action in the power of the same Holy Spirit, but in the direction of Pentecost’s other emphasis: the power to do as Jesus did, to heal, to share, to empower, to forgive, to mend. As he says in John’s Gospel – ‘if you don’t believe what I say’ (and in today’s world it’s only smart to believe nothing anyone says that isn’t verified) – ‘if you don’t believe what I say, believe me because of what I do.’ And he promises that the power to do what he did is there for the asking in his name. In that power we may go forth to make ourselves understood, maybe with less confidence than the Pentecost church, but with no less determination. St. Francis told his brothers: ‘Preach the gospel – use words if necessary.’ In this time when words are indeed so necessary, but so problematical, maybe this is the advice for our Pentecost: preach the gospel in every way you can without words; live a life that will make people wonder where it gets its power, its generosity, its serenity; explain yourself as you are invited to do so – and then maybe you will help create a world in which words can again be spoken to draw people together instead of driving them apart, and the power of Pentecost will be revealed again.