“Beginnings and Endings”
June 1, 2014, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup
I love home makeover shows. I love seeing the before and after, I love seeing how things come together, but my favorite part? The moment the family finds out that they are getting a home makeover.
In my favorite home makeover show, Extreme Makeover, Home Edition, we saw Ty Pennington and crew come running into the family’s life, bullhorn in hand. I loved watching how the family reacts, knowing that their lives are going to be changed. In several episodes, people have explained their reaction as a “weight being lifted.” Most people just screamed and jumped up and down.
This is not unlike what happens in our Pentecost narrative today. The Holy Spirit rolls into where the disciples are gathered and changes everything. The Spirit comes not with a bullhorn, but with a sound like rushing wind. In Greek, the word for Spirit can also be translated as breath, and in this Pentecost action, the Divine Breath is breathing into the assembly. This raw and electric energy ignites the people assembled, giving each the ability to be heard and understood by the others, even though each speaks a different language. The people are beside themselves, prophesying, dreaming dreams, and seeing visions.
When watching these makeover shows, it’s easy to get caught up in the emotion of the stories. The way we come to care about these people and their reactions is that these TV shows don’t just start out with showing up at someone’s door. We hear their story, many of all varieties of heartbreak and hardship. We hear specifically how getting a new home, one built to their needs, will make their lives better. We learn how a new home like this is not something they can build on their own.
The disciples too have had their own heartbreaks and hardships. These people have been following a man that they knew to be the messiah, Jesus of Nazareth, who gave them guidance, instruction, and purpose. When he died, they knew why, he died to save humankind from sin. However, this knowledge surely did not protect them from sadness at missing day to day breathing contact with this man.
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.
The builders of this city and tower were building not so that they might have a home that would meet their needs, but rather, that it might help them to “make a name for themselves.” They were trying to reach God, not for relationship or connection, but for dominance. And so God came into the story, and muddled their language so that they might not be so self-assured. They were scattered so that they could relearn how to be together.
Throughout the Biblical narratives, we discover that when the Trinity enters into the human narrative, it’s to restore balance. In Babel, what the people needed was humility and diversifying their language created that. It made them reevaluate, reconsider, regroup. It forced them to work more on their relationships than their conquests.
By the time we get to Acts 2, the people desire to understand one another, not for the sake of dominance, but for the sake of relationship. And so, to restore balance, the Holy Spirit enters in and allows the people to understand each other. Pentecost changes not the result of Babel, for we are blessed to be part of a diverse world, but rather it changes the impact of Babel. As the people were scattered following Babel they went out into the world forming their own communities, identities, and cultures. Now as they come together at Pentecost, though everyone is speaking in different languages, they are able to understand one another. They are able to relate within and through their diversity through the power of the Holy Spirit. Within this moment, the foundation of the Christian church as we know it today is established.
Pope John Paul II explained this well saying, “According to the text of Genesis 11, the builders of Babel had decided to build a city with a great tower whose top would reach the heavens. The sacred author sees in this project a foolish pride, which flows into division, disorder and lack of communication. On the day of Pentecost, on the other hand Jesus’ disciples do not want to climb arrogantly to the heavens but are humbly open to the gift that comes down from above. While in Babel the same language is spoken by all but they end up not understanding each other, on the day of Pentecost different languages are spoken, yet they are very clearly understood. This is a miracle of the Holy Spirit.”
There’s another thing that I can’t help but want to see on makeover shows, but that is not featured on too many of them: when they follow up a few months later. When a makeover show ends with someone receiving a home, achieving record weight loss, or now having the perfect wardrobe, we know that at this moment, things are good. At this moment there is hope of sustaining this transformation. However, months or years down the line, things might not be quite that way.
A child may have outgrown their highly thematic room, the doctor’s bills may be accumulating once again, the weight may be regained, or the cancer that had been in remission may come back.
In the Pentecost story in Acts, the Breath of all breath breathes into these disciples. The church is made alive by Pentecost fire. The people are linguistically reconnected to brothers and sisters separated by thousands of years of division. And now, 2000 years later, where are they now? By the grace of God and the work of millions of missionaries, the Gospel has been spread to nearly every country, and continues to be spread throughout communities around the world. Within the tradition of the Church we are the inheritors of hundreds of years of teachings and liturgy. A cloud of witnesses who have come before us surrounds us. But, with such gifts, also comes a history of deep division. Wars have been fought in the name of Christianity. Lines have been drawn for the sake of polity. The unity achieved by the Holy Spirit in Pentecost seems to have faded away. We are Pentecost people, but we are living like we are still suffering the consequences of Babel.
Galatians 3:26-29 tells us: “For in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.”
Jesus came to this world to end division, give us hope, and like those home makeover recipients, lift our burdens. On this Pentecost day, know that the Holy Spirit is still breathing in and through this community. God is still yearning to be present in all that we say and do. Amen.