(Genesis 11:1-9, 1 John 4:1-6, Acts 2:1-21)
Today is Pentecost Sunday, the day on which we celebrate the gift of the Holy Spirit to the church. Some call it the birthday of the church, for it is the day on which the believers gathered together received the Holy Spirit and thus could embody the Spirit of God and be the Body of Christ in the world.
John 14 reports one of Jesus’ last conversations with his disciples, which he has during their Last Supper. He wants to prepare his disciples for the life they will soon be living, without him. Jesus promises them that he will send them the Holy Spirit. He states that the Holy Spirit lives with the disciples and will be in the disciples. The Holy Spirit will teach them all things and remind them of what Jesus has taught them. He urges them not to let their hearts be troubled and not to be afraid. They will not be orphans, for they will have with them and in them the Spirit of God, the Holy Spirit, to sustain them and to guide them.
After this conversation, events ensue quickly. Jesus is arrested, tried, convicted, crucified, resurrected, and ascended. After his ascension, the disciples are left to fend for themselves. They have been through quite a lot! Imagine what they have gone through, beginning with the procession into Jerusalem, with the crowds shouting, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna!”; to the growing conflict with the political and religious authorities; to the Last Supper, the arrest, the trial, the conviction, and the crucifixion; to the resurrection and the appearances; and to the ascension. Whew! They must have been exhausted – physically, emotionally, and spiritually! And, now, they have to function without Jesus. They have to carry on with The Way. They have to spread the Word. And they have to do all of this without their Lord and Savior.
So that’s what they do. They pull up their bootstraps and get to work, which is why they qre gathered together when the Holy Spirit arrives – and arrive it does! It arrives with noisy, blowing wind and tongues of fire that rest on each one present! They all begin speaking in other tongues as the Spirit gives them the ability. The arrival of the Holy Spirit causes such a ruckus that faithful Jews who are in Jerusalem for the Festival of Weeks (a Jewish religious festival) come to see what is going on. They each hear their own language being spoken by the disciples, which confuses and amazes them! How could this happen?
This could happen because the Holy Spirit is making it happen! The Holy Spirit is breaking down the barrier of language so that each one present could hear the wonders of God declared! No one is left out; all are included; and all can witness the glory of God! It is a miracle.
One of the essential things that the Pentecost story teaches us is that when the Holy Spirit is present, barriers between human beings break down. At Pentecost, there were people present from all over the known world, yet they could ALL understand what was being spoken.
The Tower of Babel scripture passage points out the magnitude of what took place. It tells of a time when the whole world had one language. Because they all had the same language and could understand each other, they could do great things together. They decided to build a city with a great tower that would reach into the heavens so that they could continue to live together and make a name for themselves.
God saw what they were doing and decided that they had become too powerful and too willful. He decided to confuse their language so they would not understand each other. And that is what he did. They no longer spoke the same language; they could no longer understand each other; they could no longer work together; so they scattered all over the Earth. Unity became diversity.
Now, why would God do that? He sounds petty or fearful or jealous in this story, like he doesn’t want human beings to surpass him in creativity. I think, however, that the issue was that the people didn’t seek God’s will before deciding to embark on a project. Instead, they were fulfilling their own desires. What was the rationale for building the city and tower? “We will make a name for ourselves.” We will glorify ourselves! Not, we will glorify God, but we will glorify ourselves! What is the first of the deadly sins? Pride! Here it is: unashamed, unabashed pride. I think that is why God confused their language and scattered them over the Earth.
So, why would God, at Pentecost, allow them to communicate as if they all had the same language? Why would God, through the Holy Spirit, give them this ability? Why would God break down the barrier he had created so long ago?
It was time. Jesus had come, and with him had come the possibility of the kingdom of God on Earth. What had Jesus said at the beginning of his ministry? “The kingdom of God is at hand.” He had proclaimed: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Lk 14:18-19). Jesus had come and inaugurated the kingdom of God on Earth through his ministry, crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension. He had come and done his work. The time had come to enable his disciples to follow in his footsteps. The time had come to give them the Holy Spirit, so that it could be in them and they could do God’s will. Inspired and led by the Holy Spirit, the disciples would not be willful. They would not be prideful. They would glorify God, not themselves. And, so, God broke down the language barrier. Diversity became unity.
Unity in the midst of diversity is a sign that the Holy Spirit is present. Barriers may be present, but they do not define us or how we relate to one another or what we do in the world. 1 John 4 urges us to test the spirits to see if they are from God. We may think the Holy Spirit is guiding us, but we may be guided by another spirit, one that is not from God. So we must test the spirits, to see if they are from God. If they are from God, they will guide us to love, for God is love. John states, “Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar” (1 Jn 4:20).
John also states, “Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God” (1 Jn 4:3). If we acknowledge that God in Jesus has come in the flesh to redeem us, then we acknowledge that all flesh in all times and in all places is worthy of redemption, because Jesus didn’t come only to save those who were alive when he was on Earth, but those who are alive at any time! We, who are his disciples and who have received the Holy Spirit, are to carry on with his work of redemption. That means that when people suffer here on Earth, we are to care enough to respond. If they suffer spiritually, we can offer spiritual sustenance. If they suffer emotionally, we can offer emotional sustenance. If they suffer physically, we can offer physical sustenance. John states: “[Jesus] has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister” (1 Jn 4:21).
Test the spirits: If they are telling us to build barriers that define who we are, how we relate to one another, and what we do in the world, they are not from God. If they are telling us not to respond to suffering in our time and place, they are not from God. If, however, they move us to love despite barriers and thus respond to suffering, they are from God. Unity in diversity is a sign of the Holy Spirit’s presence. It is the ultimate illustration of love, for love that loves only those who are like us is self-love; but love that loves the “other” is God-love.
Unity in diversity can occur on a small scale or on a large scale. We have an example of it on a small scale right here in our own church! We have in our congregation a member that doesn’t speak English: Nam Kim, who is a Korean immigrant. Nam speaks a little English, but not much. Even so, she chose our church to be her church and she became a member this past year. We are blessed by her presence. Every Sunday, she and I give each other a big hug and she prays for me in Korean while we are hugging. I don’t know what she is praying, but I feel her love of God and of me anyway. We cannot speak each other’s language, but that doesn’t stop us from loving each other. It makes communication more challenging, but it doesn’t stop the love! When there is something I have to communicate to her, I type it into the computer and then I use Google Translator to translate what I’ve typed into Korean. I print it out and hand it to her on Sunday. That is how I asked her if she wanted to become a member of our church. She said, “Yes!” All it took from me was a little more effort. Loving despite barriers, working toward unity in diversity, takes more effort, but it is a sign that we are being inspired and guided by the Holy Spirit.
Jesus has come and done his work. The Holy Spirit has come and inaugurated the church. The church lives in the world as the Body of Christ. We, as the Canton Community Baptist Church, are a part of the Body of Christ in our time and place. How is the Holy Spirit moving in our midst? If we feel moved by the Spirit, let us test the spirits to make sure they are from God. Let us respond to suffering and break down barriers. Let us be faithful and create unity in the midst of diversity. God is love, so let us be love. Amen.
Sermon preached by Rev. Amy Johnson at the Canton Community Baptist Church, Canton, CT, Sunday, May 15, 2016, Pentecost Sunday.