Genesis 11:1-9
Acts 2:1-21

Dr. Mark Achtemeier

Covenant Presbyterian Church
Madison, Wisconsin

June 12, 2011

Sometimes I think good communication is overrated. I knew an older couple some years back who had been seeing a marriage counselor to work on their communication skills. They did pretty well with it, and the day came when the husband managed to communicate to his wife exactly what he wanted her to hear. As a result she wound up chasing him around the house with an axe!

The story of the Tower of Babel that we heard this morning tells about a time when God needed to limit communications in order to keep the human sinfulness from turning history into a permanent and total disaster.

The people in the land of Shinar were ambitious. They set about building a city and a tower reaching up into the heavens, so that they might make a name for themselves. Even at the dawn of history fallen human beings dreamed of ruling over their neighbors. On the plain of Shinar there arises in primitive form the quest for domination that in every age since has left human history awash in the blood of innocents.

So the Lord confused their language and scattered them abroad over the face of the earth. The sinful will to dominate was left intact, but by a severe mercy of God the ambitions of every ruler aspiring to empire would henceforth be met by the countervailing ambitions of rival clans and tribes and nations. A balance of competing powers could limit the scope of oppression. And hope would be kept alive within human history.

The church in its engagement with society has sometimes forgotten the harsh mercy which the Babel story illumines. Around the turn of the 20th century the churches in our country were deeply concerned about the terrible exploitation of factory workers by out-of-control industrial development. For many years Christians worked to convert the business owners and upper level managers to the faith, on the theory that following Jesus would motivate them to show a greater degree of compassion toward their workers, resulting in higher wages and better working conditions. The problem was that even the most committed Christian management was beholden to stockholders, and if stockholders discovered that profits were being diverted to raise the living standard of workers beyond what was necessary to keep them coming back to work, those managers would be speedily replaced.

Reinhold Niebuhr, a brilliant Christian theologian and social theorist, pointed out that corporations and other collective institutions were self-seeking by nature and extremely limited in their ability to act with compassion or Christian charity.[1] Rather trying to persuade management to act with Christian compassion, Niebuhr sought to harness that balance of competing powers to which the Babel story points. The way to secure justice for workers, he argued, was to oppose the sinful self-interest of corporations with a countervailing self-interest of organized labor. The key to better working conditions for laborers wasn’t a more Christian board of directors, but a strong union that could oppose the managerial monopoly on power. God confuses the languages at Babel and divides human beings into separated tribes and nations. God creates a tragic but necessary rupture in the fabric of human community, in order to secure the possibility of justice in a world populated by self-interested sinners.

Which brings us to the birth of the church at Pentecost. God pours out the Holy Spirit not just on the isolated prophet or religious leader as before, but upon all flesh—upon the whole body of Christ’s church. The rush of a mighty wind is heard, tongues of fire descend upon the gathered disciples, and they stagger out into the daylight like drunken men, filled with the Spirit and speaking in tongues.

It’s an event which makes staid and sober Presbyterians nervous. There is a famous inscription on the tomb of the Countess Huntington outside Winchester England which reads,

“She was a Godly, righteous, and sober Lady, bounteous in good works and Christian affections, a firm believer in the Gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, and devoid of the taint of enthusiasm.”

Perhaps we, too, are a little bit leery of the religious ‘enthusiasm’ that attends the Pentecost event. I’ve seen a lot of Pentecost bulletins of Presbyterian churches over the years, and not once have I run across a time in the service devoted to speaking in tongues!

It is quite remarkable what a large portion of the Acts report is devoted to this phenomenon, but it is also worth attending how much this account differs from the speaking in unknown tongues which characterizes some peoples’ worship services these days. The tongues in the Book of Acts are not unknown! The Apostles wind up speaking in languages that are known and recognizable to the multi-national crowd of bystanders. St. Luke gives us quite a remarkable catalog of all the different nationalities who heard Peter and the others proclaiming the Gospel in their native tongues.

With this outpouring of the Spirit, God provides a sign to help us understand the significance of the church that is coming into being. The Spirit reverses the confusion of tongues that took place at Babel, and the language barrier crumbles. A reclamation is underway, restoring people to a state where human divisions are no longer a tragic necessity required to hold the power of sin in check. A new unity becomes possible across tribes and nations and languages and peoples. The Spirit descends and a new world dawns.

This kind of reclamation involves the deepest healing of human hearts, one which overcomes the sinful self-seeking that for so long has been the order of the day. John’s Gospel records for us Jesus’ own explanation of what the coming Holy Spirit would do:

I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me… On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.[2]

The Holy Spirit mediates Jesus’ presence to us in a whole new way. This mysterious process unites us with Christ, so that Jesus’ own knowledge and trust in God starts to mingle with our faith, and Jesus’ own love begins to bubble up inside our hearts. This is a presence that is deeper and more intimate and more powerful than even the disciples experienced as they walked with Jesus in his earthly ministry. Not Christ with us, but Christ in us: “You will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.

That presence of Jesus’ own self-giving love in our hearts makes it possible again for a multitude of different human beings to come together in a single community without our oneness becoming the vehicle for sinful domination of others. A new kind of human community becomes possible when the Holy Spirit descends upon the church.

Paul gives testimony to this miracle as he talks about the church in his letter to the Galatian Christians:

There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.[3]

The deepest divisions of race and economic class and gender crumble when the Holy Spirit draws us into union with Christ. God’s reclamation of a divided humanity appears visibly in the life of the church.

This is not some fairy tale theory; we can see it happening close to home in the life of this congregation as well as in the wider church.

Look around you at these brothers and sisters who are here with you in worship this morning. You may not have recognized it, but the persistence of the gathered church is a miracle of the Holy Spirit. Anyone who has hung around the life of a worshipping congregation for any period of time knows that where different people are gathered together, you will inevitable find differences of opinion about things. And where there are differences of opinion, it is almost inevitable that there will be bruised egos and hurt feelings from time to time. And the fact that you are still here, together, on this particular Sunday is testimony to the working of the Spirit, filling hearts with Jesus’ own self-giving love and sowing seeds of forgiveness and forbearance and mutual affection. If the Spirit were not at work here, this church would long since have shattered into a hundred grumpy fragments!

At Pentecost, God rolls back the divided languages of Babel so you and I will know the power which the Spirit gives the church to be a community of reconciliation in a divided world.

This power is desperately needed. We human beings are such tribal creatures. I think our evolutionary past has hard-wired us to just naturally divide the world up into “us” and “them.” On the one hand there is the home tribe of people just like us with whom we feel comfortable and secure, and on the other there is the group of hostile “others” whom we view with suspicion and strive to exclude. It takes a divine miracle to overcome this “us vs. them” mindset that we fall into so readily.

It’s possible to resist or reject the miracle. Our churches are not immune from these tribal instincts, and indeed our Presbyterian denomination has expended a great deal of energy in recent years dealing with the competing claims of opposing tribes of church members as they have jockeyed for political power and influence on the question of gay and lesbian ordination.

Yet thanks be to God, this past spring a majority of the tribes laid down their weapons. Across our denomination brothers and sisters in faith stepped back from playing king of the hill with our church’s constitution and replaced a deeply partisan prohibition of gay ordination with a statement of devotion to Christ that we can all affirm together. God’s Spirit is overcoming the tribal divisions that emerged way back at the tower of Babel. We can see it happening in our own church.

Our national life is also deeply marked by political and cultural and religious divisions. The Babel story points to barriers of miscommunication and failed understanding that are everywhere visible in our national life. Our tribal instincts take over, and political parties sacrifice a quest for the common good in favor of partisan one-upmanship. Religious minorities are objects of suspicion, and in the aftermath of
9-11, even the most peace-loving members of the Muslim community are treated with suspicion and prejudice and hostility.

In times such as these, we need the witness of the church to show our country that it is possible to reach our hands across these deep divides of race and ideology and religion, that a peaceful and united human community is possible, that even deep- seated differences can be overcome by the power of self-giving love.

The Holy Spirit has filled our hearts with Christ’s own love, and Jesus loved these other tribes enough to go to the cross for them. The democrats, the republicans, the Muslims, the immigrants, the politicians, the homeless, the obnoxious…and the people in Covenant Church who are just wrong about some stuff! Jesus laid down his life for every single one of these people, and the Holy Spirit unites us to him so that our hearts can fill up with his own self-giving love for them.

God is reclaiming your life and mine from the tragic divisions and fragmentations that have beset humanity since the dawn of history. He gives us hearts to love and brothers and sisters with whom to forge a common life. May God grant us eyes to see and hearts to embrace the miracle that is unfolding in our midst!

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Dr. Mark Achtemeier has served the PC(USA) since 1984 as a pastor, theologian, author and speaker.
He taught theology and ethics for 15 years at Dubuque Theological Seminary.

[1] See Reinhold Niebuhr, Moral Man and Immoral Society

[2] John 14:18-20

[3] Galatians 3:28


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