There's no better place to start a study of the Book of Acts than the account of Pentecost. Now, this is a moment we often identity as the birth of the church, that moment when God's blessings poured down upon us and the church tasted God's goodness.
But what happened that momentous day, and what does it all mean for us today? The story of Pentecost makes us wonder about a different world. Wouldn't life be easier if we were all the same? If we all spoke the same language, wouldn't we avoid so many of the conflicts and rifts that destroy our relationships? If we all shared a common culture, wouldn't we all be much better off?
I want to propose today that there are a number of problems with this line of questions. Initially, the question isn't as honest as it should be. The real question we ought to pose is: "Wouldn't life be easier if we were all just like me?" After all, that is so often what we really hope for. Too often, Christians have hoped for a time when our differences would cease, when in Christ we would all be indistinguishable. Such impulses are earnest but fundamentally misguided.
Many such interpretations emerge from a fervent hope that the specters of racism, sexism, and myriad other destructive "isms" would no longer bind us to cycles of violence and hate. Such interpretations imagine that becoming Christians means becoming all the same in all ways. But, nothing could be further from the truth.
Our adoption as children of God does not erase our differences. Instead, that adoption erases the need to claim superiority or inferiority based on these markers of identity. We are not the same, but we are reminded that our differences are not ways to measure our value in the eyes of God or in the eyes of one another.
The story of Pentecost in Acts Chapter 2 helps us understand how God sees our differences. Simply put, diversity is one of God's greatest gifts to the world. At Pentecost, God through the Spirit does not erase our differences but embraces the fact that God has made us all so wonderfully different.
First, a quick recap. The final chapters of the Gospel of Luke and the first chapters of Acts find the disciples and other followers of Jesus regrouping and discerning what a life of faith together looks like after Jesus' death, resurrection, and ascension. And, both at the end of the Gospel of Luke and again at the beginning of Acts, Jesus promises that he would grant this gathered community with the gift of the Spirit.
And that gift arrives in grand style. These early followers of Jesus gather in Jerusalem along with fellow Jews from around the Mediterranean world. They are gathered together in one place when suddenly tongues of fire descend from the heavens on the day of Pentecost. The gift of the spirit precipitates an extraordinary event. As the disciples proclaim the good news, everyone hears the good news proclaimed in their own language.
What might this all mean? After all, I don't remember the last time I was able to speak another language without a great deal of study and effort along with more mistakes than I can count. Speaking a new language always involves more than a few moments of embarrassment. And yet, none of that is narrated here. What then might this all mean?
Many interpreters have viewed this Pentecost moment as a direct response to the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11. That's a fantastic story that seeks to explain how a people once united by common ancestors eventually became peoples with many different languages. Some have forwarded that Pentecost reverses the punishment God meted out at Babel. Finally, we can understand one another because the Spirit enables all to understand one language.
But to me, this is a significant misreading of Babel. Is it really a punishment from God that we are all different, that we speak different languages and live in different cultures? That is, is difference a problem in need of a solution? I certainly don't think so, and the vibrancy of the world's cultures is evidence against the misreading of Babel.
Most importantly, if Pentecost were a reversal of Babel, if Pentecost undid the diversity of human languages precipitated by Babel, why would the Spirit enable everyone to hear the gospel preached in their own languages? Why not cause everyone to understand one, universal, heavenly language? Perhaps because Acts does not understand Babel to be a punishment God inflicted upon us. Perhaps because Acts understands Babel as an expression of God's greatest hopes for all of humankind, not a punishment. Perhaps because Acts understands God's commitment to our differences.
So, notice what happens at Pentecost. God, through the Spirit, chooses to meet us where we are: in the midst of a multitude of languages and experiences. The Spirit translates the gospel instantly into myriad languages. And if you think this is easy, then you have never tried learning a new language! You don't just substitute one word in one language for a corresponding word in another language. Language, as we know, is messy and it's intricate. Language is rooted in a wider and complex culture and way of thinking and living. Even when we speak the same language, don't we still have a hard time understanding one another? Imagine then the miracle of Pentecost and what it means for us today.
God meets us in the messiness of different languages and does not asks us to speak God's language. Instead, God chooses to speak our many languages. God does not speak in a divine language beyond our comprehension. At Pentecost, God speaks in Aramaic and in Greek and other ancient languages. And today, God continues to speak in Spanish and Greek and Hindi and Chinese alike.
At Pentecost, God makes God's choice clear. God joins us in the midst of the messiness and the difficulties of speaking different languages, eating different foods, and living in different cultures, and that is good news.
So, what would it mean for a church to be Pentecostal in this way? Well, first, like those early disciples, we might be accused of being drunks, but that's okay, I guess. That puts us in good company with the first Christians and even Jesus himself! But, more seriously, we might find ourselves surrounded by people and languages we don't understand; but we will also know that what sounds like babbling to us, that's sweet music in God's ears.
But most important is that such a church will open its doors and its people will open their arms as widely as possible. That church will seek out all kinds of people and not require them to become like us. That church will recognize that without "those" people we cannot be God's people. That church will take a risk, but a risk worth taking, a risk God has called us to embrace. And last of all, that church just might be changed by God at its core. And that would be the greatest gift of all.
Let us pray.
God, we are a people in need of a miracle. Ours is a world riven by division and injustice, but you, God, have shown us a different path. Lead us on the paths of understanding and love. Forgive us when we declare the differences you have created a curse. Teach us to cherish our differences as precious gifts. Amen.