“Now the whole earth had one language and the same words,” the story begins. That sounds intriguing to me. I could fly to China without wondering how to say Hello, Thank You, or Goodbye. Secretary of State Kerry could sit down with President Putin to talk about Syria, and there wouldn’t be a need for a translator. Every poem, every song and novel would have one global audience. Instead of some 6,900 languages spoken in the world there would be just one with countless regional and local accents. Men and women would probably still speak different languages occasionally, as would parents and teenagers, despite using the same words, but overall the potential for misunderstandings would be much reduced, one would expect.
But I wonder, what would happen to the great variety of human experiences around the globe if all of them had to be squeezed into a single idiom?You and I could perhaps come up with 5-7 words for frozen precipitation, snow, ice, slush, sleet, hail, and such, but boys and girls living near the arctic circle probably know something like twenty words for frozen water before they enter first grade. I imagine that a woman from the jungles of Brasil has many more ways to speak of shades of green in foliage than a man from the Arabian desert – but when he talks about the joy of seeing an oasis on the horizon after days of travel under the sun, she will have to listen very carefully to grasp what the horizon might be and to connect to the depth of an experience so far removed from her own.
Now the whole earth had one language and the same words – doesn’t that suggest a very homogeneous world, and a very small one?
Our story from Genesis shows little enthusiasm for the possibilities of one language. People migrated from the east and came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. “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 earth.” One people, one language, one city, one name. “A tower with its top in the heavens” sounds ambitious, as does “let us make a name for ourselves,” but this ambition is out of tune with God’s will and desire. God doesn’t want us to live in small worlds of our own making, but on God’s earth.
Even a casual glimpse at God’s creation shows us that monoculture is a foreign concept to life – and human life is no exception. Small worlds of one people of one language, living in one city, with one name, that is how most of us become familiar with life in community, but it doesn’t end there. Monoculture is not God’s vision for humanity.
The first part of the story is all about us and how we use our best skills to build communities that give us a sense of belonging and accomplishment. The second part of the story is about God looking at what mortals have built. “Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do.” This is only the beginning. Human culture that is not in tune with divine purposes threatens the communion of life God desires. What does God do? Like a guerilla gardener who throws hand-fulls of wildflower seeds into the bland sameness of suburban lawns, God introduces linguistic diversity, saying, “Let us 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. It wasn’t the city God had in mind.
We have long listened to this story as the curse of Babel, as though it was a story of tragic failure, a story of the loss of the unity God intended for creation; we have long listened to this story imaginining that the fantastic variety of cultures we see in the world is at best a necessary evil rather than a reflection of God’s delight in creating countless colours, shapes, and sounds. But isn’t it a blessing of mercy that God intervenes creatively to keep our dreams of unity from turning into totalitarian nightmares of sameness? Isn’t it a blessing that God counters our desire for homogeneity with the songs and stories of thousands of tongues from all over the face of the earth?
God has a different kind of city in mind. In the chapter following the story of the linguistic revolution of Babel, God speaks to Abram and tells him to become a stranger in a foreign land, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.”
The story of Babel begins with the human project of unity and greatness, “Come, let us make a name for ourselves.” And Abram’s call to a life of faith is the beginning of God’s project of unity after Babel.
Today we celebrate Pentecost, and Pentecost is all about the kind of city God has in mind. Jesus had told the disciples to stay in the city and to wait to be clothed with power from on high. They stayed and they waited, although they weren’t exactly sure what it was they were waiting for. Power from on high? How would they know the moment had come? Would they suddenly feel holier than usual? Would it tickle? Would it hurt?
And then it happened – but how do you describe what happens when God is in the house? What language do you borrow to talk about the moment when a group of timid Jesus-followers become witnesses of the risen Lord, become men and women with a testimony of life? Luke writes of a sound like the rush of a violent wind, filling the house, and of tongues, as of fire, everywhere, and resting on each of them. Something like wind, like fire, something powerful and beyond control. Not a word about how they felt when they were filled, only about what came pouring out of them: testimony about God’s deeds of power, testimony in every language spoken in all the cities of the world. People from as far away as Mesopotamia and Rome heard them speak in their own native language.
It was a festival day, Jerusalem was already humming with the songs and stories of God who gave the torah at Sinai and made a covenant with Israel, and amid those happy sounds the disciples began to talk about Jesus whom God had raised from the dead. They spoke of the righteous one who died for love, for us; and they spoke in ways the whole world could understand. Luke mentions about fifteen different ethnic groups and languages, representing the entire known world of his first readers. But the story of Pentecost is not about a group of Galileans receiving the gift to speak fifteen languages, nor about what a great foreign language teacher the Holy Spirit is. What we celebrate today is the miracle of communication that translates the good news of Jesus across barriers of language, custom, and culture. What we celebrate on Pentecost is the power of the Holy Spirit to transcend our differences without eliminating them.
This is not about one people, one language, one city, one name – not in the way we imagined it, anyway. We celebrate the gift of the Spirit who creates unity without coercive sameness.
We celebrate the Spirit who gives us a vision and foretaste of one humanity where we no longer desire to make a name for ourselves because we all know ourselves and each other as God’s own. We no longer need to make a name for ourselves because the name of Christ has been written on our hearts.
Pentecost is not the anniversary of something that happened centuries ago in Jerusalem, though. Pentecost is what began when God looked at Babel and mercifully said, “No, not like that.”
Pentecost continues whenever and wherever God inspires men and women, young and old to participate in the mission of Jesus Christ as ambassadors of reconciliation and messengers of peace. Pentecost continues whenever and wherever young people have visions of a city of righteousness, and old people still dream dreams about love transforming all things. Pentecost continues whenever and wherever we hear the call to leave country, kindred, and father’s house for the sake of the city where all our differences no longer divide us but are recognized as manifestations of the glory of God.
Pentecost is God’s city project that began after Babel. It is a city where grace is spoken in ten thousand dialects and community is gated no more. It is a city of songs where praise is every creature’s native tongue. It is a city that is, in the words of John, home to a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people, and language. It is a city whose gates are never closed and where, at last, God is at home.