A sermon on the Day of Pentecost at the Church of the Epiphany, Euclid, Ohio
The church sometimes refers to the time “before the Holy Spirit came,” which is a nonsense, when you think of it, since the Spirit has been present since before the birth of creation, brooding over the waters of the uncreated deep. She breathed life into the nostrils of the first human animals, according to the old stories. She has never been far from us.
The trick is to catch sight of the movement of her wings, to hear the vibrations that she creates, the rush of air, the breath of heaven.
We are often, in this day and age, and in this demographic, and in this denomination of the church of Christ a little frightened of the possibilities and permutations of the Holy Spirit. We do not trust her power not to overwhelm us. We do not trust ourselves to resist her, should she ask of us something outrageous, like preaching the gospel, like laying down our lives for the one in whom we profess to have faith, like opening ourselves to the mockery of the crowd, our peers, the worldly ones; because that is what happened to the apostles on Pentecost.
Actually, it was not only the apostles, but all of Christ’s disciples who were filled with the Spirit and drunk on her heady intervention. So who are we to hold back?
The story of the Babel tower in Genesis is part of the prehistory of the first several chapters: myths and legends from the mists of time, seeking to understand and illustrate our preexisting condition of dependence upon the love and mercy of God. It is clearly on a par with other ancient folk tales that seek to explain how the human race learned to make tools, and bricks for building, and language. It is a story that understands our origins in beings that we would struggle to recognize as human – with few words and little diversity of language; who were only just discovering the means to build beyond the capability of other animals. It is always astonishing to realize how instinctively our ancestors grasped the evolutionary concepts which it has taken us centuries to rediscover.
Anyway, the authors of this story in the Bible understood that it said something not only about our relationship to creation and time, but to our Creator and the eternal Spirit that continues to draw us together however diligently we divide ourselves by language, tribe, and nation. They explained that the reason we were scattered was that in our pride, and in our fear, we, in the form of our ancestors, decided that the only way for us to grow stronger was to contend with God in God’s own domain, and to build such a fortress as could reach out and contain God’s power.
Control issues are so often rooted in fear. Our ancestors were afraid to be a little less than gods, and so they fell away from loving God, and in turn were divided from their neighbour.
I sympathize: I do not like relinquishing control. Once, at college, I attended a Christian Union event in which we prayed for the anointing of the Holy Spirit, and I guess my prayers were answered, because I found myself reduced to a weeping wreck. I felt within me my defences dissolve, and the barriers to mercy and embrace that I had, in good faith, erected swept away. I will be honest; I would prefer for that not to happen again. I might even prefer martyrdom.
The experience was, however, cleansing for me. It helped to wash away the shame that came with hiding the grief I had built up through that day. It opened my heart to the tears of others. It spoke in a universal language to those around me – they did not need to know me, my story, my family, to recognize what my tears were saying. In other words, the Holy Spirit did her work as the universal translator, healer, caller.
The disciples who received the anointing of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost found themselves opened up to their own experience of Jesus, of death and of resurrection. They found themselves wide open to the understanding and the misunderstanding of others. They found themselves impelled and compelled to share the gospel, the prophecy, the truth that God is with us, that God speaks our language, that God will not leave us alone. That the way of love alone is viable.
We like to say that we live in the most divided times we can remember or imagine. Imagine being at the construction site around the tower at Babel, and in a moment to be divided from your neighbour, your son, your cousin whom you have known all your life, by a sudden change in language, in intonation. We are not the first to suffer this impediment.
Imagine gathering around the City of David, waiting to enter the Temple on the Feast of Weeks, Pentecost, and hearing of a sudden that clarion call of the Holy Spirit: the gospel of Jesus Christ, the hope of the world and the grace of salvation offered through the way of the Cross, of death and resurrection, of the rejection of the limitations and liabilities of this world and its empires. Would we be among those awestruck and leaning in – “They speak in my language” – or would we stand with those descendants of the Babel crowd, protecting ourselves from the Holy Spirit, saying, “Go home. They’re drunk.”
The language of the people building Babel was limited. In the RSV, it says, they had few words. They spoke in the slogans that they had inherited and they did not explore nuance nor wait for gray areas to develop in the darkroom. But the Holy Spirit, who brooded over the waters before creation began, has every good idea imaginable in her vocabulary, if we will only hear her.
It is frightening, laying ourselves open to ideas beyond our experience. It is exhilarating, though, to learn another language, to communicate beyond borders, to be understood and to understand as though we were made in one image, descended from one ancestor; as though we were one family, with God as our Mother and our Father.
The people of Babel wanted to control the Holy Spirit and claim the knowledge of God for themselves. The disciples of Jesus were pretty well schooled in the concept that God works outside of our constructions, having witnessed Jesus’ Incarnation, Crucifixion, Resurrection, and Ascension. The choice that we have inherited is whether to work without or even against the Spirit, risking division, disruption, decay; or with the Spirit, risking mockery, madness, mayhem, in the name of the reign of God that restores our unity in the image of God. The choice is still ours.
We are often, in this day and age, and in this demographic, and in this denomination of the church of Christ a little frightened of the possibilities and permutations of the Holy Spirit. We do not trust her power not to overwhelm us. We do not trust ourselves to resist her, should she ask of us something outrageous, like preaching the gospel, like laying down our lives for the one in whom we profess to have faith, like weeping openly in mixed company.
Yet Jesus told his disciples, Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”
The story of Pentecost is paired with Babel in our Bible readings because when the lives we thought we were building fall apart, it is the Holy Spirit, our comforter and advocate, who can interpret for us and show us the way forward.
The choice is still ours, but I invite us to take a minute or two, on this her festival day, to pray for the visitation of the Holy Spirit, to do what she may, because she has been with us since creation began. Without her, we have no idea how to build our future. With her, anything is possible.
Come, Holy Spirit. …
I am currently reading The Holy Spirit & Preaching, by James Forbes (Abingdon Press, 1989)