"Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. And they said to one another, 'Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.' And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. Then they said, '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 whole earth.' The Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built. And the Lord said, 'Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down, and 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. Therefore, it was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth."
"When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, 'Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? ... in our own languages we hear them speaking about God's deeds of power.'
Acts 2:1-5, 7 & 11
Two contrasting biblical passages: the second often being quoted as resolving the issues and disputes brought about by the first. On one level, the account in Acts points to the universal message of the gospel, a consistent theme in Luke's writings. The many followers of the Jewish faith who were in Jerusalem, came from different cultures, backgrounds and nationalities: they conversed in different languages. They all heard the leaders of the early church saying something that resonated with them and their understanding of the God they worshipped in common. One of the themes running through the life of the Methodist Church in recent years has been "Challenging Conversations – Living with Contradictory Convictions" – more details here.
As we approach the Day of Pentecost again, I have been reflecting on the language that we use to speak of God and the many ways that are now used to share the gospel. There is an awesome variety of what it means to be a church; of styles of worship; of the use of imagery; of different languages and expressions to encourage as many people as possible to come into a relationship with the God of love through Christ who died for all humanity. Despite the passage from Acts, which I have quoted above, it still surprises me that the underlying truth of the gospel is heard, understood and lived out in so many different ways across the world. And yet, at times, we seem to want to retreat back to the time of Genesis, when apparently there was only one way of communicating and humanity began to think they could compete with God. So, according to the writer of this part of Genesis, God intervened and created diversity and a richness in humanity. One inference from this could then be that, if humanity is to come together in all the fullness that God longs for, in the wholeness of the relationships that God created with us in mind, we have to bring the diversity and richness together that we may learn from each other. Not in an attempt to compete with God, but in humility and grace that we may learn more and more of the God who is Love.
The Quakers have a challenging paragraph on this possibility in their "Advices and Queries":
"Do you respect that of God in everyone though it may be expressed in unfamiliar ways or be difficult to discern? Each of us has a particular experience of God and each must find the way to be true to it. When words are strange or disturbing to you, try to sense where they come from and what has nourished the lives of others. Listen patiently and seek the truth which other people's opinions may contain for you. Avoid hurtful criticism and provocative language. Do not allow the strength of your convictions to betray you into making statements or allegations that are unfair or untrue. Think it possible that you may be mistaken."
Advices and Queries 17 (Society of Friends)
The language that the travellers and residents of Jerusalem heard from the disciples and in Peter's sermon was challenging indeed, but from it grew the first Christian communities in which, as Paul writes:
"...the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptised into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham's offspring, heirs according to the promise."
May our celebration of Pentecost be a reminder of the coming of the Holy Spirit to a small group of people, who then shared the good news of a risen Saviour with others in a language they could understand. May we, too, be touched again by the Holy Spirit to share the inclusive love of God with those around us in the language of their context and circumstances.