PENTECOST SUNDAY | Gen. 11:1-9; Acts 2:1-21
A Global Speech Impediment
by Jeremy Berg
Can you imagine Facebook or Twitter without disagreement or conflicting viewpoints? Can you imagine a world without political division? Can you imagine a world united by one language and motivated by one grand purpose?
We live in a cultural moment of unprecedented division. Some have said our nation hasn’t been this divided since the Civil War. There’s nothing “civil” about war, and “incivility” in our public discourse is one of the main symptoms (and causes) of our growing hostility toward “the other.”
This week’s common lectionary invites us to dig into the meaning of Pentecost Sunday, one of the major events in the Christian calendar. The texts center around the role of language and speech in the human drama beginning with Genesis 11:
Now the whole earth had one language and the same words… And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” …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…” (Gen. 11:1-4)
The story begins with a human race totally united by common language and, sadly, a common purpose to defy God’s lordship and “make a name” for ourselves rather than make God’s name great. This episode ends with a world divided into many languages and scattered abroad.
Divided languages soon leads to divided nations and warring tribes, racial and ethnic prejudice, and a long sad history of “othering” people who appear different from us and who we don’t understand.
We can draw a direct line from Babel’s demise to our inability to communicate in healthy, constructive ways today. We have a global and national speech impediment. In Paul Newman’s famous words, “What we have here is a failure to communicate.”
We need the national equivalent of a marriage counseling session to learn some basic communication skills. I think the solution will require more than using “I statements” and practicing “active listening” skills (though that’s a start).
We need to learn a whole new language.
The Good News is that God initiated the counseling session, refused to throw in the towel on His covenant relationship with his human image-bearers. Jesus came to teach us the new language of Love. “The Word became flesh…made his home among us…full of grace and truth.”
Now, instead of fashioning bricks into sky-scraper monuments to our own egos, God is fashioning human hearts into a new Temple for his Spirit to dwell. The church is this edifice, and we are the New Humanity learning to speak the sweet and lovely dialects of love, peace, patience, kindness, forgiveness, grace, mercy and reconciliation.
This Temple isn’t built by high-reaching acts of the human ego, but by lowering ourselves in humble service to all the “others” out there we tend to avoid, misunderstand, fear, and are tempted to write off. Jesus taught and embodied this new language of Love that can begin to heal a divided world.
This New Humanity was born at Pentecost, when people scattered across the world and divided by languages, suddenly began to understand one another again. In Acts 2 we read:
Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.” (Acts 2:7-8, 12-13)
“How is it that we can understand each other suddenly?” the believers ask. Answer: They’ve been filled with the Spirit who breaks down barriers and opens hearts to finally hear “the other.”
“What does this mean?” the believers wonder. Answer: Just imagine how amazed and perplexed people in our world be if they saw a community of diverse people learning to speak the truth in love, uniting in a New Project of bringing about a more loving and grace-filled world? That’s what I want our church to be busy about.
Are we filled with the Spirit, or New Wine Jesus talked about? The watching world will know if we are Christians by our Love. Just like the Pentecost event, there’s still a lot of sneering going on by those yet to experience a truly loving, Jesus-shaped church.
So, let Love be our common tongue and let’s keep building up His Temple by inviting more and more hearts become part of the project!
“You also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood…” (1 Peter 2:5 NIV)