Sermon, Day of Pentecost, Year C | RCL
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Unity in the Spirit
Have you seen pictures of the stepped pyramids of the ancient world? They were
public platforms used as places of worship. Similar towers were used for sacrificial
worship both in Old World in places like Babylon and in the New World in ancient
Mexico. The great tower at Babylon, the ziggurat of the Marduk temple was probably
the inspiration for the idea of the tower in the story of the Tower of Babel.
Babel was the Hebrew name for Babylon. We think of Babel as like "babble" because
of the confusion of many voices which occurred there. The name Babel was used
in a play on words in the Hebrew language, in which `balal' meant confusion.
But there was a real place in what the story describes as the land of Shinar.
It was the plain of the Tigress and Euphrates rivers, the country of ancient
Babylonia, where the present day country of Iraq is located. That is in the
general region from which the Hebrew people came into Canaan, undoubtedly carrying
with them many stories from those ancient civilizations of the period around
1500 BC, stories like the Tower or the story of the Flood that has parallels
in similar stories which are preserved in the literature of the old civilizations
from which people like Abraham set out for another land.
The meaning of the Tower
We have received in the Tower of Babel a very ancient mythical or symbolic
story. Well, you might ask, so what? What can a myth from an old civilization
so long ago possibly have to do with us today? Yet, if you accept its
meaning, it can have a great deal of significance because it arises out of the
universal human desire for unity and communion with God. Just as people today
seek to find ways of overcoming human divisions and holding different people,
we might say multi-cultural people, together, so they aimed to build human community
by creating a strong family or national identity, by making a name for themselves.
That is a worthy motive, is it not? Leaders of nations and communities in all
ages have sought to do something similar. But does not nationalism and strong
ambition, building up the prestige of one group of people, also pose a threat
to others? Just as in the book of Revelation at the end of the Bible, the name
Babylon stands for the power of human political achievement in the might of
the Roman Empire, so in the beginning of the Biblical period Babylon was the
ever present threat, the great city to the East which became for the people
of Israel the land of sorrow and exile. It was seen as the enemy which threatened
to dethrone God and scatter his people. So they came to recognize the destructive
effect of human pride, especially of national pride.
The pride of human self elevation, lifting ourselves up to be at least equal
with others and even with God, was the motive of the people who built the Tower
Why build a tower with its top in the heavens? So that they could raise themselves
up to be equal with God. It was the same kind of temptation that the serpent
offered to Eve in the Garden of Eden:
"You will be like God," he said. And it had the same results:
So in the simple symbolic story of the Tower, we read:
You might not think of God as coming down from heaven and walking around to
have a look at what his rebellious subjects are doing, like a jealous king,
or a works supervisor rather too concerned about his own position. By the time
of Jesus, people thought of God quite differently, much less in human terms.
The idea that people could actually compete with God had long been recognized
as impossible. The story of the Tower of Babel represents that great discovery:
when people tried to build community by making a name for themselves, by building
themselves up to be equal with God, they ended up in confusion, divided, no
longer able to understand each other and scattered across the face of the earth.
End of story! Or is it the end? Is that all we are to learn: the moral, don't
be so filled with pride that you trust in human achievement and not in God?
Is that all? It is a good moral to learn, but it is not the end of the story,
and just as well because we are not very good at keeping such moral laws. The
gospel offers more than that. The human dilemma of not being able by own efforts
to overcome our separation from God and from each other is solved for us by
God himself in the second part of the great story.
Pentecost: the opposite meaning
The second part of the story comes a thousand or so years after the first part.
The antidote to the poison of the tower of Babel is what happened to the followers
of Jesus when they were gathered together in the upper room at Jerusalem on
the Day of Pentecost. There, in spite of all their differences of language,
race and nationality, they began to understand one another.
Peter got up and said it was the fulfilment of a prophecy [Joel 2:28-32] about
the how God would pour out his Spirit upon all flesh ... not just a select few,
but all, young and old, men and women, slave and free. And that became their
experience as they shared the good news of God reaching out to all people in
the name of Jesus Christ. As Paul wrote later out of his missionary experience:
And as Peter himself discovered when he crossed the boundary which separated
the Jews and the Gentiles by bringing the Gospel to the Roman Cornelius and
So we have fulfilment of the human hope for unity through communion with God:
It is not necessary, after all, to climb up to God by our own achievements.
If we believe that he came down to us in Jesus Christ, then by that
faith we may be joined with him in the gift of the Holy Spirit, and enjoy the
unity that the Spirit gives.
There are a few traps in understanding this. I hope no one is too concerned
with the practicalities, to know just how it happened that people of different
languages understood each other. It is clear from the memory of the early church
that something dramatic happened. The fact that some said they were drunk suggests
that the 'tongues' they spoke were the kind of ecstatic utterance of which Paul
wrote (1 Cor. 14:1-33) and which required an interpreter. The same kind of ecstatic
speaking was seen as a sign that the Spirit had come upon Cornelius and his
family. Some people today regularly 'speak in tongues', when they make an incoherent
babbling sound, in prayer. It is quite possible that excitement spread among
the crowd in this way, but if so there must have been enough people from different
countries present who knew what it was about to explain what was happening in
the many languages of those present. If you find it necessary to rationalize
the experience it might be done along those lines. But such an explanation could
be too materialistic. There might have been some kind of psychic communication.
Shared experiences without words do happen. The point of the story is not how
it happened, but that it did happen.
The direct experience of the great outpouring of the Spirit on those who were
gathered in the upper room cannot be rationalized in materialistic terms. They
said they experienced something like a rushing mighty wind, and something
like flames of fire appeared among them; they were obviously struggling
to find ordinary words to describe an extraordinary experience. Something
from beyond this material world had entered their lives. It changed them and
the Christian community for ever. Indeed it changed the course of human history.
The new understanding which resulted from it was amazing to all present. It
is a clear reversal of the story of the Tower of Babel. That is the point of
it. Understanding one another in spite of our differences is a true sign of
the gift of the Spirit of God restoring unity in the human family.
Its meaning for us today
There are some other problems in the way the story might be heard today.
One misunderstanding comes from popular belief in a general spirituality in
which all humankind has a share. That is not what we a talking about, although
it is important to recognize a general search for spiritual meaning among all
sorts of people. It is perfectly true that people are spiritual beings and that
they are capable of spiritual communion in many ways. That makes it possible
for all people to receive the Spirit of God, but it does not guarantee that
they will. There are many other spirits, and spiritual games can be dangerous
games to play.
It is also true that the Holy Spirit is present in creation, as we read in
When the World Council of Churches met in Canberra in 1991, the theme of the
Assembly was, 'Come, Holy Spirit, renew the whole creation.' There is good reason
to seek renewal of creation and to work co-operatively with God in that renewal.
Movements like those which seek to preserve wilderness, though good in themselves,
can become a kind of religion with their own idols, but they do express a genuine
appreciation of the Spirit of God in creation. Indeed it is one the signs of
the coming of the Kingdom of God that creation is being renewed, but in the
end there is no Kingdom without the Messiah. The Holy Spirit was poured out
with great power as never before at the founding of the church when people were
gathered together in the name of Jesus. It is through his victory over
sin and death that gifts are poured out -- out of the great treasury when he
was raised on high [Ephesians 4:7,8]. The gift of Pentecost came only after
the life, death, resurrection and ascension of our Lord.
In these days of alternative spiritualities and many competing claims about
ways to know God, it is important not to be deceived into thinking that knowledge
of God the Holy Spirit, who is amongst us and within us, might be conjured up
in some way, magically, by going through the right procedures, applying some
sort of formula in what we say or the way we sit or think. It is not something
we achieve, either be looking up or by searching within ourselves, but a gift
which may be received from God by accepting his offer of communion with himself
as a free gift. It is not something that can be earned or achieved in any way,
even by doing spiritual exercises. That can be just another kind of manipulation.
Prayer is different from magic. True Christian meditation admits our complete
dependence upon God. It does not contrive to obtain benefits from God. It does
not manipulate. It desires the free gift of God's grace.
Another difficulty which comes with too easy talk about the Holy Spirit is
the threat of division resulting from individuals claiming to have their own
private insight into the will of God. Our relationship with God in the Spirit
is a personal one, but it is both personal and corporate. It should, as on the
Day of Pentecost relate us to others and never divide us from one another. The
fruit of the Spirit includes peace and love. A spirit that causes division is
not the Holy Spirit. As Paul said:
The gift of the Spirit is for people in community, so that we share in the
love that is shared between the persons of the Trinity: Father, Son and Holy
Spirit. We remember that fellowship when we say the grace as a blessing:
Nor, of course, is the peace that comes as a gift of the Spirit ever achieved
by making a name for ourselves. The unification of the human race through the
pursuit of human ambition, whether through building an empire, or cultural conformity,
or a market economy or any other grand scheme. That was what the Israelites
learned and passed on with the story of the Tower, but people do still persist
in building towers, both symbolically and actually. Big buildings, great towers,
are dreamed of for many cities as sign of achievement. What we need, though,
in not a landmark, to make a name for ourselves, but the Spirit of God. Then
people will know him as he is and will recognize each other as brothers and
sisters because they will know that they are children of God:
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