June 9, 2019
Genesis 11:1-9; Psalm 104:25-35, 37B; Acts 2:1-21; John 14:8-17
I get regular news alerts and updates from the Anglican Journal, the Anglican Church of Canada's monthly newspaper, by email, but I also get the hard copy of the paper. I finally had a chance to read through the June issue the other day. In it, there is an article by Cynthia Haines-Turner. She is the Prolocutor of General Synod, which is the highest office in our church that is elected by the whole church – bishops, clergy and laity meeting in General Synod. (As an aside, whoever is chosen as the new Primate was nominated by the House of Bishops but will be elected by the clergy and laity – the bishops don’t have a vote in this.) I had a chance to meet Cynthia last weekend at the national conference of Anglican health care spiritual care practitioners. Cynthia was there as one of three listeners, and what a powerful and affirming presence she was. I encourage you to read Cynthia’s article in the Journal. It’s entitled “Finding Unity through the Spirit”. It’s a finely-crafted reflection on unity and diversity, based on two of our readings for today – the story of the Tower of Babel and the story of Pentecost as told in Acts, in light of the lead-up to the meeting of General Synod next month and the important decisions that will be made.
There’s a degree of mystery in the story of the tower of Babel as to why God decides to scatter the people and confuse their language. Certainly, it is a story about human pride and rebellion. The people want to build a tower to make a name for themselves. But the story of Abraham that follows this one reminds us that it is God who ultimately makes a name for people (Genesis 12:2). As Cynthia Haines-Turner comments, “if we are building a monument to our own achievements rather than building a relationship with God, our efforts will be confounded”. There’s a message for the church in this story. Are we focussed on survival, on maintaining our buildings, on maintaining our habitual ways of being church, or are we focussed on God’s mission and how we are called to participate in it? If we regard our buildings and traditions as a monument to our history and our heritage, our efforts will likely come to nothing.
There is a second kind of disobedience in the story of Babel. This story comes in the immediate aftermath of the stories of Noah and the flood. God tells Noah and his family to “fill the earth” (Genesis 9:1), and the story of Noah’s family concludes by telling us that from his descendants, “the nations spread abroad on the earth” (Genesis 10:32). But in our reading today, the people come across a plain in the land of Shinar and decide to settle there. The Hebrew verb has a connation of “to sit”. The people have stopped moving. They want to build a city and a tower because they are afraid of being scattered. Being scattered is typically a negative consequence of disobedience. Think of the exile – ironically back to Babylon. But notice that God does not destroy the city or the tower. It is not the building project that is the problem, so much as the reasons for building. God scatters the people and disrupts their language so that they will keep moving and even diversify. Diversity of languages and cultures is not a divine punishment or a problem in need of a divine solution. Today’s Psalm is a hymn of praise for the diversity of God’s creation. “O Lord, how manifold are your works!” The psalm celebrates “living things too many to number”. Diversity is something to be celebrated.
It’s only later in the tradition that the prophets look to a time when God will gather the people from the lands to which they have been scattered. However, it’s too simplistic to read the story of Pentecost in Acts as merely the reversal of the confusion of languages at Babel. For one thing, diversity is maintained. Those who hear the message on Pentecost hear it in their own language – some 15 different nations and languages are mentioned. And not just any languages. These are the languages of the “devout Jews from every nation under heaven” who are in Jerusalem for the pilgrim festival. Pentecost is one of three pilgrim festivals mandated in the Hebrew scriptures. It is a festival of the first fruits of the land. The people gathered are there to celebrate God’s gifts, unaware that another gift is about to be unleashed.
People hear the good news in their own language. The gospel message is intelligible; it speaks into the situation of those who are gathered. And it is given for those outside the community of Jesus. Here’s another message for the church. The gift of the Spirit is not primarily for those who are already inside the circle, but for those who are outside, those who are perhaps attracted by what they hear, those who are perhaps waiting to hear a word in a language they can understand. Are we willing and prepared to put the message of God’s great love into words and idioms that post-modern culture can grasp? Or will we cling to old methods and vocabulary? If we do, we may miss opportunities to share the gospel with people who are ready to be drawn into the community of faith.
Cynthia Haines-Turner notes in her article that “learning to speak another language is about much more than learning vocabulary and grammar. It’s about opening up a new world, about understanding something of the culture and people whose language you learn.” We need to take the risk of extending ourselves beyond our comfort zone, putting aside our assumptions and biases to enter, at least partially, the world of the other. I think if we can do that, we will discover our common humanity and a common language of love. The Holy Spirit crosses and confounds every boundary and barrier we erect between human beings – barriers of age, race, gender identity, sexual orientation, culture and religion.
One of the marks of the Holy Spirit is that it enables and empowers us to connect to others. Peter answers the scoffers by drawing on the ancient prophetic tradition to make sense of the moment. That is why we read scripture – to find meaning in the present moment. And the Spirit accompanies us in that process. The Spirit is poured out on all flesh – all flesh – young and old, sons and daughters, slave and free. All will prophesy, which means speaking God’s word into the present reality. The Spirit is the creator of community, and the creator of a new community. By the end of Peter’s speech, three thousand new followers are baptized, and the community of Jesus grows both in numbers and in the life of discipleship.
The entire book of Acts is about the work of the Holy Spirit, continually opening new horizons, initiating new activities. Read it through sometime and notice how often the Spirit is mentioned. The Spirit is deeply connected to the character of God who instigates new things. As the mission of the church spreads beyond the boundaries of the original Jewish believers, the church must grow in its understanding of its purpose and learn to frame its mission in new ways. Birthed by the Spirit that brings into being a new humanity, the church is called to be a community that unites. Cynthia Haines-Turner states that in all the consideration of the change to the marriage canon since it was passed on first reading three years ago, “I can say there has emerged a common message: the desire for us to find a way to continue to live together as a church no matter the outcome of the second reading…We are a church that has profound disagreements – it has been so in our past, it is so now and it will be so in the future – so being of one mind on all matters will not happen. But that does not mean that we need to be a fragmented church. Not through our own efforts but through the gift of the Holy Spirit, we can continue to walk together and to preserve our communion one with another.” And again, this isn’t just for us. We have something to offer the world, something sorely needed in our current climate of division, suspicion and separation.
In contrast to the noisy and public coming of the Spirit in Acts, the gospel reading from John gives us what we might call a quieter, gentler portrait of the Holy Spirit. This passage is part of the extended chapters we call the farewell discourse. Jesus is saying goodbye. He is preparing the disciples for the time when he will no longer be present physically with them. Today’s passage really begins with the first verse of the chapter, “Do not let your hearts be troubled…In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also” (John 14:1-3). That is the context for Philip’s plea, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” If they can see the Father, they can bear not having Jesus with them. And Jesus says, “Have you been with me all this time and you still don’t get it? If you have seen me, you have seen the Father.”
When Jesus uses the word “Father”, he is naming a very special and intimate relationship with God. So intimate is their relationship that it can only be described by the word “in”. Seeing the Father and seeing Jesus are the same thing. Jesus and the Father dwell mutually in each other. This mutual indwelling is the reason why Jesus’ works carry so much authority; he is doing the Father’s work. And, he says, because of his departure, his followers will do even greater works. When Jesus is gone and the Spirit comes, the words and deeds of Jesus will be made real in new contexts.
Because of the intimate indwelling of Jesus and the Father, whatever believers ask in Jesus’ name will be granted. And so, Jesus will ask the Father to send another Advocate. This Advocate is called in Greek the Paraclete – literally, one who is called alongside. An advocate is one who publicly speaks and supports another person or a cause, one who pleads on someone else’s behalf. “Advocate” is both a noun and a verb. And the Spirit is another Advocate. The disciples have had Jesus with them; now they will have the Spirit, who will be with them forever. The word advocare means “to call to”, especially to call to one’s aid. The Holy Spirit, the Advocate sent by the Father at Jesus’ request, will speak, first, to the disciples. In verses that we chose not to include in our reading today, the Spirit “will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you” (John 14:26). The Spirit will in fact re-call Jesus’ words and actions to the disciples. The Spirit acts as guide, teacher, intercessor, interpreter, helper, and comforter.
And the Spirit will speak also to the world. Jesus gives his peace, “not as the world gives”, he says, not simply an emotional state or the absence of conflict. Shalom, peace, is a characteristic of the reign of God; therefore, it includes notions of justice and holiness. The peace of the Spirit is an alternative to, and a criticism of, peace as understood by the world, especially the Pax Romana that came at the point of the sword. Shalom means unity, wholeness, a state of integration in which God’s will is both known and carried out. But it is not peace at any price. Shalom is peace at a great price, the price of suffering, betrayal, and self-giving on behalf of another. The peace which accompanies the coming of the Holy Spirit demands unity, reconciliation, wholeness, and harmony in human relationships and with all of creation. Such peace comes only with commitment, mutual self-giving, and with the help of the Spirit. It is a gift we cannot bestow on ourselves.
Our readings today give us many ways to describe and understand the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is our teacher about the past, our leader and guide into the future, and the source of peace and reconciliation in the present. The church is the community of the Spirit. Here, to close, are the words of a sonnet by the British poet and priest Malcolm Guite:
“Today we feel the wind beneath our wings,
Today the hidden fountain flows and plays,
Today the church draws breath at last and sings,
As every flame becomes a tongue of praise.
This is the feast of Fire, Air and Water,
Poured out and breathed and kindled into Earth.
The Earth herself awakens to her maker,
Translated out of death and into birth.
The right words come today in their right order
And every word spells freedom and release.
Today the gospel crosses every border,
All tongues are loosened by the Prince of Peace.
Today the lost are found in his translation,
Whose mother-tongue is love, in every nation.”
(Malcolm Guite, Sounding the Seasons, Canterbury Press, 2012)