THE DAY OF PENTECOST
In the first verse of the eleventh Chapter of the book called Genesis Moses records the story of the Tower of Babel and begins with this statement: “And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech” (Genesis 11:1). This he writes as a postlude to chapters seven through nine recounting a time long, long ago, when the Lord filled the earth with a great flood of waters, for the people and the world which he had lovingly created had become spoiled: the wickedness of men was great before God and the imagination of every heart was only evil continually (6:5). Moses sadly records that “God looked upon the earth, and behold, it was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted his way upon the earth” (6:12). And so, the Lord baptized creation through the waters of the flood: washing it clean of every sinful thing putting rebellion and evil to death.
But humanity wasn’t completely eradicated by the flood. God saved Noah and his family by placing them in the Ark and from them humanity would once again fulfill the Divine command to multiply and flourish; to fill the earth and subdue it; extending the reign and goodness of God across the face of the whole earth. In the flood, humanity had been baptized, reborn, and unified. God’s graceful judgment upon humanity brought men together as Moses signifies, writing in verse one of chapter eleven, at that time, “the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech.” One humanity reconstituted after the flood, united in language and therefore united in understanding.
And it came to pass, as they journeyed from the east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar, and they dwelt (or settled) there. And they said to one another, Go to, let us make brick, and burn them thoroughly. And they had brick for stone, and slime had they for mortar. And they said, Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth (Genesis 11:1-2).
Their error was not in building a city and a grandiose tower, their error was in settling in the valley of Shinar and attempting to unite and dwell in one single solitary place, willfully disregarding God’s commandment to fill the earth. This was their error an error birthed by hubris and pride. They unified in the plains of Shinar NOT to obey God, NOR to make his name famous, nor to worship him either. “Let us make a name for ourselves lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.” Their goal was to build a tower so great that it would preserve their identity and their unholy unity. They did not love God and they did not desire to worship him.
Moses continues in verse six, “
And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men builded. And the Lord said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do. Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another's speech (11:6-7).
Unified and unfettered pride is the great danger from which the Lord spared the human race when he confounded and confused their language. God looked down upon the “valley of the world” (which is the name the Talmud gives to the plains of Shinar) and He came down.
So, the Lord scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth: and they left off to build the city. Therefore, is the name of it called Babel; because the Lord did there confound the language of all the earth: and from thence did the Lord scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth (11:8-9).
God brought an end to their tower building. He didn’t destroy the monument of their sin— the tower— He destroyed the means of their transgression: their ability to understand one another by confusing and confounding language. The result of human pride and its many sins was the shattering of humanity into a million different languages, dialects, beliefs, and tribes. Creating suspicion, distrust, misapprehension, and hard drawn divisions between the peoples and nations of the earth. The human family was divided one against the other and against its Heavenly Father. The scattering of the human family at Babel is the context from which to understand the calling of Abraham and God promising that from him a family of such a great multitude would come; a people gathered and reconstituted according to promise (Genesis 17). In fact, the entire glorious arch of redemptive history- God acting through the Patriarchs, his election of Israel, and the preaching of her prophets- is the story of the Lord reversing the curse of Babel.
Through Israel the Lord intended to draw the nations of the earth unto himself, declaring to Isaiah, It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to bring back the preserved of Israel; I will make you as a light for the nations, That my salvation may reach to the end of the earth (Isa 49:6). But Israel was an unfaithful wife, lusting after lesser gods and forsaking the marriage covenant. In their failure to love the Lord their God and him only, Israel abandoned its Divine calling to be a” light to the nations” for they failed to love their neighbor as well. They remained a people (yes, God’s people) but a people without a Shepherd, a scattered people— literally and spirituality— and so the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, I have come for the lost sheep of the house of Israel (Matthew 15:24). But the failings of God’s people would not thwart God’s intentions, for the prophet Joel prophesied a time of restoring Israel; a time when the Lord would be in the midst of his people, To Joel the Lord declared I will pour out My Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions (Joel 2:28). God promised that at a future time He, by his Spirit, would again be with his people. But not only Israel… God would gather the nations as well, thus fulfilling the promise declared unto Abraham in whom all the nations of the earth would be blessed. For everyone says the Lord who calls on the name of the LORD will be saved for on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there will be deliverance, as the LORD promised, among the remnant called by the LORD (Joel 2:32). Reversing the curse of Babel through the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Fitting the pieces of the human family back together. Listen to what the Lord says to Zephaniah, then will I turn to the people a pure language, that they may all call upon the name of the Lord, to serve him with one consent (Zephaniah 2:9). Pointing to the day when with one heart and one voice a people would call upon his name. The human family gathered and restored to worship the ever-living God in spirit and in truth.
On this great day of Pentecost we remember and give thanks for the sending of the gift of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles and upon a number of other disciples who as St. Luke records, were all with one accord in one place gathered in a house on the day in which the church was born (Acts 2:1). And historically speaking this is absolutely correct. But the implications of this day are far greater when viewed in the context of Babel. At Babel, the Lord came down and confounded language and the understanding of men. Shattering their common bond into a multiplicity of languages. And on Pentecost the Holy Spirit came down and restored understanding, removed confusion, for those who gathered at the strange sound of the wind were amazed records Luke, and marveled, saying one to another, Behold, are not all these which speak Galileans? And how hear we every man in our own tongue, wherein we were born? (Acts 2:7).
On the day of Pentecost, God the Holy Spirit began the reconstitution of the people of God, the redemptive work of gathering the fractured pieces of the human family into one new unified man. For the great ministry of the Holy Spirit is the undoing of man’s disunity. He is the great Unifier gathering the wayward and bringing true unity between God and man and between man and neighbor. The gracious movement of the Holy Spirit leads us from the Valley of the World into union with the Divine Trinitarian Life. Jesus said, when the Spirit of truth, is come, he will guide you into all truth: for he shall not speak of himself (John 16:3). The Holy Spirit illumines and reveals the truth of God the Father and his beloved Son for he speaks not of himself but rather, manifests the Trinitarian God who in himself is a community of perfect union.
In disunity we existed as the counter-image of God, literally defaced by sin, the identity badly marred. But the grace of the Holy Spirit leads sinners to see the vanity of their tower-building; the folly of self-mastery and laboring solely to amass and consume the commodities of the world. He leads to repentance and to the restorative waters of baptism. Just as the world was baptized, the Holy Spirit in baptism washes us clean of original sin, of guilt and shame. Beloved hear the Psalmist sing, he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake (Psalm 23:2). In baptism we renounce the world, the flesh and the devil and declare an end to making a name for ourselves and all of our empire building. Our allegiance is placed in God, and we climb into the heights of heaven, not by the towers of our own making, but upon Christ who is Jacob’s ladder man’s gateway to heaven in which heaven and earth is united. In Baptism we are born again into the family of God; no longer strangers but friends; no longer orphaned but adopted; known and love by God. And we rejoice! For the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost which is given unto us (Romans 5:5). So, with the Apostle we say Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ who has blessed us with all spiritual blessings in heavenly places (Ephesians 1:11): the Blessings and promises of God sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise!
Though the spirit is given individually (as signified in a tongue appearing over each of the disciples) the Holy Spirit is given and resides in a people: the Church. The church is that blessed spirit-filled community in which the image of the Trinity is restored to the human family. It is the Holy Spirit who overcomes the misery of an atomized existence and turns “I” and “Thou” into “We”. And not the “We” of Asiatic religions which seek to dissolve the ego, dissolving distinction, where the soul becomes as one little drop subsumed in the deep chasm of the ocean. This desire to destroy human distinction is anti-life; anti-human; anti-love. Unfortunately, some view difference, variation, and distinction as unhelpful roadblocks to human fulfillment and the attainment of a societal utopia. But the destruction of distinction is at its core the attempt to undo the Divine order of creation. And, it is the very antithesis of the Divine Triune life: Three distinct Persons and yet One God: an eternal dance of never-ending love and beatitude; moving in and out and through the other but never losing distinction; One and many. But in the family of God the human person becomes more human not less; ever growing to the full stature of what he or she was distinctly created to be by the holy spirit who restores the anti-image back into the image of the Divine; refashioning the human family into the Divine Image; the perfect Man who is Christ Jesus.
The glorious transfiguration of man is solely accomplished in Christ’s church not apart from the Church. The church is not an idea or a tool set apart from the Spirit. Not at all! The Church is the Spirit and the Spirit is the Church: it is this Holy workshop in which man’s becoming is accomplished. There is one body, and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling; One Lord, one faith, one baptism, One God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all (Ephesians 4:4-6). We are each as the many grains which make up the one loaf; bread on the altar of presence in the temple of God. Unity begins in God and is found in Him. Only when we are one with him can we be at one with each other. The curse of Babel makes strangers of us all and yet we long to be loved. The chasm between the “I” and “Thou” is so vast… we see but don’t see; hear but don’t understand; touch but don’t feel. We long to be closer to the “other” but how? Drawing nearer and nearer to “other” only happens by the work of the Spirit who manifests the love of God by drawing us deeper into the Divine Life of love. “We love” writes St. John, because God first loved us (1 John 4:16). God loves us selflessly with no regard to self. Only this love can overcome the “I” and radically transcend self-love into Divine love. This love obliterates the wall between “I” and “Thou” and “We” is born. Marriage is a beautiful picture of God’s miracle in creating a ‘third-thing’: not me and not you but something new, something joined, no longer two but one “we”. And this is the church is it not?
St. Luke writes that on the day of Pentecost the disciples were all with one accord and in one place (Acts 2:1). They were unified in proximity and intention. But listen to the Apostle’s description of them after their reception of the Holy Spirit writing in Chapter four verse thirty-two: Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common (Acts 4:32). One heart and one mind. Unity. No one acting from his own will or ingenuity, as the tower-builders did, rather, acting, speaking, and willing as a communion of “we” as the family of God participates in the inter-communal life of the Trinity. To be a Christian is to be taken up into Christ’s church, enveloped in the new human family, allowing oneself to be loved and nurtured by Mother Church; trained in righteousness and humility. Speaking with the people of God, with one voice and one mind, the wonderful works of God!
“Whoever is near to me is near to the fire.” St. Chrysostom is said to have attributed these words to Jesus himself in describing the relationship between himself his church and the Holy Spirit. Through the One Spirit we can be reconciled one to another, converse and enter into deep intimacy with the “other”: our unity maintained and strengthened in the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic church. If… we stay near to the Fire. Because Fire burns, it refines and transforms. It turns coals into diamonds. The Fire of the Holy Spirit melts away the dross of inhumanity and refashions the false self into the true: more real; more substantial. No longer “I” but “We”. The human family united in the Divine Union and living the unified life within the Community of the Saints. But, we must pray for, defend, and strive to maintain Christian unity: that we might remain in the One family of God. Because the further we remove ourselves form the flame the greater alienated we become. First, from Christ then from self. Then from husband or wife, child, parent, and friend… and sadly, from our true family, of whom Jesus defines as those who gladly do the will of God: these are my brothers and sisters and mother (Mark 3:35). Therefore beloved, let us pray for the fire to burn bright in our day and in our midst that Divine love my burn hot within our hearts, a love which is made known through unity with God and one another. The Psalmist sings,
Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity! It is like the precious ointment upon the head, that ran down upon the beard, even Aaron's beard: that went down to the skirts of his garments; As the dew of Hermon, and as the dew that descended upon the mountains of Zion: for there the Lord commanded the blessing, even life for evermore (Psalm 133)
Beloved it is a good and pleasant thing for God’s people to dwell together in unity. Now, may the blessing of God flow down like dew from the highest mountain and flood the valley as the waters over the sea. And may the unifying love of the Holy Spirit cover you as precious ointment from head to toe. Amen+