Pentecost, 2016 – May 15, 2016

Genesis 11:1-9; Acts 2:1-21

What’s wrong with the whole earth having one language and the same words?

Jill Duffield's lectionary reflections are sent to the Outlook's email list every Monday.
Jill Duffield’s lectionary reflections are sent to the Outlook’s email list every Monday.

Why did God go and mess up what appears to be a good thing: people working together, understanding each other, unified. Isn’t that what Jesus was praying for just last week? Why does God do this scattering and smattering? To me, this story has always seemed to make God petty and insecure. Is God really threatened by these city-building creatures? Or is there something else at stake here?

As I was thinking again about this odd story and how it relates to the even stranger tale in Acts, I had this fleeting thought: Where would the miracle of Pentecost happen today in our culture? Where would such a diverse group of people be gathered together in one place? Is there anywhere? I have suggested that the DMV gives a glimpse of the heavenly Kingdom with every nation and tribe represented. Others suggested the state fair, Wal-Mart and a large hospital emergency room. Got any ideas? Where can you go and find a wide range of humanity in one place? A Friday night high school football game? Where do you personally go where there is a multitude of languages being spoken, a tapestry of cultures represented, people from many nations present?

What got to me when I starting pondering this was the fact that I couldn’t think of a single place that I frequent that fits that description. Not my church. Not my kids’ schools. Not my workplace. Not the grocery store where I shop. Not the local franchise of the gym where I am a member. Not the restaurants where I eat. Absolutely nowhere. That’s when it hit me: We have built cities for ourselves. Towers. Silos. Bubbles. Places where we all have one language and the same words and most of the time we think there are no others. Have you seen the quiz? The “Do you live in a bubble?” quiz?  Here is a snippet about it:

Charles Murray, a libertarian political scientist at the American Enterprise Institute, … argues that the super wealthy, super educated and super snobby live in so-called super-ZIPs: cloistered together, with little to no exposure to American culture at large.

Those people, he says, live in a social and cultural bubble. And so he includes this 25-question quiz, covering beer to politics to Avon to “The Big Bang Theory,” to help readers determine how thick their own bubble may be.

Take the quiz if you haven’t. I did. My bubble is thicker than I’d estimated. The quiz revealed that I was fairly oblivious that other languages and words existed, metaphorically speaking. I was so myopic and caught up in my own world, I assumed everyone else’s was just like mine. Research shows this, too. According to some researchers, our bubbles are opaque. We live in “personalized propaganda bubbles.”  We listen to news that reinforces our views. We pay attention to the social media that is an echo chamber for our beliefs. We seek out those who speak the same language, the same words. We build virtual cities for ourselves with those just like us and, boy, do we feel right and righteous and powerful. We think there are no other cities, no other languages, no other words. No wonder God intervenes.

That’s what strikes me this Pentecost. We desperately need a new influx of wind and flame and Word. We need a miracle of understanding, of speaking and being heard. We need the Spirit of Truth to come and burst our bubbles.

Jacques Ellul in his book, “The Humiliation of the Word,”writes this about speech, “Speech fills the infinite gap that separates us. But the difference is never removed. Discourse begins again and again because the distance between us remains. I find I must repeatedly begin speaking again to restate what I have said. The result is an inevitable, yet rich and blessed, redundancy.”

Speech fills the infinite gap that separates us. And yet difference remains. This is the miracle of Pentecost. The gap between people is bridged. Bubbles get burst so that relationships can begin. The difference remains, however. Each is hearing in their own language, there isn’t one language and the same words. There are many. Ellul goes on to write, “the blessed uncertainty of language is the source of all its richness. I do not know exactly how much of my message the other person hears, how he interprets it, or what he will retain of it. I know that a kind of electric current is established between us. … So I speak again, weaving another piece of cloth, but this time with a different design.”

The people ask, “What does this mean?” Some people assume everyone is drunk. Peter has to speak again.

Do you see the difference? Between Genesis and Acts? Between Ellul’s description of speech and the one language of Babel? This Pentecost speech is electric, it is two-way, a call and response, there is a back and forth that fosters relationship and understanding. Ellul says, “The innermost being of one person has reached the innermost of another through the mediation and ambassadorship of this language go-between.” That’s the miracle of Pentecost. It isn’t about “ourselves.” It is about recognizing the other, seeing and hearing them, being seen and heard, through the power of the Holy Spirit.

Pentecost is wild. There is wind. There is fire. There is a multitude of languages. The oneness, the unity, is in the Word, God’s Word, the same Word, Jesus Christ, made know through a cacophony of speech coming from the mouths of sons and daughters, young and old, slaves and free, gathered together for God’s sake, not their own.

Where is the Spirit breaking out in our world? Where are bubbles being burst, silos being taken down, earthy cities offering glimpses of the heavenly one? If you aren’t sure, if you aren’t hearing God’s Word being spoken in a multiplicity of languages, if you are hearing only the same words, then you may be in a bubble, a thick one, an opaque one, a personal propaganda one. It may be time to go to the DMV, or to the other side of town, or to a different brand of Christian congregation, or where? It could be when you step outside of your bubble the Spirit of Truth will speak, through you and to you, and the miracle of understanding will happen again this Pentecost.

This week:

  1. Have you ever been in a context where you literally didn’t speak the language? What was that like? How did you communicate? Can you recall a place or time when you figuratively didn’t speak the language?
  2. Are we in need of a miracle of understanding within our sanctuaries? Denomination? Take some time to read the COGA report on the church-wide survey. (Or read Leslie’s Scanlon’s summary here.) How are we living in a variety of bubbles within our church? How do we invite the Spirit to pop them?
  3. The Spirit is often associated with boldness of speech, particularly when there is conflict or God is doing a new and unexpected thing. Take a look at some of the stories when this happens (Acts 4, Acts 9, Acts 11). Can you think of contemporary examples of the Spirit giving people boldness to speak truth in a difficult situation?
  4. The promised Holy Spirit comes in a multitude of ways in this Acts text. It is visual, auditory, kinesthetic. How does (or could) our worship reflect this multi-sensory Spirit? Why difference does it make to have multi-sensory worship?
  5. Do a Google image search of “Pentecost.” What images resonate most with you? Why?
  6. Read through these prayers for Pentecost and use them in your devotions this week.

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