When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place. And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance. Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven. And at this sound the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one was hearing them speak in his own language. And they were amazed and astonished, saying, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language? Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians–we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God.” And all were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others mocking said, “They are filled with new wine.”
What is it that strikes you when you hear this passage? It was the accusation of drunkenness that first struck me, and indeed I focused on that last time I preached on this passage, noting that drunken and wild behaviour is not the sort of thing that the church is normally accused of nowadays (more‘s the shame).
The other aspect of the passage that always captured my imagination was the ‘tongues of fire’ that came down and ’rested’ on each of the disciples. What were these ‘tongues of fire’? In classic art the disciples generally look like a set of candles on a birthday cake, with each one sprouting a flame from the centre of his head!
What were they? Luke, the author of the book of Acts, doesn’t tell us, just as he doesn’t give much attention to the accusation of drunkenness levelled at the disciples, and this is significant, for really the important question, when we approach this or any other passage from the Bible, should not be, “what do I find interesting here?”, but “what is this passage trying to tell me?” And the lack of time and detail given to the issues that interest me should indicate to us that the author (unlike me) did not consider these to be particularly significant issues.
What then did he consider important in this story? What was Luke trying to tell us? Well, if we take as a key indicator the number of words devoted to a particular aspect of the story, we would have to say that the variety of the nationalities represented at the Pentecost gathering was a significant issue.
“Are not all these who are speaking Galileans?”, the crowd said, “How is it then that we hear, each of us in his own native language? Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians – we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God.”
That’s three verses out of the thirteen verses in the passage, focused purely on listing for us seventeen different nationalities that were represented there at Pentecost! How many countries were there in the known world at that time? Not a lot more! Indeed, it seemed to Luke that the whole world was there on that Pentecost morning – people from ‘every nation under Heaven’ (to use his own phrase), and this seems to have been very significant to Luke in his retelling of the story.
Why is that so important? Was it just that the presence of the global audience helped to mark this as a great event? It did do that, but there’s more to it than that. Is it because the gathering anticipated the Gentile mission? That must be a part of it
If you’re not familiar with the book of Acts, the bulk of it chronicles the missionary work of St Paul and his friends – travelling the known world and setting up churches in far-flung places that most of Luke’s initial readers had heard of but never visited.
The gathering of the nations together for the formation of the church is an indication of where the whole thing was moving! All the nations were there that day, and from that day forwards the disciples started of going out into all those nations!
Pentecost foreshadows the great missionary endeavour that becomes the focus of the rest of the book of Acts, and so this long and turgid list of nations reminds us that this work of spreading the Gospel, without regards for national or ethnic boundaries, was divinely conceived! God had ordained that the whole world should hear the message of Christ, and so God arranged it such that representatives of all those nations were represented when the church was formed.
Keep in mind that this work of the early disciples, and of St Paul in particular, of moving the Gospel of God beyond the nation of Israel and into the pagan world, was the most controversial thing they ever did.
We take it for granted now. Indeed, we’ve grown up in a world where Christianity is considered a white man’s religion (even though the average Anglican today is female and black). Even so, it would probably never occur to us to think of our faith as simply being a branch of the Jews-only religion of our ‘Old Testament’. But for Biblical people of the 1st century, following God had always meant being Jewish. And the idea that people outside of Israel could also be members of the ‘people of God’ was something that most first century Jews took a while to warm to.
The early church leaders, at the Council of Jerusalem, did indeed ratify very early on that non-Jews should be allowed in as full members of the church, but we know full well from Paul’s letters that this did not put the matter to rest.
Most godly first century Jews who turned to follow Christ still maintained the understanding that to be a member of the ‘people of God’ required you to become Jewish in some sense, and hence they developed the compromise position of welcoming non-Jews into the church, providing that they ‘became Jews’ (in a sense) once they entered the church, most especially by adopting that most important ritual of traditional Judaism: circumcision.
If you’ve read Paul’s letters at all, you know that this was the single most significant debate that Paul waged through his ministry work and it was the single-most reason why he was so hated! Paul took the position that you didn’t have to become a Jew to become a member of the ‘people of God’. You didn’t have to change culture, you didn’t have to stop eating pork, you didn’t have to observe the traditional Jewish feasts and, most importantly, your males did NOT have to be circumcised!
A lot of people tried to kill Paul because of his stand on this issue, and understandably, for it confronted very directly the very foundation of Old Testament religion – namely, that the people of Israel were the ‘people of God’.
This has to be highly significant to what is going on in Luke’s description of Pentecost. Not only is it a grand and significant event, that demands a global audience. It was the event that marked the foundation of the church, and so it anticipated the way the church was going to develop – as a multicultural mish-mash, made up of people from every nation under Heaven!
But I think there’s more to it than that too!
My starting point was the question of why Luke considered the multinational nature of the Pentecost gathering to be so significant, and I suggested that:
- It helps to draw attention to the significance of the event, and
- The way the church is founded foreshadows the church’s agenda for the future.
But there is a third reason, I believe, as to why Luke gives so much emphasis to this list of nations represented at Pentecost, and the miracle of the fact that they were all able to understand each other, and it has to do with the Tower of Babel!
If you remember the story of the Tower of Babel, it is recorded in Genesis 11:
“Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. And as people migrated from the east, they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. 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, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.” And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of man had built. And the LORD said, “Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, so that they may not understand one another’s speech.” So the LORD dispersed them from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the LORD confused the language of all the earth. And from there the LORD dispersed them over the face of all the earth.” (Genesis 11:1-9)
My guess is that most of us here haven’t spent a lot of time reflecting on the Tower of Babel story. It may be indeed that for some of you, it’s the first time you’ve ever heard it, which would be a shame, for it a very significant Biblical story.
Without going into too much detail, and making this a sermon on the Tower of Babel, let me outline a few points about it as a summary:
Genesis 11 is the final chapter in the great pre-history section of the Bible, which extends from Genesis 1 to 11, starting with the creation of the world, after which things go bad.
And so we get the stories of Adam and Eve (2-3), Cain and Abel (4), Noah and the flood (6-7), etc., culminating in this one – the Tower of Babel saga. Babel is thus the climactic story of these ancient sagas of the beginnings of human history that depict both the creation of the world and the fall of humankind.
Each of these ancient stories from Genesis 1 to 11 follows a common pattern of crime and punishment:
- Adam and Eve sin, and hence are thrown out of the garden
- Cain kills Abel, and so is cursed to walk the earth
- Everybody sins in the time of Noah, which brings on the great flood.
- And in Genesis 11, the peoples of the world band together in power and build this tower as a testament to their own greatness, and so are cursed with a massive and seemingly irreversible communication breakdown.
Now I say ‘seemingly irreversible’ because those of us who know the Christian hope as outlined in the New Testament know that our Lord Jesus came for the very purpose of reversing the ‘fall’ of humankind and to remove the curse! And this indeed is a part of that hope that is carried through the patriarchs and prophets of the Old Testament – that a day will come when the curse of Babel will be lifted – when the division and confusion that separates the nations will be resolved and when true multi-cultural human community will once again become a possibility.
Now, getting back to Pentecost and the book of Acts, what I want to suggest is that Luke, the author of the book of Acts, saw the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost as a miraculous reversal of the curse of Babel!
Whereas at Babel human beings had banded together to build a community in which God had no place, at Pentecost God took the initiative of building a new community – the church – which had her creator at her centre. Whereas the Babel community was built around a common lust for power, the church community would disavow power and centre itself instead on service. So whereas God came down to Babel to miraculously confuse their language so that they couldn’t understand each other, at Pentecost God came down and miraculously bridged the communication gap, in order to make true human community a possibility again!
The importance of this from a Biblical/theological point of view should be clear. For it means that the church is in its very essence a multi-cultural reality! It means that creating bridges of fellowship with people of difference backgrounds and races in the church is not simply a good thing to do. It is fundamental to who we are.
Diversity is fundamental to our identity as a church. It is not an optional extra we take on for the sake of appearing trendy. It is what we were formed out of and it is what we are destined to become – a multi-faceted, multi-national, multi-cultural community – demonstrating to the world that the curse of Babel has indeed been lifted!
One of my favourite statements from St Paul’s is a rarely-quoted verse from chapter 3 of his letter to the Ephesians, where he is talking about the coming together of Jews and non-Jews in the church:
“To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things, so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.” (Ephesians 3:8-10)
Paul is talking about the purposes of God in bringing together Jew and Gentile in the church, and he says that it’s “so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places”
The Greek world translated there as ‘manifold’ is actually literally ‘multi-coloured’. For this is indeed the purpose of the church, that through our very harmony and love for one another, despite our variety of backgrounds and cultures, the multi-coloured wisdom of God will be made known ‘to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places’
Racial unity within the church is our calling, our mission and in many ways our message, for it is through our multi-coloured yet integrated community of love that the world sees God!
First preached by Father Dave Smith at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill, Pentecost 2007.