Babel and Pentecost

June 5, 2022; Genesis 11:1-9, Acts 2:1-11; Pentecost

Today is Pentecost. The day on which we celebrate the gift of the Holy Spirit. But what is the purpose of the Holy Spirit? In what way is the spirit intended to help us and to help our world? Here today’s first reading from the book of Genesis proves helpful. It is the story of the tower of Babel. Throughout Genesis many stories are told to underline human sinfulness. There is the story of Cain killing his brother Abel and the great flood that covers the entire world. But the last and perhaps the most definitive story of human sinfulness is the Tower of Babel. There because of human pride, humanity was divided into a variety of languages so that people could not understand one another and work together on a common project. Now of course today we do not believe that the variety of languages derives from human sinfulness. But the author of Genesis uses the diversity of language to make his point that humanity is divided. Humanity is broken. Humanity is scattered over the face of the earth.

When the Book of Acts describes the coming of the Holy Spirit, it draws upon the story of the Tower of Babel. After the Spirit comes to the apostles, Peter addresses a large crowd, and everyone in the crowd hears his words in their own native language. This is Acts’ way of saying that the Spirit was given on Pentecost to bring unity to the world. That although different languages remain, in the power of the Spirit we can still understand one another. Humanity need not be scattered any longer. So the Bible tells us that the role of the Spirit is one of unity. The Spirit instills in us a common language by which we can cooperate with others and build a world in which God’s will will be done.

And there is no doubt that we need that unity. We need it in our families so that grandparents and grandchildren can understand and love one another across the generations, even though they may have different ideas about what is important about work or how they should understand sexual identity. We need it in our relationships where perhaps those who were once close friends and companions are now alieneated because of hurt or misunderstanding. We need it in our politics where dialogue has been replaced by name calling, and the effort to cooperate on some project for the common good is rendered impossible because there are such varying understandings of what is beneficial or harmful to society. We need it in our world where at this very moment violence continues in Ukraine, where there are radically different understandings of what Ukraine should be: an independent nation or a part of Russia. The sin of Babel continues in our world because our first inclination is always to hold on to my language, my nation, my family, my party, my idea. But the spirit of God moves across those differences calling us to unity, calling us to cooperate with one another in building a just world for everyone.

The thought of world unity may seem a fantasy. But remember that the Holy Spirit is God’s Spirit. And where God is there is always reason for hope. So in the faith that tells us that the Spirit is with us we pray: “Come Holy Spirit. Heal our divisions. Impart to us a common language so that we might build a world of justice and peace, so that we may no longer be scattered over the face of the earth.”

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