Thanks to Father Fred Johnson, who delivered this sermon on Sunday, May 27, at the Church of the Intercession, Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Published with permission of the author.
Father Fred Johnson
Pentecost May 27, 2012
+Jn 15:26-27; 16:4b-15
The End of Babel
THESIS: Pentecost: the Spirit-in our acts of love and compassion brings about the unity symbolically lost at Babel and joins us to the movement of the whole cosmos towards total incorporation in the Cosmic Christ.
This weekend, members of military units, local American Legions or VFW s, other civic organizations and private families and individuals are putting flags on thousands of graves of soldiers and veterans. We do so because we want to remember their sacrifices. But that is not all we should be remembering. We should also be remembering that this whole holiday exists because of wars, and wars are the most disastrous evidence of the undeniable divisions that exist within the human family. We wouldn’t have wars if we didn’t have divisions among us; and because we have divisions among us, they sometimes result in wars.
There’s a story that illustrates how endemic divisiveness is in our species, and beyond-perhaps in nature itself. It seems that a certain woman put up a bird feeder and began feeding the birds in her backyard on a regular basis. The initial situation that that produced was not a Disney-like harmony in which all the little birds merrily partook of the abundance of food now available to them. Instead, the birds were greedy. They all tried to get as much as they could, as though they weren’t sure there was enough to go around. Starlings were particularly aggressive. No surprise there. They would attack the robins, cardinals and sparrows as they came to feed. This was the situation for several months. There’s more to the story-and we’ll visit the rest of the story later-but it’s important to note that this is a true story told by the son of the woman who put up the bird feeder, and already it illustrates how easily, and almost naturally, divisiveness rears its ugly head.
Scripture has prepared us for this and we shouldn’t be surprised.
That’s the point of the myth of the Tower of Babel. It’s an attempt-in symbolic and mythical language-to show that the human race seems to be just naturally prone to division, mistrust, and discrimination, tribalism.
This is where Pentecost comes in. I haven’t forgotten, you see, that this is not only Memorial Day weekend; today is also the last great “event” feast of the Christian year, the Feast of Pentecost. (Trinity Sunday, next Sunday, should probably get the title of Last Major Feast of the Liturgical Year, but it doesn’t celebrate an event, as do all the other major feasts.) Pentecost, referred to as “the birthday of the Church” occurred on the Feast of Weeks, celebrated in Judaism. By the time of Jesus and the disciples, it had become a celebration of the giving of the Torah-that is why the disciples were gathered together, to celebrate it.
While they were gathered, they had a collective experience of the Holy Spirit, described by Luke in his work which, as I said last week, is Luke-Acts. One commentator points out that Luke tends to present great themes in dramatic events so, as the commentator says, the “details should not be pressed” too tightly. In other words, the event may not have happened literally in this way, but Luke is trying to make a number of important points by the way he tells the story.
First, notice that every onlooker hears the disciples proclaiming the Gospel in his or her-the onlooker’s-own language. (That’s where the custom of reading the gospel lesson in different languages on this day comes from.) Luke is trying to tell us that the unifying power of the Spirit has restored the unity that was lost in the symbolic story of the Tower of Babel. Everyone was able to understand; there were no barriers, no divisions. The end of Babel came from the power of the Spirit.
And the Spirit is power-that’s another point Luke is making: the Spirit is represented by the image of fire, fire being naked power. The Spirit has-or is-the power to uncover the unity that we possess without knowing it. The Spirit can, and often does, operate in us on a level deeper than consciousness. Our epistle lesson tells us this when it speaks of the Spirit praying through us when we in our conscious minds simply can’t find the words. (There’s another whole sermon there about prayer, but I won’t go into it in the interests of getting out of church before it’s time to come back next week.)
This abundant power of the Spirit is perhaps illustrated in the conclusion of the story about the bird-feeder. The greediness and divisiveness of the birds continued for some years, according to the writer of the tale. They pecked at one another, tried to chase others away, and so forth. But after years of feeding, they began to realize that there would be more food when their current supply was finished, and they began to relax, they began to be less greedy and anxious. And eventually a remarkable thing happened: when mealtime came around, instead of jealously pecking at one another to keep one other away, they began caning one another, letting the other birds know that the food was there. And in fact the writer says that one day he actually saw a sparrow feeding next to a starling.
In this story, for me, that abundance of grain is a symbol of the abundance of the Spirit and of how it overcomes the divisiveness represented in the Tower of Babel.
If we stop to think about it, much if not most of Christ’s teaching, both by word and by deed, is about how we need to live as though divisions among us do not exist. Notice that, if we actually do that, then they don’t exist!
So what are some of these teachings that deal with the overcoming of divisions. The most famous one is the one we talked about just last week: the Parable of the Good Samaritan. But there are many others. Another one we mentioned very recently is a teaching by deed, the conversation of Jesus with the woman at the well. As we noted before, good, pious Jewish men of his era did not deal with women in public. There was a division there. But he erased it.
Jesus also dealt with lepers. The enormity and breadth of this one may not strike us until we understand it a little better. “Leper” was a term that applied to a wide variety of skin diseases; you didn’t need to be what we today would medically term a leper to be classed as such. And if you were? Then you could not take part in the worship of the Temple; you were considered ritually unclean and pious people had to avoid you altogether; so you were effectively cut off from all normal commerce and interaction with people; you were isolated. And if normal people didn’t avoid you, they risked ritual impurity themselves. They would need to go through a special, time-consuming cleansing ceremony before they could rejoin the commerce of regular people. Yet Jesus not only dealt with lepers, he healed them.
And then there were the tax-collectors. This one puzzles us. I know some perfectly fine people that work or have worked for the IRS. But you see” that’s not what we’re dealing with here. A tax-collector in Judea in this time period would have been a local, a Jew, who collaborated with the occupying power-Rome-to wring money out of the locals. Rather than their being paid, it was expected-actually a part of the system-that they would take more than the stipulated amount in order to pay themselves. It was legal, or semi-legal, extortion and fraud. And this, as we already said, on top of the fact that they were doing it for the occupying power to begin with!! They were collaborators. Small wonder that they were not received in polite society. And yet Jesus refused to accept even this distinction and dealt with them as human beings.
And we could easily multiply the examples.
So the Spirit flows into us to give us the power to follow Jesus’ teachings to heal and overcome the divisions of the world, to reverse the effects of the Tower of Babel in our own lives and on the world stage. This is part of what we celebrate at Pentecost.
But it is not just with this world that the Spirit makes us one. It is the whole cosmos. You may remember the phrase in the epistle reading: “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now …. ” I think the translation known as the Jerusalem Bible says it most memorably and vividly: “From the beginning till now the entire creation, as we know, has been groaning in one great act of giving birth …” This phrase reminds me of the theology of a great theologian, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. He was a French Jesuit, a theologian and a paleontologist. A priest and a scientist. He straddled both sides of the religion-science division, and he came up with a remarkable insight based on his knowledge of both fields, including, on the religion side, passages such as that one.
He said that the power of God-the Holy Spirit, which is the power of God-is leading the entire creation towards a far-distant target point-he called it the Omega Point. And he identified this Omega Point with the Cosmic Christ. In other words, he felt that evolution didn’t stop with the development of life and then eventually conscious intelligence. If you stop and think about that alone it is mind-blowing. But it goes on from there. The whole creation is evolving towards being fully reunited with its source in what we Christians would call Christ, the Alpha and the Omega!! And the Spirit, the gift of which is celebrated at Pentecost, by making us the adoptive heirs of God and coheirs with Christ, makes us part of this incredible reality.
So let us celebrate that gift-the gift of unity in the human race, made real by our acts of love and compassion, and the gift of being joined with the movement of the whole cosmos toward our ultimate destiny, which is Christ himself. AMEN.