In the first part of the book of Genesis, which explores the origins of the world in sweeping, cosmic, poetic terms, there is a story about a tower. Well, it seems like a story about a tower. But it’s actually a story about technology and hubris. Really, it’s a story about how pride and selfishness lead to division.
In Mesopotamia, where this story takes place, stone is not readily available. At least, not the kind of stone you would use to build things. Simple mud bricks would be used instead, but these weren’t very strong or durable, and they were hard to work with. But, at some point, someone figured out that if you burn bricks in a kiln, you can make uniform building materials that are as strong as stone. Which means you can build large and impressive buildings – a stunning technological development in this area of the world.
So, with this newfound technology, these people say – let’s build a city and a tower, and make a great name for ourselves.
This seems like a simple idea, but it really isn’t. Because cities weren’t for people to live in at this time – a city was essentially a complex for public buildings, with a tower – a kind of temple or ziggurat – rising up in the middle of it. A city, in this context, is essentially a temple complex. But the god that this city and this tower were meant to glorify was the people who built it. This is all about building up dominance, seeking personal greatness. This is about empire.
This selfish pursuit of greatness leads God to come down into the middle of this temple complex, to scatter the people and confuse their language. They believed that they could rely upon themselves and their great technology to glorify themselves, but all of this actually leads to their downfall.
It’s an ancient story about a tower. But if you listen carefully, it sounds an awful lot like the erosion of modern empire. The selfish pursuit of glory, on the basis of having the best technology and the most advanced government and military. Where trust in God has been replaced with trust in self, and the temple complex is all about making ourselves great again. Which leads to a broken, fractured society where no one is able to speak the same language.
The kind of society where George Floyd can be killed in the street.
But there is another story, recorded in a carefully curated book of ancient history, about the strange and unexpected coming together of a wide range of people around the overflowing of God’s Spirit. Where the idea of the temple complex is taken to a whole new level, and is made available within each person. Where a movement that was all about a backwater Jewish rabbi confronting the might of the Roman Empire and being met with inevitable death as an enemy of the state has become a good-news story of resurrection and salvation and possibility.
When the Holy Spirit descends upon the disciples on the day of Pentecost, they are empowered to speak out. The church is born. And God’s Spirit spills over, boundlessly, endlessly, to allow the building up of something new and revolutionary. What began with the nation of Israel has spread, and the author of this story goes to great lengths to identify all of the different peoples that can hear and understand this message about Jesus in their own language. Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and on and on.
It’s important to understand that these different nationalities are not just about language. It is amazing and miraculous that they can all understand in their own tongue, but that’s just the beginning of the incredible thing that is taking place. Because racism, tribalism, bigotry, xenophobia – these are not new. These things were present in this place, and in this story.
But the message about Jesus includes them all. On their own terms. In their own language.
It’s as though God is extending an invitation to begin again. An invitation that is offered freely, to every people and place, that seeks to recognize the dignity and value of all. The birth of the church.
Where pride and the pursuit of self-glorification once led to the scattering of people, the hope offered by resurrection leads to the transcending of racial, social, and linguistic boundaries. The door has been opened for the building up of a new kind of city, one in which justice reigns and the love of God governs all.
This story of Pentecost is our story. Even though we, as the church, have much to repent of, God’s Spirit remains. The invitation to be part of the building up of a new kind of society remains open to us. And we even hear that invitation in our own language.
The only requirement is to be willing to make room for others. To love with reckless abandon, caring for those around you – no matter who they are or what they look like – and to give yourself away. To die to self, as Jesus did, so that you too can rise again. To seek the glorification of God, and not self.
This Pentecost, may the Spirit of God the Living Presence fall upon us. May we be inspired to rise up, to speak up, to seek the common good, and to extend love and dignity to all. Even when it is costly or dangerous to do so. Even when this movement takes us into painful places.
Because that is what the birth of the church is all about.