Pentecost – A reversal of Babel

4 June 2017


Acts 2:1-21 & John 20:19-23

Heavenly Father, as we remember the sending of your Holy Spirit upon your Church on the first day of Pentecost open our hearts and minds to receive the baptism of that same Spirit today to draw us ever closer to your loving heart, in Jesus’ name we pray.  Amen.

Does anyone remember the story of the Tower of Babel?

If you want to look it up you will find it in Chapter 11 of Genesis.

As it happens I don’t personally take this story literally, as I suspect that it is one of those early stories written to explain why things are the way they are, rather than being a literal account of how they got there if you see what I mean, but, nonetheless, it is an interesting story of why there are so many different languages and cultures in the world.

So, in chapter 11 of Genesis we are told that the whole of humanity as it then existed had one common language and one culture.  As a people they decided to build themselves a city made of brick and tar, strong and long lasting materials, and that in the midst of that brick city there would be a tower that would reach to the heavens.  They did this so that humanity would make a name for itself and would not be scattered all over the earth.  This city would be where the whole of the human race was to reside, and it was to be a proud statement of the abilities and achievements of mankind.

But then God saw what they were doing and didn’t like the look of it.  Was it the tower reaching to heaven which challenged God’s authority, was it the pride implicit in humanity making a name for itself or something else?

In any event God said: “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them.  Come, let us go down and confuse their language so that they will not understand each other.”

So the Lord scattered the people all over the earth and confused their languages so that they could not understand one another and called the place Babel.  Babel sounds like the Hebrew word for ‘confused’, it is also the same word used for ‘Babylon’ which is often seen as a city which stands in opposition to God’s ways, and Babel of course gives us the English ‘Babble’ which, of course, is what all foreigners speak.

In any event the languages of the world were multiplied and in so doing God made it harder for people to co-operate, to work together, to achieve the impossible.

Hold that thought for a moment, whilst we now cast ourselves forward to the Day of Pentecost, which is often referred to as the Birthday of the Church.



The opening verse from today’s reading from Acts tells us that when the Day of Pentecost came around the first followers of Jesus were gathered together in a house in Jerusalem.  This may have been the same house in which Jesus celebrated the last supper only a few weeks before and in which he appeared following the resurrection.  But not only are the disciples gathered together that day;  it seems that Jerusalem was filled with Jewish people who had gathered from all over the Roman empire and beyond.  The reason they were all gathered together was because Pentecost was originally a Jewish festival.  In fact the Qumran scrolls suggest that there were three festivals called Pentecost called the Day of the First Fruits, the Day of New Oil and the Day of New Wine.  The last one is particularly pertinent, not only for those who go to New Wine festivals today but also because this may help explain the assumption that the disciples had been at the wine when they started behaving oddly.

So the disciples are gathered together in a house and, in verse 2, we are told that a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house.  In Hebrew the word for wind, or air or breath is “ruach” – which also means “spirit”.  If you think back to Genesis 2 we are told that God brought Adam to life by breathing the spirit of life into him.  In fact in John 20:22 Jesus also breathed on the disciples saying: “Receive the Holy Spirit” and in Acts that action is being repeated and amplified.  God is breathing his spirit, the spirit of life into the Church.

But this descent of the Holy Spirit is such a difficult phenomena to describe that the writer can’t contain himself to simply being the ‘ruach” of God.  We are also told that something like tongues of flame separated and came to rest on each of them.  The presence of God is often associated with fire – thinking of the burning bush which Moses encountered or perhaps the divine lightning which Elijah brought down.  Interestingly I also learned the other day that Roman coins which may have been circulating at the time showed Caesar’s head crowned with tongues of fire, as a symbol of anointing and divinity.

It must have been both an amazing and a terrifying experience.

So God is doing at least two things to the gathered followers – he is breathing life into them as a new humanity and he is baptising them with fire, as Jesus promised, into a new state of being.

When God the Holy Spirit landed on the first disciples with the sound of a wind and looking like tongues of flame what did they start to do?   This group of Galileans started talking in at least 15 different languages – and this is not the mysterious ‘speaking in tongues’ which comes a bit later, but they were speaking in the languages of all the people who had gathered together in Jerusalem from all over the empire.   The church had transformed in a matter of moments from being a monoglot gathering of the like-minded who are only talking to each other to being a miraculously multilingual community who are suddenly able to talk to everyone around them in their own language and we are told that:

“…we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!”

This first outpouring of the Holy Spirit reversed the confusion of languages that took place at Babel.  Suddenly everyone from all other the face of the known earth can understand the message of Good News being spoken by the disciples, and Peter takes it upon himself to preach the first sermon of this new era.

In Peter’s sermon he links this outpouring of the Holy Spirit with the prophecy in Joel that in the last days God will pour his spirit on all people and that everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved.  Although it falls outside of today’s reading Peter goes on to tell the story about Jesus life, death and resurrection and in verse 41 we are told that all those who accepted the message were baptized and about 3000 were added to their number.

At the tower of Babel God said that if the people spoke one language then nothing will be impossible for them to achieve.  Now Peter and the disciples are speaking a language that can be understood by all people it seems that nothing is impossible for them and the church bursts into life that day, from being a handful of Jewish Galileans to being thousands from all over the known world.

But even in the midst of miracles God never takes away the free will of those who do not wish to see – whilst thousands heard the disciples declaring the wonders of God in more than a dozen different languages there were also others present who are capable of seeing nothing other than a group of people who seem to be drunk – they made fun and said:

They have had too much wine.”

In some ways the mockery and disbelief of those who did not recognise the work of the Spirit should reassure us that even in biblical times there were always plenty of people who were not open to the work of God and were more willing to make fun.  Jesus himself said that the world cannot accept the Spirit of Truth because it cannot see him.

Now there are many gifts or fruits of the Holy Spirit, many of which become apparent as the story of the church develops and St Paul explores these in more detail; Galatians 5 is a good introduction .  But the point of this episode in Acts, at least it seems to me, is that by reversing the confusion of languages and by making his church a witness to the whole world that God is saying – ‘nothing is impossible’ – the church can grow in the twinkling of an eye.

But if the sin of the people of Babel was too much pride in their unity, perhaps the sin of the church today is too much pride in our differences.  Rather than being one church speaking with one voice to the people of all the world we have forgotten our God-given unity and we now exist in tens of thousands of denominations speaking a multiplicity of messages.  Perhaps at this Pentecost we should not only ask God the Holy Spirit to give us individually the gifts and fruit we need to be better disciples and followers of Christ but perhaps we should also pray more fervently for God to take away our pride, to reunite the whole church and to give us the ability to speak with one tongue to the whole world so that all who call upon the Lord may be saved.