Whenever someone tells me God works in mysterious ways, I get the feeling they expect me to echo them out of some sense of awe and wonder.
I often fail that test, because my usual response to God’s more mysterious actions is something more like, “What the heck did he do that for?” Pentecost Sunday is one of those places.
“Pentecost” is the Greek name given to the Jewish festival Shauvot, which comes fifty days after Passover. On that day, Jesus’ followers gathered as many religious Jews might have done, and while they prayed together, the Holy Spirit came on them like a rushing of wind and tongues of flame. In response, they started to proclaim the gospel message. Although they spoke in their own language, Aramaic (Luke says it's "Galiliean"), the people who heard them seemed to hear their own languages. Luke, with his usual attention to detail, lists several different groups of people who heard these Galileans speak in languages from far countries.
Christians see this day as the birthday of the church. No longer were they simply people who followed a teacher around the countryside. They became the body of Christ at work in the world, something never before seen.
The “what the heck” moment for me comes in God’s methodology. What’s the point of this mass language exchange? Obviously, it’s a useful tool in getting the gospel message across to a variety of people and cultures. But the Bible never mentions it again in the church’s history. As far as we know, the disciples never display this gift again – the “speaking in tongues” Paul talks about in his letters is quite different.
The New Testament will be written in Greek, a language in which most people in the Roman Empire could limp along if not speak fluently. I can’t see the practical value of this gift if it stops after Pentecost and people just use Greek anyway.
Obviously, God had some other reason for causing this particular response to the Holy Spirit. But when I search the Bible, I don’t find anything like this event, which makes it tough to figure out that purpose. All I can find is something that’s really the exact opposite of Pentecost, language-wise…hmmm.
Back in Genesis 11, the people descended from Noah and the other flood survivors in his family lived in one area, the plain of Babel. They decided they would make a name for themselves. They probably had a little jealousy living in Noah’s shadow and wondered what they might do to compete with his fame. Someone, who may or may not have had more wine than was good for him, decided they should build a tower reaching Heaven. This would make sure their reputations and names were secure in history forever!
Well, God learns of their mighty tower and decides to see for himself what’s going on. Genesis tells us he stoops down to see this mighty tower – “mighty” in this case being a good early example of exaggeration in advertising – and isn’t impressed with the project or the idea behind it. So he stops the building.
Obviously, God could have blasted the tower from existence, rained fire on it, made it just disappear or done any of a thousand other things to it. Instead, he decides to confuse the people’s language. When people on one project don’t understand what each other says, work slows down.
Now, we know that if we want to work at it and listen, we can eventually understand someone who speaks a different language. In fact, we can learn enough of each other’s languages to communicate better and better as time goes on. But the Babel builders weren’t interested in listening, apparently. They all get disgusted with one another and leave in a huff, headed off in different directions. They were taken with the idea of making a name for themselves, and apparently that wouldn’t let them stop and listen to someone else.
They overlooked something important about their name, or identity, or what have you. They overlooked that God has already provided humanity with an identity. Consumed with their self-image, they forgot that God had already made them in his image.
Those amazing translators on Pentecost morning showed that a group of people who allow themselves to be made in God’s image were no longer scattered, disunited and divided.
They were the body of Christ, now at work in the world and unified by the Holy Spirit.