Sunday, May 15, 2016
We do hear them speak in our tongues the wonderful works of God.
In Augustine of Hippo's great work, The City of God, he reviews the popular philosophies of the time, both popular and academic, and evaluates the kind of happiness they offer. Augustine works from the thesis that no lasting happiness can be established apart from that found in God in the greater life, because in this world, we are subject to so many dangers and trials. Some of these are of our own making—many of them are not, but have to do with living in a transitory world where things wear out and break and human bodies fail and die. One of these evils, Augustine argues, is the diversity of languages in the world that divide human beings. He writes: Man is separated from man by the difference of languages. For if two men, each ignorant of the other's language, meet. . . mute animals, though of different species, would more easily hold intercourse than they, human beings though they be. For their common nature is no help to friendliness when they are prevented by diversity of language from conveying their sentiments to one another. All know what he is talking about if you've have ever been in a foreign country and struggled to communicate with others of a different tongue or simply interacted with a foreigner on your native soil and confronted the intractability of trying to communicate with someone that doesn't speak your language, though they are human. Just a few weeks ago, near the end of evening prayer, a Russian speaking Belorussian wandered into the church. He spoke very little English and trying to explain the Episcopal Church was very challenging—even church of England did not suffice.
The opening chapters of the book of Genesis have what is known as etiological purpose, that is, these chapters help explain why the world is the way it is: why are humans out of fellowship with God? Because of the human willfulness to break his commandment, as shown in the fall of Adam and Eve; why are humans out of fellowship with each other? Jealousy turns into malice and hatred and finally the murder of brother by brother in the story of Cain and Abel. The account of the Tower of Babel is a narrative that explains the diversity of languages in the world. A simplistic reading of the text would suggest that God feels threatened and so he confounds the languages of those building the tower—they were getting too close to him and might have stolen fire or something else from him. If you ask most people why the people wanted to build the tower, the most common answer will be that they wanted to build a tower to God. However, we need to read carefully. They are building a tower to heaven—this is what they are doing, but the reason why they do it is in order to make a name for themselves. And herein lies the clue to the wickedness of their endeavor and why God so punishes it. Life is decidedly not about making a name for yourself. Many of course are working under this assumption. Some build and put their name on monuments. Sometimes the very geography of the earth is imbued with this pursuit of reputation so that the names of powerful men are given to mountains, rivers and valleys. Thankfully in the United States we've avoided some of this demagoguery by not putting figures on our currency or giving their names to things until after they are dead.
My friends, life is a kind of education; God, our great teacher, uses the uncertainties and evils of life to wake us up and push us towards healthy change. The Bible tells us that, Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall. (Proverbs 16:18). Often times, as in the case of the those erecting a tower for their name, God lets us fall that he might open the door to the way of humility, the way of his sons and daughters. He confounds their languages they he might teach them a new way of speaking, that he might establish for them a union not based on human power and reputation but on the wonderful works of God.
And this is really the answer to the seemingly contradictory actions in the first and second lessons. In the first lesson, God confounds the languages of the people, causing disorder and disunity. In the lesson from the Acts of the Apostles, the account of the day of Pentecost, the Father sends the Spirit and empowers the apostles to speak the languages of the diverse crowds of people who have come to Jerusalem for the temple feast. It's an event of unification that anticipates the great turn in the early church when Gentiles, non-Jews, will be allowed to be included in the body of the faithful. Every tongue and nation, whether Jew or Gentile, male or female, whether slave or free, has a place in this kingdom of heaven by the grace of our Lord Jesus.
In last week's sermon, I made the point that Jesus as our high priest is the representative of all without distinction. This means that at the heart of the Christian proclamation there is posited a radical equality among all people that flows out of the truth that we all have one high priest, one representative. At the heart of the proclamation of this feast of Pentecost is the truth that by the work of the Holy Spirit, God is bringing all things into unity with himself. Again, it is not a unity based on human endeavor, power, or ambition, but rather, based on what God has done for us in Christ. The multitudes hear the Apostles telling each in their own language the wonderful works of God. The kingdom of God is not something we build so that we can make a name for ourselves, but God's gift to us by the Spirit. It's economy is the giving of love and its light is the Lord. The world may divide men and races and categorize according to party, class, and so forth, but the goal of eternity is that all would be one in the Lord. As we cooperate with the work of the Spirit in our lives this unity is what he nurtures and promotes. Each of us are given a choice, will you be among the common day laborers of the tower of Babel, scrambling for your slice of human fame and accomplishment, or will you be in the army of the Lord whose banner is to fight evil, promote love, and proclaim the new humanity revealed in our Lord Jesus?