Homily Delivered on the Feast of Pentecost
May 15, 2016
The Church of the Intercession
New York City
by the Rev. Rhonda J. Rubinson
Texts: Genesis 11:1-9, Acts 2:1-21
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today is the fulfillment of Jesus’ last promise before he left this earth: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit come upon you,” Jesus said right before ascending into heaven. Today, that prophecy comes to pass in spectacular fashion: a tornado fills the house in which the disciples had gathered, and a huge flame descends from heaven then splits into tongues of fire – each tongue resting upon every disciple’s head, causing them to speak new languages. Usually we say that these “new languages” are not just human languages that the disciples hadn’t spoken before – like speaking Italian if they had only spoken Hebrew – but rather a language of the Spirit – often called “speaking in tongues” after the “tongues of fire.” If that weren’t strange enough, people of different nationalities who spoke different languages could all understand what the other disciples were saying about “God’s deeds of power” as though the words were in their native language.
In our readings today, that Pentecost story of a new, universal language contrasts with the story of the Tower of Babel, in many ways its opposite. The Book of Genesis recalls the story of people beginning to fall prey to pride and ambition yet again – today’s story takes place after the story of the flood that left behind only Noah and his descendants. God had hoped that a new start would lead to a better outcome, and after the flood, God promised that he would never destroy humankind again, not matter what they did. So when the new population begins having ambitions to build a tower that reaches to heaven – which means that they want to become like God – and with mass destruction no longer an option, God decides to thwart them by hindering their ability to communicate: he takes their common language and splinters it into many.
It is tempting to contrast the many languages in the Genesis story with the universal language of Pentecost and say that these are both stories about how language can either divide us or bring us together. But that would miss the deeper message, which is that it is good or bad spirits that unite or divide us, not language. Let me explain.
The Bible speaks of many kinds of spirits, but they can be summed up this way: there is one good spirit, the Holy Spirit of the Lord, which is what filled the prophets and the great leaders of the Bible, like David and of course Jesus. But there are many kinds of evil spirits in the Bible: unclean spirits, spirits of divination, and spirits of strife, to name a few. Notice: God’s Holy Spirit in One – but evil spirits are many. Moreover, good and evil spirits cannot abide together: the holiness of God’s spirit always casts out an evil spirit. That good and evil spirits cannot be in the same place at the same time is shown in the story of how the Temple was built: God gave orders that there could not even be the sound of hammers at the building site – because hammers were the sound of strife. The stones of the Temple had to be completely finished before they were brought to the site where they were installed, always to the sound of music, both instrumental and vocal. Even the sound of an evil spirit could not be abided in a holy place.
So when God heard the men in Genesis discussing their plans for the Tower of Babel, he heard the sounds of evil spirits: ambition, pride, lust after power and fame. Their language could not remain one because they had broken away from the one Holy Spirit and turned to a multitude of evil ones. Their “many languages” – which meant that they were no longer united in God – were simply an outward sign of the sins they had already chosen to commit. God did not have to divide these men from each other: the “many languages” were a symbol of their inward state.
We know this is true because we’ve all had the experience of not truly being able to communicate with someone who speaks our native language, say Spanish or English, while we have much more in common with someone who doesn’t speak our language. Sometimes we feel like we are talking to a brick wall even in our own tongue, while we can share more deeply with someone who doesn’t speak our language. It all has to do with spirit.
I’ll give you an example. A number of years ago I worked for a few weeks on the island of Corsica, off the coast of Italy. It is a wild place, with a language to match: the natives speak “Corsu,” a combination of Italian and French, with some Spanish and German thrown in. Even though I know some French, I couldn’t understand a thing anyone was saying, and so I mostly communicated through hand gestures. But there was one time that was an exception, and I’ll never forget it. There was an old stone church not far from our lodgings, and one morning I got up very early, took my prayer book, and went to see if there was an early morning mass. If not, I figured I could sit outside and pray the morning office. The church was closed, but there was a bench in the little square in front of the church, so I sat down, opened my book, and began praying.
A very old woman carrying some bags was passing by. She noticed that I was a stranger, so she came over to me and began speaking in Corsu. With many gestures and miming we had a conversation about the church being closed and the time of Mass. But then she pointed at my Book of Common Prayer and motioned for me to continue praying. She sat down on the bench next to me closed her eyes, lifted her hands, and listened to me read first Morning Prayer, then the Communion service in English. On that bench in front of a small church on Corsica, we shared spiritual communion, not physically eating the bread and drinking the wine, but closing our eyes and imagining taking in Christ’s body and blood. I can’t tell you how moving it was. When we were done she hugged and kissed me, then went on her way. I never saw her again.
That is what happened to the disciples at Pentecost – the experience of being united in one Spirit, the Holy Spirit. No matter what their native language, the disciples were one in Christ, so communication was effortless. The nature of our spirit determines what language we speak, not the other way around. When we unite ourselves to God in prayer, when we turn away from the evil spirits that divide us, the universal language of God’s love prevails. There is indeed One Body and One Spirit, One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism, One God and Father of all.
May the One Spirit of Pentecost rest upon us all, and may we unite our broken world in its power.