When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2 And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3 Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
5 Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6 And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. 7 Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 9 Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11 Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” 12 All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” 13 But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”
- Acts 2:1-21
At the end of my time in Montreal a few weeks ago, I had the privilege of running an event called Roots, a symposium on young adult ministry. We raided IKEA to transform the diocesan conference room from a place for meetings into a place where people could truly meet and we invited leaders and interested parties from across the denominational spectrum. Considering how many theological perspectives were represented in the room, it could have been an absolute disaster. Debates could have erupted in all quarters. Conversations could easily have mutated into arguments. And yet, because of the attitude and character of the people who came along and engaged, that didn’t happen. Instead, there was a palpable spirit of unity and mutual learning that inspired me and gave me hope for the future of the Kingdom in Montreal.
It felt like the answer to Jesus’ prayer that we looked at last week in John 17:11 — that we would be one as he and the Father are one. We were not one of one denomination. We were not of one doctrinal statement. But we were of one heart and of one passion: to create ways in which young adults could find God and learn to follow him.
It’s tragic how rare I have found this to be. I remember helping to start a youth bible study for a group of churches in my hometown when I was in my late teens. It should have been so simple but, instead, it took two years to develop a doctrinal statement everyone could agree on. While we debated the finer points of doctrine, the vast majority of the young people who would have attended the bible study either left church or moved on to college. By the time the bible study was launched it was already doomed to failure.
I’m learning more and more that personal or denominational empire building is easy. It’s humble Kingdom building that is hard. When the Son of God prays that his disciples would be one, I think he knows how difficult unity is to achieve and maintain. Our tendency as broken people is always towards division, exclusion and hierarchy. Towards being right rather than doing what is right.
We see this at the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11. Humanity seeks to build a tower to the heavens, an arrogant monument to their independence; a declaration that they have no need for God. At first glance, this may seem like a type of community project but a tower is, by its very nature, a system of inequality. It is a tiered system of power, a place from which to rule and maintain both symbolic and political dominion. It is an attempt to become God rather than serve him. So God frustrates their endeavour by giving them all different languages, rendering them unable to communicate. The people end up scattered throughout the earth and leave their tower unfinished.
At Pentecost, in the aftermath of the cross and the empty tomb, we find the curse of the Tower of Babel reversed. Pentecost means the ‘fiftieth day’ and marked the end of the Passover season, a time when people of all tribes and tongues would gather in Jerusalem to celebrate.
A rushing and violent wind is heard in Jerusalem as the Holy Spirit breaks into the room where the disciples are sitting and fills them. Hearing the noise, a crowd gathers and is bewildered. The disciples left the room and began to speak to the wondering crowd. They speak in one language but are understood in all tongues.
This passage has commonly been misunderstood and been used to support the idea of ‘speaking in tongues’ but that is not what happens here. In my experience, when people speak in tongues, they are usually understood by nobody else. At Pentecost, the words the disciples speak are understood by everybody else. Most people were amazed and perplexed. Others sneered and accused the disciples of being drunk.
At Babel, men who tried to climb to the heavens and become gods are stopped in their tracks by the division that comes from disconnection.
At Pentecost, the disciples who followed God-with-skin-on are empowered by the Spirit who makes them understood.
Empires oppress those who fall under the shadow of the tower. The pursuit of power, pride, uniformity, and independence leads to solitude at the apex of incomplete ruins.
The Kingdom liberates those who live under the shadow of the cross. The pursuit of Jesus leads to humility, unity, diversity, and true community. It is here that we find connection with Christ and with each other. It is here that we become people of many doctrinal perspectives but one mind; many ministry approaches but one mission; many differences but one heart.