Pentecost and God’s answer to Babel

This months Chaplain’s Letter is written by the Rev Sam van Leer, Groningen Chaplain

Church seasons seem to fly past us in the course of the year. Most of our annual festivals connect with key points in Christ’s life — his birth (Christmas), the Visit of the Magi (Epiphany), Jesus’ presentation in the Temple (Candlemas), his baptism, his temptation in the wilderness (Lent), and of course his final entry into Jerusalem (Palm Sunday), the Last Supper with the disciples (Maundy Thursday), his crucifixion (Good Friday), his glorious resurrection (Easter) and his return to heaven (Ascension). Most of these commemorations occur within six months (December-May/June), such that our youngest church members have sometimes asked: ‘Did Jesus really only live that long?’ No, no, of course not, but we try our best to remember and give thanks for all that Jesus did for us in the course of every single year!

And though Easter season is but 50 days long, we actually celebrate Jesus and his Resurrection every single Sunday (and hopefully every day), for, as St Augustine observed, ‘We are the Easter people and Hallelujah is our song!’ The new life Christ won for us is a gift that deserves daily celebration.

Purely in calendar days, though, ‘Pentecost’ (or Trinity) is our longest church season each year. And that, I feel, is right, because ‘Pentecost’ actually reflects the age in which we live. Ever since Jesus physically returned to the Father in heaven, we, his followers, have been living in the era of Pentecost, the season of the Spirit. The original Pentecost was a Jewish harvest festival, some 50 days after Passover. For us, as Acts 2 records, Pentecost points to that great day, when, after the Ascension, so many were gathered in Jerusalem, and the Holy Spirit came blowing like a storm and filled the crowd, such that fired by that Spirit, they spoke in all manner of languages, and every nation present understood God’s wonders.

The Spirit had of course dwelt among us since well before that signal moment. At the creation, the Spirit hovered over the water (Gen 1) and it guided and inspired God’s Holy People and His Prophets throughout the Old Testament period.

Indeed, as comes through in all the Gospels, the Spirit moved and inspired Jesus throughout his own ministry, from his birth and baptism, where the Spirit descended like a dove, to his testing in the wilderness, and his preaching (Luke 4:18, etc.) and miracles. The Spirit of God has never been absent from this world, yet in this epoch, the era of Pentecost, between the first and second comings of Christ, we are called to be born of the Spirit, to witness its glorious work and to follow its direction (John 3) more than ever.

And in this day and age, where media and forms of electronic communication seem to run the risk of dividing more than unifying people in God, I am reminded particularly that, among the many gifts of the Spirit poured out at Pentecost, was the gift of mutual understanding. Acts 2: ‘5 Now there were staying in Jerusalem God- fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. 6 When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken. 7 Utterly amazed, they asked: “Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language?”‘ (NIV)

Pentecost can be seen as God’s answer to the tragic failure of Babel (Gen 11), where, in ancient days, humans, in their hubris, tried to build a skyscraper to rival the grandeur of God.  God scattered them and confused their languages. But at Pentecost, God shows humanity a Spirit-filled alternative that is possible if we seek God’s way. We can be one with each other and with God through His Holy Spirit.

We are more than ever in need of God’s Spirit in this age of Pentecost. We are never without God’s gift of the Spirit; the key is simply to recognize this and become more faithful and trusting in the Spirit’s presence and power, for we cannot live without the Spirit. As Henri Nouwen once put it, ‘When we speak about the Holy Spirit, we speak about the breath of God, breathing in us. The Greek word for “spirit” is pneuma, which means “breath.” We are seldom aware of our breathing. It is so essential for life that we only think about it when something is wrong with it. The Spirit of God is like our breath.  God’s spirit is more intimate to us than we are to ourselves. We might not often be aware of it, but without it we cannot live a “spiritual life.” It is the Holy Spirit of God who prays in us, who offers us the gifts of love, forgiveness, kindness, goodness, gentleness, peace, and joy.  It is the Holy Spirit who offers us the life that death cannot destroy. Let us always pray: “Come, Holy Spirit, come.”’ Amen!

Yours in Christ,


The Revd Sam Van Leer