Suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind.
I made up some posters for the Pentecost services with a kind of provocative title, “Reconstructing Babel”. Surely we’re not called to do that again, constructing a great tower, a great city with towers reaching into heaven? It didn’t end well last time!
The Tower of Babel in Genesis 11 is a story of right human desire that went wrong.
They said, Come, “let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the whole earth.” And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of man had built
[the way it’s written emphasizes that human beings actually didn’t get that far in their efforts, God has to come down to view what is happening].
And the Lord said, “Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.
[I don’t know if you hear a kind of deep irony here.]
Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, so that they may not understand one another’s speech.” So the Lord dispersed them from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city.
It is an explanation of the diversity of language and culture on the earth and the reason why we have such difficulty understanding and getting along with each other.
It shows a failure to follow God’s command in Genesis 1 to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth – the feared being dispersed.
But it also shows another basic instinct in every human being for transcendence – the desire to make a tower with its top in the heavens, to get back to that place of Paradise from which we’ve fallen – and a desire to do it together (what would be the good of entering heaven by ourselves, surely God’s Spirit moves us to want to share that with as many as possible, that our joy might be full!).
It is like Genesis 3, where human pride reached out for the apple to become as gods, knowing good and evil.
But after that Fall, we were left in a confused state individually, and, also, whenever we try to form larger community life – we discover how difficult it is. The reaction to recent terrorist attacks shows society’s concern over its fragility – how will we build it up and keep it all together – especially as we have people embracing ideologies counter to our Christian foundations?
And yet we are promised that the intention of God is to fulfill both our desire to be as gods, that is, that we might recover the image and likeness of God, and also that we might see and enter the kingdom of heaven, and do that together. Both of these basic human desires, these hopes, God has come to fulfill through Jesus Christ.
Pentecost, the pouring out of the Spirit of God on humanity, makes possible both of these universal hopes: to be like gods and to enter the kingdom of heaven together. It only becomes possible if we humble ourselves, and allow God to transform us individually; and if we allow God to be the basis for building up community life, the city of God. The way God chose to begin to pour out His Spirit revealed new possibilities for transformation and community life built up by God.
When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place. And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance…. And those present were amazed because “we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God.”
Our congregations at Holy Trinity are made of people from around the world – we were dispersed, and we have many different languages and cultures, but we have been united by His Spirit to a common love of Jesus Christ and of our fellow man.
God is doing a work in us. The image of God is being restored, it’s a process, and we are being united by that same Spirit, formed and shaped not only individually, but together to be inheritors of the Kingdom of Heaven, that City of God, to which we are ascending into together.
Jesus promises to all who are baptised and believe, to all that choose to follow Him in love, the gift of His Spirit:
If you love me, you will keep my commandments, and I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you for ever, even the Spirit of truth… You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you.
This week in preparation for my sermon – I’ve been asking some people in the congregation about their experience of the Holy Spirit. I recommend that this week reflect on your own experience of God’s Spirit, and also ask others, you may be surprised by what you hear!
Here are three examples…
- One person experiences the Spirit as giving guidance for living. This person experiences the Spirit’s guidance especially in the early morning before he is completely awake – after having struggled in a crisis, suddenly waking up with great clarity – I must do this and this today – what to write, what to say, what to achieve, the likely outcome, and the next step to take in response to that, and the need to take care not to condemn others – as though it was imprinted on my mind, like I could read it like a book. That was God’s Spirit working in me.
Jesus says in today’s Gospel, the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.
- Another person has experienced the Spirit as making clear the reality of our brokenness. The Spirit brings to light the truth inwardly, personally, revealing ourselves to ourselves, a clear light to reveal the disconnect between our higher view of ourselves and the reality of our actions and motivations… But this inner critique is not in the sense of condemning because you violated commandment number “whatever”, but rather in that very moment of inward critique, there is also the breaking open of our hearts to that higher reality, that better way – it is a humbling, but in a way that leads not to despair but to hope and the profound experience of God’s mercy, God’s love.
Jesus says of the Spirit, I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth. This is about the ongoing work of our being made holy by God, recovering the image and likeness of God, and only when we can bear the inner critique. It is like St Peter who, when he saw the miraculous catch of fish, both saw inwardly his unworthiness in an instant but immediately had the words of assurance from Jesus that God had big plans for him.
- A third person experiences the Holy Spirit as a comfort and inspiring hope. She said, Not always, but sometimes you feel something is there, but you can’t quite explain with words. A warm feeling, a presence, something waking us, we’re not just going along as usual. The Spirit is like an inner light – giving one a feeling of security – secure that there is something beyond us, that we can’t just live as if it didn’t matter, but we are aware of being on the edge of a great thing, that there is a glory that is beyond us, a feeling of happiness not quite yet attained, of something unbelievable, something so much more is possible.
Jesus says in the Gospel today: Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you, Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid. What this person has said might also remind us of St Paul – who prays, in Ephesians, that we might know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, [something we can’t put into words] to be filled with all the fullness of God [what a hope, what an expectation of glory is that!].
Each of you could add, I’m sure, to these descriptions of the experience of God’s Spirit in our hearts. Some might be skeptical when people make too quick an association between an experience and identifying that as clearly the Holy Spirit – maybe it is something psychological, is there some other explanation? Jesus wants us to be truthful, but he does not want us to be so skeptical, that we would deny His working on our hearts continually. Jesus clearly promises a new inner relation to God that is possible now, because of His death, resurrection, ascension and His promised pouring out of His Spirit on us.
And Jesus does not only want us individually to come alive, as the image and likeness of God is restored in our souls. But he wants us to gather, that we might see and enter the kingdom of heaven… together. We experience His Spirit oftentimes in corporate worship. And Jesus’ whole ministry was about gathering – he chose 12 and sent them out, to the dispersed, to the lost, the maimed, the broken hearted, and that work continues to this day. Go and baptize all nations, teaching them all that I have taught you! If we have truly come to know and experience God’s love, His Spirit, we want others to know and share that experience also.
Today is a celebration of the birth of the Church, that wonderful and sacred mystery, so flawed in its earthly manifestation, and yet somehow despite its brokenness, its great divisions, its inner squabblings, its moral failings, its inability to get its worship or doctrine quite right… somehow, the Gospel has been proclaimed to our generation, and we’ve caught such a glimpse as to be moved to join it and to rejoice in it and to come together today to celebrate its birth! Since that day we’ve being invited by God to join in His plan to reconstruct Babel. But bricks for stone and bitumen for mortar simply will not do – without the Spirit we cannot see or enter the Kingdom of Heaven [John 3]. It is only living stones, you and I indwelt by the Holy Spirit, that will do the job. St Peter says [1 Pet 2]…
As you come to [Jesus], a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house…you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.
Jesus now promises to pour out that same Spirit on bread and wine that it might be His Body and Blood – let us prepare ourselves to partake once again of that Holy Bread and Wine. By this means we are assured of forgiveness, renewed and strengthened by grace, filled with His Joy, and become more a part of that City of God, with its towers reaching into the heavens!
Great is the Lord, and highly to be praised:
in the city of our God, even upon his holy hill!
…Walk about Zion, and go round about her,
number her towers,
consider well her ramparts,
go through her citadels,
that you may tell them that come after.
For this God is our God for ever and ever.
He shall be our guide for ever. [from Psalm 48]