By Revd. Canon Prof. Martyn Percy
Pentecost commemorates a number of events. Principally, it marks the coming of the Holy Spirit after the resurrection and ascension of Jesus. A frightened group of bereft disciples are suddenly empowered by the spirit, resulting in the birth of the Church. Luke, the writer of the book of Acts, begins his work by describing the phenomena, the spirit settling on disciples like ‘tongues of fire’. The disciples become apostles, sealed by the spirit.
The use of the word ‘tongue’ is important here, for what follows in the book of Acts provides a narrative link. From tongues of fire, we move to speaking in tongues. According to Luke, the disciples are able to stand before a vast and cosmopolitan crowd, and address each person in their own language. Suddenly, the apostles become multi-lingual, with the gospel being preached in Latin, Greek and the like.
But this account in the book of Acts is best read analogically. In the Old Testament (Genesis, chapter 11), the story of the Tower at Shinar tells of how all the different languages in the world came to be. Once upon a time, all nations spoke with one voice. But then people got ideas above their station, and decided to build a tower to heaven, in order to get on God’s level. God, who liked his privacy and primacy, sowed dissension amongst the ranks of builders by inventing new languages that hampered the construction. Shinar became Babel, from which we derive the word the English word ‘babble’. Not for the last time, an ambitious building project is scuppered through poor communication.
The account in Acts is probably an attempt to redeem and reconfigure this fable. The message is this. In the church – a construction of the Spirit – all languages are recognised and spoken. The spirit is universal, not local: the gospel is for all people. So, the first act of the spirit is to reverse the tragedy of Babel: God now speaks to everyone, and the church becomes a global lingua. The language is that of the Spirit.
When you read the account of Pentecost today, how do you think unity and diversity should be expressed in the church?
Look up the story of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11, and ask what lessons the church and world might learn from this.
Set our hearts on fire with love for thee, O Christ, that in that flame we may love thee and our neighbor as ourselves. Amen.
Revd. Canon Prof. Martyn Percy is Principal of Ripon College Cuddesdon