Sermon for June 5, 2022

Day of Pentecost, John 14:8-27

Ancient people, including the ancient Hebrews, had to have wondered about how it came to be that human beings were located all over the place and spoke very different languages. So it is that we have a mythic accounting of this in Genesis, today’s first reading.

Did the Lord in fact come down to confuse the people’s language and to scatter them abroad over the face of all the earth? Probably not. But just because this story is mythic doesn’t mean it doesn’t convey important truths.

The truth was then and is now that human beings inhabit all manner of lands, and they live together in tribal or national or other units with distinctive cultures and languages.

It’s also true that when human beings unite for a common cause, we are capable of great and wondrous things, like figuring out how to live together in cities and to make bricks and use other technologies to construct towers with tops in the heavens.

It’s also true that the same forces which bring us together for good can tear us apart. Notice that it was fear and overstated pride that motivated the building of the city and the erection of the tower. As it’s written in Genesis: “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves [there’s the pride or hubris]; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth [there’s the fear].”

What the people feared – being scattered, a fear which pridefully motivated their coming together to build the city and tower – came to pass. They were in fact scattered and more, their languages were confused. Hence the designation, Babel, which in Hebrew means to confuse or confound.

Being scattered and confused is the human truth we know today with our own unique permutations of all of this. More and more humans live in major cities. Our towers ever increase in height and they do literally, in fact, have their tops in the heavens.

Yet even within our cities, there is a sense of being scattered and confused. Even when we speak the same language, we find ourselves divided and confused. Just think of “fake news” and “alternative facts.” We increasingly live in separate cocoons or virtual bubbles with different sets and sources of and criteria for information and truth – even in one nation.
Such scattered confusion has been true for so much of human history. And it’s certainly painfully true of our condition today. And scattered confusion among peoples in society does not make for a sense of well-being. No. It’s full of the weight of sin, and can even lead to death. Some of the murderous rage we’re seeing in massacres is the bitter fruit of our being divided from each other and confused about what it means to live together in community with common cause and shared values.

But it is into this very reality of being scattered and confused that the Holy Spirit was sent on the ancient Day of Pentecost described in the book of Acts. And it’s into this same scattered confusion on this our Day of Pentecost even now in 2022 that the Spirit is sent to us yet again.

The coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost is the exact opposite of what happened in the mythic story of Babel. The result at Babel was that people were scattered abroad in confusion, unable to understand others who spoke different languages – a centrifugal force of outward motion. The Holy Spirit’s coming results in bringing people together where the languages of the nations, though diverse and different, nonetheless bring about intelligibility and understanding – a centripetal force of movement to the center. Pentecost is a corrective to Babel.

Bringing people together in greater unity and in mutual understanding makes for peace and well-being. It’s full of gospel grace. It’s good news. Here again are the salient moments in the account in Acts which speaks to unity and understanding:

“When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place…. [a sign of unity among Jesus’ followers]

All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, ‘Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? …in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” (cf. Acts 2:1, 4-9) [Clearly the gift of speaking in foreign tongues, given by the Spirit, nurtured understanding on the part of the hearers from all nations who had come together because of all of the commotion.]

What is it about the Holy Spirit that makes for uniting rather than scattering, and understanding rather than confusion? To gain clarity about this question, let’s turn to the gospel reading for today from John.

There we learn that God, the one whom Jesus calls Father, promises send the Spirit as another Advocate, the Spirit of truth. And this Spirit abides with the ones to whom the Spirit is sent. Moreover, this Spirit, this Advocate “will teach [us] everything, and remind [us] of all that [Jesus had] said to [us].” And this results in peace, Christ’s peace, not the world’s peace, and calms troubled hearts and lays fears to rest.

In these ways, teaching and reminding, imparting Christ’s peace, calming fears, the Holy Spirit does the work of uniting us in mutual understanding. Again, this is a corrective and antidote to scattered confusion.

And as I say repeatedly in my sermons, it’s precisely here in this place that the Holy Spirit visits again and again each week and is active teaching us and reminding us of all that Jesus said. It’s here that we proclaim Christ crucified and risen from the dead. It’s all here in word and sacraments where Christ is present through the invocation of the Spirit over water and bread and wine, not to mention the proclamation of the word.

It’s here in this place that the death and resurrection, the ascension and the coming of the Holy Spirit blend together into one magnificent fabric, woven together in intimate inter-relatedness, a whole sacred tapestry enacted in human history that reveals the fullness of the presence of our God in Christ Jesus.

In this place, we share in the very Trinitarian life of God. It’s here where we recognize the truth of what Jesus is reported by John to have said to Philip: “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father…. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me…. And I will ask the Father, who will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever.” (John 14:9b, 11a, 16) Here in this passage and in this place we see the persons of the Godhead, Father, Son, Spirit, seeds planted toward what would become our Trinitarian understanding of one God in three persons.

It's here in this place that our faith is generated and regenerated for the work that God has entrusted to us. Which is to say, in so far as we who follow Jesus in these latter days are given the gifts of uniting for mutual understanding, we are called and sent to the scattered and confused world to nurture the coming together of disparate peoples toward common understandings.

This mission seems to be an impossibly tall order in our bitterly divided world which is ever more confounded and confused. But our God-given mission is thus all the more crucial as we seek unity and common understanding in our scattered world.

And here’s the wondrous thing: Jesus promises in John that we will end up doing greater works than even he did during his three-year earthly ministry. Here’s what John reported that Jesus said: “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son.” (John 14:12-13)

We might be tempted to think that we’ll do these greater works on our own. No, that’s not the case. Rather, the greater works remain the result of Christ’s action made possible by his returning to the right hand of God which ushers in a ubiquitous and universal rule throughout time and space, a reign in heaven and on earth, the whole cosmos, for all eternity. And it is the Holy Spirit who proceeds from the Father and the Son who calls together the church as the body of Christ, incarnate throughout the world. The greater works we end up doing as church, as the body of Christ, have everything to do with the universality of the church’s impact in the power of the Spirit acting throughout the world and throughout the ages.

Thus, we pray, veni sancte spiritus, come, Holy Spirit, enliven us for the work you’ve entrusted to us in nurturing greater unity and mutual understanding for healing, that the world would know less Babel, and more the loving, forgiving, gracious truth imparted at Pentecost. For Christ is risen. Christ is risen indeed, alleluia. Amen.