Pentecost Sunday: Unity in diversity

A reflection by Josh Olds

Well, it’s good to see so many of you on this particular weekend. It is a special weekend isn’t it? Many of us will have had it marked in our calendars, you may have possibly made plans with friends or family. And of course the reason for this weekend’s significance is that it is … I’m sure you all knew I was referring to it being Pentecost! While in New Zealand this year Pentecost happens to occur on a long weekend by way of Queen’s birthday, in a number of places around the globe, particularly in Europe, the Monday after Pentecost is a public holiday in its own right, marking its significance. Pentecost is of course a significant day in the history of our faith. The day in which the community of Jesus’ followers encountered the Holy Spirit, the animating presence of God, and began to be formed into the church. Pentecost therefore, is often regarded as the church’s moment of inception, its birthday so to speak.

The lead up to the striking events of Pentecost, as told in our Acts 2 passage this morning, are that a few weeks earlier, prior to Jesus’ ascension – his physical departure, he instructs his followers to stay in Jerusalem, that it would be there that they would encounter the presence of God in the Holy Spirit. As they’re waiting in Jerusalem, the time comes for the ‘Feast of Weeks’ – an annual festival where Jewish people from all over would gather in Jerusalem to celebrate and make offerings of the first fruits of harvest season. The population of Jerusalem would swell during this time with thousands and thousands Jewish pilgrims all making their way to the city, which created a vast diversity of language and culture throughout Jerusalem, as we see alluded to in v. 5 of our passage “Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven…”

This time of culturally diverse celebration is what forms the context for when the followers of Jesus’ do encounter the Holy Spirit. Which, as we’re told, all appears to happen in quite dramatic fashion. We read of a rushing wind coming from heaven and tongues of fire coming to rest above each of Jesus’ followers – an acknowledgement perhaps, that the God whose presence shows up throughout the Old Testament in the form of fire, had now come to take up residence in the people of God themselves. Our passage then describes this really odd scene. As Jesus’ followers encounter the Holy Spirit they seemingly begin to declare the wonders of God in foreign languages, languages that they themselves didn’t previously know, but languages that all of those visiting Jerusalem for the big festival did. Everyone present seems to somehow hear about the wonders of God in their native tongue.

This whole scene, perplexing as it seems, bears interesting parallels with the first reading we had this morning from Genesis 11, the story of the Tower of Babel. The infamous tale of humanity banding together to construct a tower to the heavens in order to make a name for themselves. As the story goes, God apparently doesn’t like what he sees and puts a stop to humanity’s construction venture by scattering the people across the globe and in doing so initiating cultural and linguistic diversity, at least that’s the way I’ve typically had this passage framed for me.

It’s interesting when you step back and take a big picture view of the entire story of the Bible, it takes quite an intriguing shape. As Wycliffe Bible Translator Eddie Arthur points out, the Bible begins by describing the relationship between God and all of humanity. Then for a large part of the biblical story the focus is on God’s relationship with one people – the descendants of Abraham, the Israelites. And then towards its end, the Bible begins to broaden out, once again expanding the focus to God’s hope for all of humanity. A little bit like a hose with a funnel at both ends. The interesting part is that at the two transition points from widening to narrowing and vice versa, we find these two stories about diversity – the Tower of Babel, the Bible’s first mention of diverse culture and language, and Pentecost, where people hear of the wonders of God in their native tongues. There seems to be some sort of connection, some parallel between these two stories.[1]

Now, as I alluded to, the story of the Tower of Babel has, I think, unfortunately often been pinned as a story of divine punishment for humanity’s pride and ignorance. An interpretation that seems to imply that diversity was the result of an act of judgement by God. That the vibrancy of cultural variety, the beauty of diversity came about by way of rebuke. Is it really a punishment from God that we are all different? I don’t think so. I think the Tower of Babel account sheds a different light, one in which God sees a better way for a people bent on uniformity and homogeneity.

It seems God’s intent has always been for humanity to spread out and fill the earth, yet in this story the desire of the people is to remain one, to settle in one place with one language maintaining one way of life. The passage even notes how the people feared the prospect of being scattered, of being distinct from one another, of being dissimilar – these things pose a threat to oneness and sameness. Don’t we feel like this too sometimes? The fear of other, the threat that unfamiliarity poses, the conflicts and tensions that arise out of difference. There’s comfort in familiarity, in what we know, in being around those that look, think and speak like us. Of course there’s an understandable side to that, we all want to belong, none of us want to be alone. But should this then mean we limit ourselves to the familiar and reject what is different? In the Babel account God seems concerned by this pursuit of sameness, where humanity desires uniformity, God desires diversity. I like the way that biblical scholar Eric Barreto describes the story of the Tower of Babel – “as an expression of God’s greatest hopes for all of humankind, not a punishment.”[2] God sees a better way for a people limited by fear and familiarity.

This is upheld in the events of Pentecost where diversity is not rectified by the presence of God in the Holy Spirit, but is affirmed and celebrated. Maybe this odd scene of foreign languages being spoken actually reveals something important about how God imagines the world and the church, about how God wants us to be with one another. It seems significant to me that through the Spirit’s enabling, the very first public expression ever made by the church engaged with a variety of different cultures in a variety of different languages. There wasn’t a language, or a culture, or a form that people had to conform to in order to engage with the Holy Spirit, instead what God does through the Spirit is communicate with people through many languages of the world. This highlights an important truth, which I think Eric Barreto, the biblical scholar I quoted a moment ago, sums up well – in relation to the parallels between Babel and Pentecost he says: “I think this shows something about God’s commitments to us. God doesn’t require us to leave our identities or our particularities at the door, but to bring them fully with us.” That in my mind is good news indeed!

There isn’t a criteria we must meet or a benchmark we must exceed. God meets us where we are, God speaks to us in the many languages we speak, and does not impose another language on us. God is not one who asks us to build towers and make our way up to him, but who in the person of Jesus, and in the presence of the Holy Spirit is one who comes to us. And surely if that’s God’s posture towards us, then that is to be our posture to one another. To humbly serve one another, to lovingly accept and welcome those different from us, to resist seeking the comfort of sameness, easier said than done I know. We can be particularly proficient at surrounding ourselves and our communities with cattle stops can’t we? Whether knowingly, or implicitly setting standards that others must adhere to to join us. But the message of Pentecost is that God comes to meet us where we are, therefore stirring us to do so with one another. As a community of God’s people there’s probably something not right if we all look, sound, and think the same. To borrow a line from Anne that I heard earlier this week – Pentecost is God’s “yes!” to diversity, so come as you are, let others come as they are, and be united not by uniformity, but by the God who dreamed up diversity and who meets us all exactly where we are.

[1] Arthur, Eddie. “Babel, Pentecost and the Blessing of Diversity.”

[2] Barreto, Eric. “What happened at Pentecost.”