Sermon given at Matins on Pentecost 2011
12 June 2011 at 10:00 am
The Reverend Professor Vernon White, Canon in Residence
‘And it came to pass…’. A delightfully evocative phrase of the King James Bible. Like ‘once upon a time’. It means we are in for a story. Perhaps history, perhaps fable or myth. But always, with a biblical story, a story told with a purpose, with a truth we need to hear, at many levels…
So what ‘came to pass’? It came to pass, in our first reading, that a people journeyed east and finally settled. And because they spoke the same language they co-operated and built a city of such sophistication that its tower reached to the heavens. In other words, a developed civilisation was born. Like most myths this has roots in real human history. This is what happens when a migrant and nomadic people settle. It allows them to build an infrastructure of what we call civilization. And their motivation to do so in this story is also realistic: ‘to make a name for ourselves’ and ‘lest we be dispersed’ . In other words, to assert and safeguard their power and security.
So like most myths this is not only or necessarily telling the truth about one particular people. It’s telling a truth about many people’s histories. And it came to pass that there was a Roman Empire, a British Empire, A Soviet Empire, an Arab empire, a European community, a scientific community, and all of these too built themselves up through a common language or common law – and they too have been motivated by the same heady brew of a quest for power and security.
But then the story goes on: it then came to pass that the Lord saw the city and tower and said ‘come let us go down and confuse their language that they may not understand each other’. And so they lost their power, fell apart, and Babel was born. Again, this is a story of others too. Sooner or later all empires and ideologies suffer this sort of deconstruction. It is written by God into the grain of our social reality. Quests for power and control inevitably carry the seeds of their own destruction within them. Why? Because to achieve their ambitions they have to depend too much on uniformity of language, custom, behaviour. They have to impose conformity on their members. And like a pressure cooker, there comes a time when uniformity can no longer be imposed, differences boil over, and empires crumble, as much from within as well as from without. Historians may disagree about the balance of forces which end the hegemony of over-reaching empires and cultures - but it happens. It needs to. It is God saving us from overreaching ourselves by imposing ourselves too much on others.
But now, today, the story goes on again. Because once upon another time Babel was, in a sense, reversed. This is the New Testament story of Pentecost, when a scattered group of different peoples with diverse languages met ,and, by the power of the Spirit of the risen Christ, found they could come together again even with their differences, to live and work effectively together. This story too has an origin in a real time and place. Even more clearly. It was in Jerusalem. It was in the period immediately following the real political and religious historical events of the death of Jesus, and the extraordinary experiences of his resurrection soon afterwards. But again, it too has a truth in other places too. In fact it was repeated almost immediately, as we heard in the second reading, in Caesarea when Peter again sees how the Spirit of God can welcome and unify people of different kinds. And it’s a story repeated time and again since, wherever the Spirit moves…
Note this, though. It’s not quite a reversal of Babel. Yes, this new experience of the Spirit does bring people and cultures back to together. It brings back understanding and co-operation. But on a different basis. In the Pentecost story each still speaks their own language, even while understanding each other. So it is a different kind of unity. It’s working together in a common Spirit, but doing so with our differences, rather than imposing uniformity. And this in turn transforms the natural drive for power and security we all have, making it less likely to carry the seeds of its own destruction. Now it’s a sharing of power and security with others who are different, rather than excluding them from it. This is the pentecostal Spirit Christ longs to give all nations, peoples, families, communities.
In some deeply influential writing theologian Miroslav Volf, tells how vital this is from his own experience and how vigilant we need to be. He warns that there is an ever present pressure to impose uniformity in social politics even in the freedom of his adopted America. He recognizes it from his experience of how this pressure eventually destroyed his native Croatia. What we must all seek, he writes - in Croatia, America, here, anywhere - is this Spirit of common life achieved by embracing our differences not excluding or rubbishing them. This doesn’t mean the sort of multiculturalism which leaves us separate - that’s not truly common life, that’s just back to Babel. But nor is it the sort of integration which makes us all the same.Do not think then that Pentecostal experience is just a private religious experience for religious people in churches. It is a story and gift of God for ordering the whole world. For saving the world. A challenge for politicians and policy formers as much as for anyone.
Of course, we should not think either that this is only a challenge for them. Allow yourself, personally, also to breathe in this Spirit of Christ which helps us all live and work with others who are different – in whatever world we are in, whether church, work place, or family: It is a powerful Spirit. It will build something lasting in our lives: a life with others that won’t collapse because we have imposed too much of our own shape on it, regardless of their differences and their needs. It is the Spirit which can literally save us all…