Pentecost – Sermon preached by the Provost, John Conway – Sunday 5th June

Genesis 11.1-9; Acts 2.1-21; John 14.8-17, 25-27

Our first reading this morning told the story of the tower of Babel. We are in Genesis chapter 11: the final act, one might say, of pre-history. After this, the Book of Genesis embarks on the story of Abraham, and we are into almost recognisable history (however loosely that term is understood). But in the first 11 chapters of Genesis we are in myth, a narrative that articulates how and why the world is the way the world is: we have had the story of creation, of the expulsion of humanity from the garden. We have had Cain and Abel; and Noah, his ark, and the rainbow of God’s covenant with the earth. And the final act in this mythic unfolding narrative is God scattering, creating a babble, to confuse and divide a humanity that has used its one universal language to try and colonise heaven. Humanity has used the power given to it at the start of Genesis, the power of dominion, to dominate, and not to steward; to build up, up, up instead of reaching out sideways. The mythic storytelling lays out a disconnected world, where people are divided from each other in particular by language.

First published in 1951, Ethnologue, is a book which documents the languages of the world. In that first edition, the linguist Richard Pittman identified 46 known languages in the world. In the latest, 25th edition of Ethnologue, published earlier this year, 7,151 known living languages are documented. It is worth noting that that is down from the 7,299 living languages recorded 15 years ago – nearly 150 languages have been lost in that time. Ethnologue, in the 70 years it has been documenting language, testifies to the rapid process of globalisation, that both makes us more aware of those different languages – from 46 to over 7,000 known languages – and to the ways the process of globalisation often hastens their demise. We are more than ever before perhaps, one world. We live that globalisation: information and knowledge and capital flow around our world with unprecedented speed. We live in the age of the internet, and also of Macdonald’s. And yet we are as divided and disconnected from each other as ever. The tower of Babel retains its mythic power to describe our own historical moment: we reach both literally and figuratively for the skies, and many a global company dreams of a universal language where its brand is understood and bought by all, and yet are we colonising heaven, or creating hell?

Our reading from the Book of Acts, that moment of Pentecost, that coming of the Spirit, is of course proclaimed as the moment when the legacy of Babel is overcome. But it’s vital to note that that is not by a reversal of Babel. Pentecost is not the discovery of a universal language, but the moment when a diversity of people are enabled by the Spirit to hear the proclamation of the resurrection in their own language:

‘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.’ 

Christianity begins in a moment of translation, of meeting in a foreign tongue. The disciples are as confused as everyone else for they are not in control of the process, it has taken them beyond the boundaries of the known. They discover a Holy Spirit who, whilst an advocate, an articulator of God’s deeds of power, is  not one who sets them against others, but help them make connections, find and articulate the truth lived out together. The Spirit creates a community where the stranger is not a threat, where the barriers of language are overcome by taking us out of our own mother tongue, our own comfort zone, and creating something new. Diversity without division, and unity without uniformity, characterizes that earliest church.

Pentecost undoes our babbling confusion not by imposing a single language, but by enabling the Spirit’s truth to be known in translation. The unity of our humanity is found in those 7,151 languages, not destroyed by them. What makes us different, one from another is no longer seen as that which keeps us apart, but that which together praises God, the source of all life.

We’ve been encouraged to think a lot about unity these last few days: the Queen’s Jubilee is regularly evoked as a moment of national unity, and I don’t doubt the truth of that. The coincidence of Pentecost and the Jubilee might help us think through the nature and character of that almost intangible unity we celebrate. For it is hard to put your finger on what characterizes it. That unity finds its focus, of course, in a  redoubtable, formidable yet frail 96 year old. Finds its focus in our Queen, who has embraced a life of service and duty and devotion. And yet the Jubilee is about more than her, however much we celebrate her life and reign at its heart – the Jubilee is a national moment, capturing something of the nation’s spirit; it transcends any one of us and yet unites us.

And however much a 70 year anniversary helps us look back, it’s not just about nostalgia either. Some us of remember previous Jubilees – maybe even the start of our Queen’s reign, but that looking back also reminds us how much has changed; and part of that change is how much more diverse a nation we are now than we used to be, or thought of ourselves as. The forces of globalisation have profoundly shaped us these last 70 years, just as the legacies of empire, and yes, slavery, assert themselves and ask hard questions of who we are. Those voices are part of the Jubilee too, the national story which finds focus and voice in moments like this.

And in the very understandable absences of the Queen from moments of this weekend’s celebrations there has been a visible handing on of the reins that begins to hint and shape the future. The Jubilee matters because it embraces all that within the overall joy and power of celebration: the sense of an unfolding story; the strength found in diversity and the praise of many voices; the drawing us into the truth of our future, and not just a nostalgic clinging to the past. God’s Spirit which brought new life to the early church, is at work among us too. Like the first disciples, we are not in control, however much we might like to be. The will to power that tries to build towers that conquer, is undone as we discover the work of the Spirit by speaking the acts of God in new tongues, new ways, new points of meeting. Our unity is not something we can tie down; our truth is not something already known; both are joyfully discovered in the work of the reconciling, transforming, hopeful and surprising Spirit. Praise be to God. Amen.