A sermon preached in All Saints by The Reverend Professor David Brown
Sunday 19 May 2013, The Day of Pentecost
Genesis 11.1-9; Acts 2.1-12; John 14.8-17 & 25-7
Let me approach the theme of Pentecost indirectly by first taking you back to a holiday I had about ten years ago. For the most part a typical holiday destination on my part would be fairly conventional but not on this occasion, for I spent the time exploring the religious sites associated with the Aztecs and other ancient peoples of Mexico. Those of you familiar with their rituals may already be worrying that your stomach is about to turn as I regale you with the gruesome details of human sacrifice. However, that is no part of my plan.
Instead, I want simply to alert you to where such sacrifices were performed, at the very top of a great stepped platform. The one used by the Aztecs in their capital city no longer survives but in nearby Teotihuacan there remains the great so-called Pyramid of the Sun. Ascent is by a central stone staircase – without bannisters – that rises 63 metres or 206 feet into the air. One day in the summer heat I climbed it, along with two companions. All three of us reached the top but when she turned round to view the descent, one of my companions, a middle aged American lady, announced that she was not going anywhere until the American Embassy sent a helicopter to get her down. I sympathized with her objections; the steps were very steep and narrow, and seemed to presume very much smaller feet than any of us had. And indeed I myself ended up going back down backwards. In her case the helicopter never arrived but three Mexicans did, who sweated their path down the steps with their rather buxom load.
I am narrating the incident to you now because it may help fix in your imagination what an ancient ziggurat was like, the exalted platforms for worship that were once common in the ancient Middle East, and upon which the story in our first reading from Genesis is almost certainly based. Unfortunately, the way the narrator tells the story it is simply the extent of human ambition in reaching to the skies that is condemned as a single language is replaced by multiple tongues, a real ‘babel’ in fact. The
absence of any deeper explanation is presumably because the original hearers of the story would have known full well all the deleterious consequences that followed from such vaulting human ambition. For a start thousands of slaves would have been required to perform the tasks that we now reserve for machinery, and from whence would the rulers have got such quantities of slaves except through warfare? Not only that, there would be a constant need for new victims for the human sacrifice perpetrated on the platforms. So the point is not that the builders of the tower are punished for simply trying to reach the heavens but that the very act of doing so already embodied sources of division, with one set of people set against another, and thus implicitly different tongues and understandings of the world.
Turn now to our second reading, and what happened at Pentecost. Again, it is all too easy to miss the main point. Certainly, one major contrast is directional. Instead of men building a tower to the heavens, it is now a case of tongues of fire coming down from heaven. But we miss the point if we stop there, for the key verses are 7 and 8 where we hear: ‘And they were all amazed and marvelled, saying one to another, Behold, are not all these which speak Galileans? And now we hear every man in our own tongue, wherein we were born?’ The key point is thus reversal of the Tower of Babel; instead of division through language, all alike understanding one another. So the point here has nothing to do with what we now call speaking in tongues where an interpreter is usually required. To draw a trivial comparison, it is more like the instantaneous translations provided at meetings of the European Union.
I call the comparison trivial because once again the main point is lost if our primary focus remains on the miraculous aspects of what happened. What Luke is really trying to draw our attention to is the way in which through a common reliance on God differences can be transcended and a community really act as one. That is why that same chapter ends with talk of the disciples now continuing daily in worship and prayer together and sharing all things in common (2.46-7). Above all, pay attention to how the passage suggests such mutual understanding was achieved. What Luke doesn’t say is that there was now mutual understanding because everyone present now understood the apostles’ Galilean version of Aramaic. Rather, the claim is that, as they listened, they seem to hear the apostles address them, as it were, in their own language. In other words, there was
no simple uniformity but a real attempt to address them where they were in all their own unique individuality.
And it is this pattern that is repeated in our gospel reading. Jesus promises a Spirit who will reside in each and every one of us, guiding and comforting us. If any of you are puzzled by why this is not ‘as the world gives,’ as Jesus repeatedly asserts, just go back for a moment to the illustration with which I began, those massive platforms which the Aztecs and other ancient peoples employed. It is easy to think of such peoples as primitive but in many ways they were not. The Aztec capital, for example, was ten times the size of London at the time, with beautiful lakes and waterways, and some achievements not surpassed by Britain till the nineteenth century, for example universal education. The point is thus that there can plenty to boast about in a particular culture and it still be rotten to the core. What makes the difference is when this is all placed under the judgement of God and every human being valued as God’s unique creation, each able to hear the divine address in their own unique way. When that is so, then all will have peace, and our hearts be neither troubled, nor afraid.
The Reverend Professor David Brown