Today is Pentecost, the birthday of the Church, on which we celebrate the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the apostles. The story is told in Acts 2:1-21. In the Episcopal service I attended today, this passage was read alongside the story of Babel in Genesis. At the beginning of the Bible’s history of the human race, God created language barriers in order to thwart our plans to build a tower that would reach to heaven. At Pentecost, by contrast, the Holy Spirit made it possible for Jews from many nations, who were in the synagogue for the harvest festival of Shavuos, to understand the apostles’ preaching as if it were in their own language.
So does God want diversity or uniformity? To me, the juxtaposition of these stories suggests that God wants us united only under His banner. We couldn’t be trusted at Babel to use our communicative powers for good. Perhaps he allowed us to experience linguistic boundaries in order to teach us that we are creatures with a limited perspective, not a God’s-eye view. However, there are also truths that He wants us all to know. Our identity as God’s children transcends specific worldly identity markers. It’s interesting that the Jews at Pentecost heard the apostles’ words in their own languages, rather than having the Jews all suddenly understand the language the apostles were speaking. This might mean that the church should not pretend to stand above culture, but instead should embrace a variety of approaches to sharing the gospel in different cultures.
Readers of this blog know that I’m between churches at the moment. The parish I attended today has a wonderful charismatic minister (in both the theological and colloquial senses of the word) but is too far away for regular attendance. I had somewhat reconciled myself to praying at home with the online hymnal. When the minister today encouraged us to invite the whirlwind power of the Holy Spirit into our lives, I realized one reason why we need collective worship. The Holy Spirit is too intense to handle on one’s own. I’ve been doing some very deep soul-searching this spring, and I feel like a ping-pong ball that’s just going “whap-whap-whap” between God and Satan. Euphoria! Depression! Writer’s block! Preach the gospel! Annoy people! HELP!
So…thank you to the Church of the Ascension (NYC) where I was baptized six Pentecosts ago, and all the other churches and prayer groups that have helped me forge ahead on this amazing journey.