June 4, 2017
1 Corinthians 12:3b-13
A running joke in my family is based on the fact that my dad is Swedish, and my mom is Norwegian. When they were married, a couple folks played this up. One asked my dad how he felt about “mixed marriages.” Another gave them as a wedding card a picture of the bridge between Sweden and Norway. All through my childhood, we had displayed on a single shelf, two flags: one Swedish, and one Norwegian, as a reminder that though we are different, we can at least sit together on the same shelf.
It’s a silly joke – the enmity between the two Scandinavian countries really ends with Ole and Lena jokes. But while there may not actually be any cultural friction between my parents, or Swedes and Norwegians more generally, there is plenty of other cultural friction in our world. Of course this is true on the global scene – the world is a diverse place that is becoming a larger and larger mixing pot as people leave their home countries in search of a better life – usually either to escape violence and unrest as refugees, or to find work so they can support their families. Though the diversity of cultures present in America is one of the things I love most about this country, it also presents us with a challenge, to figure out how to live together and respect one another, despite our differences. It’s also important to remember that cultural friction is not just a result of migration from other countries – there is plenty of cultural difference among those who have lived in America for many generations. I just read the excellent best-selling book, Hillbilly Elegy, a memoir by a man about my age who grew up as a self-identified hillbilly in rural Ohio and Kentucky, and went on to go to Yale Law School. He describes a culture, right here in my own country, which is entirely foreign to me as a born and bred middle-class American! The lack of understanding about the different cultures that make up our country makes it difficult to address many of the most profound social issues that plague our country.
Yes, even as the world becomes more globalized and accessible, in ways it also becomes more divided. We are divided by language, income, experience, outlook, values, culture, religion… and much more. The Bible story that describes this reality is the Tower of Babel. You remember that one? The once-united people of the earth, in a moment of lapsed trust in their God, decided to build a tower so high they could reach heaven. God says, “Not on my watch!” and mixes up all their language so they can’t complete the project. The language was just the beginning – from there, the division of our world has only increased.
But, the Tower of Babel was not meant to be the end of the story. Today is the day of Pentecost, and it is often described as the answer to, or even the reversal of, Babel. In Babel, the language was all mixed up, symbolizing great division and lack of cooperation among the people of the world. At Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit enters the scene, suddenly all the different nations can once again understand each other – and with that new ability comes also the hope of renewed community, and renewed ability for cooperation as one Church.
Problem is… doesn’t it still feel like we live in Babel, and not Pentecost? Division is still so prevalent. Working “across the aisle” seems a thing of the past, whether in Washington or even in our families and personal relationships. Finding common ground is increasingly difficult. So if Pentecost really is meant to be a reversal of Babel, then what is that supposed to look like?
Well, here’s what it doesn’t look like: it doesn’t mean our differences suddenly go away. We still speak different languages, and have different ways of understanding the world. And maybe we don’t want those differences to go away! If we are to take Paul seriously, in his letter to the Corinthians we heard a moment ago, having these differences can actually be an advantage! When the Spirit blows into our lives, she equips us with different gifts, perspectives, approaches, and abilities to see the challenges of the world from different angels. I, for one, am incredibly grateful that there are some people who enjoy and are good at math, or building things, or data management, or technology – so that I don’t have to be, and I can instead focus on the things that do bring me joy!
So no, the Spirit doesn’t come to eliminate those differences. Rather, the Spirit comes to be present with us in those differences, and in the myriad challenges we face because of them – and by that presence, the Spirit equips us to use what would have been our disruptive, damaging differences to instead build up this Church and this world. You see, the Holy Spirit is not some sort of superhero, sent to rescue us. Rather, the Spirit equips, encourages, and stays with us, and helps us to see the needs of our neighbors and community.
But that’s not all. The Spirit also equips us to take the next step. You see, we can’t overlook the role the Spirit plays in our text from John, which is sometimes called, “John’s Pentecost.” In this version of the coming of the Spirit, there is no raucous wind, or fire, or speaking in other languages. There is peace, and there is commission: “Peace be with you,” Jesus says. “As the Father sent me, so I send you.” You see, the Spirit’s presence with us is very good, but it is this sending out piece that will change the world. In order to heal our brokenness, the Spirit sends us out into the places where difference and division might try to tear down, so that we can instead bring the spirit of love. We are sent out into situations that might not be comfortable for us, but it is still possible for us to be there and do God’s work because of the promise of the Spirit’s peace. In short, we are sent out to do the work of the Church, bringing peace, forgiveness, reconciliation, and hope to a tumultuous, broken, hurting world.
Where might be the Spirit be sending you in this time and place, to accomplish that goal of healing division? Perhaps the Spirit is sending you to attend a part of Synod Assembly this weekend. The theme of this assembly is “Building Bridges,” and will focus on global and local mission. It is open to anyone – there are several workshops on topics like, building a relationship with a congregation in Zimbabwe, or learning about Islam from our local imam, or immigration and refugee resettlement, or understanding the accompaniment model of mission, or the effect of incarceration on families. Would learning about those topics help you heal divisions in our community? Or, perhaps the Spirit is sending you to learn about local ministries, such as the one our friend Wala will tell us about today that serves people with disabilities. Or perhaps the Spirit is sending you to pray and give to ELCA global ministries, as you can read about on the insert in your bulletin. Or perhaps the Spirit is sending you to stay closer to home, working on reconciliation in your family or between you and a friend, or engaging in those difficult conversations about our differences so that instead of letting the difference divide us, we can find a way that it will make us stronger, like in the Corinthian community Paul is writing to. Who knows where the Spirit will send you!
The coming of the Spirit undoes Babel, but not by removing the barriers. It undoes Babel by showing us how to overcome, by being present with us as we face those barriers and challenges, by showing us the way to dismantle them, and reach out to those whose language or understanding differs from our own. I believe that once we let the Spirit send us to these places, where we will inevitably encounter people who are different from us, who may even make us feel uncomfortable, that we will also be moved beyond our personal concerns, and become better equipped to see the world as a whole, to understand how to work for the greater good, and not just for our individual needs. We will see ourselves as a part of the global community, with neighbors to love and serve all over the world. By the power of the Holy Spirit, this is our mission.
Let us pray… Come, Holy Spirit. By your power, show us the way to peace. Send us out into our communities and into the world to heal divisions, to live out your love, and to be good neighbors to all our neighbors, near and far. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Listen here: PentecostA (6.4.17)