The Gift of Tongues

If you could pick one story in the Bible to capture the beauty of God’s intentions for the Church, you find it in the story of Pentecost. Pentecost is the “Now what?” answer for the followers of Jesus living in between Jesus’ first and second coming. It reflects God’s mission in the world and God’s vision for the church.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

I use a Lectionary App to find out which Scriptures to do each week. (It also has good daily readings and prayers if you’re interested.) On the app, there were readings for the “Pentecost vigil,” a preparation for Pentecost. The main reading is the story of Babel.

If you aren’t familiar with the story, I suggest you go back and read it because this story is key to understanding what is happening at Pentecost.

At Babel, the people of the world all look the same and speak the same language. So they decide to build a tower to heaven to show how impressive they are. There are hints throughout the story of this representing empires requiring conformity using their power and technology. God knows they will be able to dominate all of humanity if this line of thinking continues.

The story of Genesis is not only the story of sin spreading through the world, but it is the story of God limiting the effects of sin. Human do awful things, then God steps in for damage control. Human beings sin has real consequences, but God enters in to offer grace and redemption so the problem of sin does not spiral completely out of control.

At Babel, God begins to limit the effects of the sin of domination by offering a gift.

The gift of diversity.

In this situation, the gift causes confusion, but it also limits the power of sin.

The tower will not be built.

Domination and conformity will not have the last word.

But now, something new is created.

As new tongues are created, new voices are heard and humanity grows more diverse and beautiful than it ever has before.

Often we look at this story and think the institution of differing tongues and diversity is a punishment. But in reality, it is a gift, and a new way of God spreading goodness and grace throughout the world.

At Pentecost, the gathering of people reflects this diversity. People from all over the world who have nothing in common and reflect many different cultures and nationalities have gathered to worship the God of Israel.

At Babel, diversity separates and divides. This is the story the people at Pentecost are used to. But at Pentecost, diverse people are united and celebrated.

We have to understand Babel because Pentecost is the reversal of Babel. But this reversal does not eliminate diversity or difference. This reversal is the release of another gift: communication.

pentecost_3Through the power of the Spirit, people who once were completed divided by race, culture, language, and even religious belief now all hear the same words of grace and love and mercy.

Those were formally on the outside have been brought into conversation.

Pentecost reverses Babel not by eliminating difference, but by creating communication across difference. The new tongue of the new humanity is one where the barriers of difference are broken down and communication occurs across difference.

The work of the Spirit is the breaking down of barriers to create communication.

This is the vision of the Church: no outsiders, acceptance of the unacceptable, care for the forgotten, welcome for the misfit.

It is a vision of hospitality, where God reveals the table where all are welcome.

Letty Russell (who helped me look at Pentecost in this new light) defines hospitality like this:

Hospitality is the practice of God’s welcome by reaching across difference to participate in God’s actions [of] bringing justice and healing.

This hospitality and welcome is the mission of the Church. The Church is a place where difference is no longer feared but welcomed and embraced.

I think we need to recapture this vision.

Too often as Christians we are concerned with conformity and everyone looking a lot like us. But this is not the vision God has for the Church.

The Church should be the place where people look and say: “How did you get those people in the same room together?”

It is a bold and difficult vision, but Pentecost reveals that the source of this communication across difference is the Spirit of God. Communication is a gift. It is not something we create, it is something we receive and live into.

When we trust the Spirit to move us in more hospitable ways, we begin to live into the future God promises through Jesus, and participate in the work of Jesus in the world.

Hospitality is the new tongue of God’s people. May we always see it as a gift we receive and extend. And may we come to see difference and diversity as one of the many beautiful ways God is revealed and reflected in the world.

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