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They wanted to make a name for themselves.
They wanted to be somebody. To be big. To be famous.
So they decided to make a big tower.
Of course they did, right? It’s classic. Powerful people build things—particularly powerful men. To show how important you are, build something. A statue, a pyramid, a skyscraper, whatever it is, but make it huge. The bigger the better. Bigger than anybody else’s. That’s how you know you’re important. That’s how other people know you’re important.
There was a real Tower of Babel. It was the ziggurat, the stair-stepped tower at the heart of Babylon. Babylon was the most powerful city of the ancient world, until it wasn’t. The Israelites who told this story didn’t have much love for Babylon, where they’d been held captive for two generations. They reveled in the wordplay of Babylon/Babel/babble, which works in Hebrew about the way it does in English. The Babylonians had a great empire, like so many other empires before and since. They tried to bring the whole world together, which in some ways is a noble goal, except of course that it meant bringing the whole world together under the thumb of Babylon. That’s the thing about a tower. It marks the center of something. And it always has a top. It’s a good symbol for the way human beings tend to try to create unity, which is mostly by building empires. Empires tend to talk about uniting many peoples together—but in practice one group sits at the center. To quote George Orwell, everyone is equal, but some are more equal than others. A nobleman in Babylon is more so than, say, a peasant woman in the conquered province of Judah. The closer to the center, the higher up the tower you are, the better.
Now the story about the Tower of Babel is clearly based on Babylon. But it’s not just about that one empire. It’s an origin story about all our human efforts to build towers; to make a name for ourselves and create unity based on sameness. The Roman Empire preached peace and prosperity through military might. The British Empire preached progress through the spreading of genteel English civilization to all corners of the world. The Soviet Union preached the brotherhood of all peoples through the dictatorship of the proletariat. All those empires claimed to bring many peoples together in unity. But everyone knew the difference between a Roman slave and Caesar, or between a Punjabi villager and Queen Victoria, or between a pensioner in Kazakhstan and a Kremlin bureaucrat with a big Moscow apartment.
In the Genesis story we see what happens to empires. They fragment. Sooner or later, the myth collapses and the center no longer holds. And what we’re left with is division. We saw it happen in the former Yugoslavia after the Cold War as Croatians, Serbians, and Bosniaks shelled one another after living alongside one another for decades under a dictatorship that preached unity.
And in human terms, that’s the choice we have. A false unity based on empire or fragmentation and division.
That’s where Pentecost comes in.
This is the day when God opened the way of eternal life to every people and nation. This is the day when God undid the curse of Babel.
Two thousand years or so ago, on Pentecost, the fiftieth day after Passover, the followers of Jesus were all together in one place, waiting for whatever would happen next. And then the Spirit moved among them. Tongues of fire appeared, one on each of them. “Tongues,” another pun, because here again just like in English “tongues” can also mean “languages.” And then the real miracle began.
As the disciples began to preach, they spoke not one language but many. Parthians, Medes, Pamphylians and all the rest, heard the good news in their own native tongues. Not in the common languages of the empire they used to communicate with each other, but their own native tongues, the one they learned on their mothers’ laps. Oh, a few heard it in Latin, those visitors from Rome that get mentioned toward the end of that long list. But they’re not first, no more important than anyone else.
And what happened next was just as important. From this moment in the Acts of the Apostles, the disciples begin to go out. They leave the house where they’ve been staying and get out there, as Luke puts it, starting from Jerusalem, out to the rest of Judea, and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.
At Pentecost God creates a new kind of unity. One without a tower. No one place is at the center. No one group is at the top. As the psalm puts it, “the Spirit of the Lord has filled the whole earth.” There’s no center in Babylon or London or Moscow or Rome, no emperor or General Secretary at the top. We have a leader, all right—but Jesus has ascended into heaven and is now to be found wherever we go. Instead of a centripetal unity converging around one favored place or people, God is creating a kind of unity that’s centrifugal. It’s about going out to carry the good news and discovering the Spirit already at work ahead of us in every place, among every people.
That kind of unity was radical two thousand years ago, and it’s radical today. We live in a country that thinks of itself as valuing unity in diversity and the equality of all. Our money itself proclaims “E pluribus unum,” out of many one. And yet it’s also true that in this country some have generally been more equal than others, and you’ve been closer to the center the closer you are to white, the closer you are to Protestant, the closer you are to male and cisgender and heterosexual. Sometimes that center has been reinforced implicitly through unspoken norms. Sometimes it’s been enshrined very explicitly into Jim Crow laws and housing covenants and gerrymandered districts and bathroom bills. Those two visions of this country have been intertwined throughout our history. Sometimes we’ve made real progress toward a fairer and more diverse society. Sometimes we’ve moved backwards. Sometimes that very vision of a nation founded on equality gets used as a smokescreen to perpetuate injustices. But it’s not just the United States. All over our world today there are movements toward greater domination or greater fragmentation or both.
As Christians this should distress us. But it shouldn’t surprise us, and it shouldn’t discourage us. It’s been in our scriptures from the beginning. We can’t manufacture unity on our own. On our own we will always either build bigger towers or degenerate into opposing camps. Only the Spirit of God can bring real unity that neither ignores our differences nor finds in them reasons to hate one another. Only in the Spirit do our differences become things of beauty, precious reflections of the infinite creativity of God.
That Spirit is alive in us today. We received it when we were baptized into Christ, just as today we baptize Fiona, Jazabelle, and Charlie. That Spirit is stirred up in us every time we renew our baptismal covenant as we do today. It stirs us up and flings us out into the world to proclaim the good news in a world without a center, without a tower—a world where Jesus is present in every language, wherever we go.