Pentecost Sunday is the culmination of a season of readings from Acts in which the early church is confronted over and over again with the radical diversity the Holy Spirit embraces – from Peter’s encounter with Cornelius to Paul’s encounter with Lydia, the book of Acts gives us story after story about the boundary breaking nature of God’s inclusive grace.
Pentecost pairs the story of the apostles’ inspired speech, understood by those who spoke many and different tongues, with a story from Genesis about the Tower of Babel – traditionally read as a story wherein God punishes humanity for its arrogance by confusing their language so that they cannot understand one another.
Lutheran scholar Ralph Klein offers a different twist on the story however. He writes,
"In the Bible in general, making a name for oneself is never used to describe self-centeredness or pride. Rather, making a name implies an act of establishing an identity that will endure…In this story the people desire uniformity, and God desires diversity. In a sense, both desires are good. Humans need identity and cultural solidarity, but it takes divine intervention and initiative to bring about the extravagant array of the world’s cultures." (from Feasting on the Word, Year C, vol. 3)
Read like this, Pentecost is not a reversal of what happened at the Tower of Babel – it is the culmination. God creates a world teeming with life, and God cherishes its diversity – even pushing us outside the boundaries of our own comfort in order to ensure that we experience the diversity of creation. But God also empowers us, through the Holy Spirit, to both speak and listen for the presence of the holy in people who are very different from us – allowing us to understand one another.
This Pentecost we celebrate God’s movement in the world, always pushing us toward unfamiliar others so that we might discover how much we have in common.