On the mind of the Rev. Dr. Nathaniel Jung-Chul Lee

May 17, 2024

This Sunday, we are marking our celebration of Pentecost with a new liturgical element during the service.

Every year at Pentecost, we read from Acts 2, which tells the story of the first Pentecost, and the giving of the Holy Spirit. Verse six of Acts 2 says: “And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.” In view of this, we’re having five readers for this reading, who will re-enact this diversity of “tongues” by reading in one of their native languages. You will hear fellow parishioners read in English, Igbo, Slovanic, Chinese, and French respectively.

The languages of four continents will be covered by those who read. It is remarkable to be in a parish with such global diversity.

In the broad narrative of the Scripture, the story of Pentecost is the reversal of the story of the Tower of Babel. Genesis 1-11, the first eleven chapters of the Bible, is a declension narrative, in which humanity “falls” further and further from its original state of created grace. The nadir of that declension narrative is the story of the Tower of Babel, which takes place in chapter eleven. As we read there, “the whole earth had one language and the same words” (Gen. 11.1). However, humanity, in their united strength, had by that point fallen so far from God that they thought themselves capable of ascending to the heavens themselves––hence, they attempt to build a tower that would get them there. It is in response to their Icharus-like-hubris that God then decides to “confuse the language of the whole world” and “scatter them over the face of the earth.” (Gen. 11.9). This, according to the Biblical account, is the basis of the enmity amongst different people groups today––marked above all else by our diverse languages––our inability to speak to one another, and so form community with each other.

In the very next chapter, in Genesis chapter 12, God makes a covenant with Abraham. This covenant begins the story of the people of Israel, and God’s saving acts through them. In other words, it was directly in response to the fragmentation of humanity into separate peoples that God called one people, so that in redeeming them, God might redeem the whole world. We should not be surprised, then, that when Jesus comes to reconcile God and humanity, he comes as “the Word made flesh” (John 1.14), speaking God’s own life into ours. The whole history of God’s redemption of humanity has been about this––about reattuning the “language” of our lives to God’s speech once more.

Nor should we be surprised that this doesn’t end with Jesus. To complete reversal of the declension narrative of Genesis 1-11, we not only needed to be reconciled to God, but to one another. Thus, at Pentecost, God sent the Holy Spirit to give birth to the church–the space within which that reconciliation would take place, and the place within which that fragmentation would be healed. And this is why, when the Holy Spirit came, the sign of what God was doing was a reversal of the confusion of Babel. At Pentecost, humanity was not being scattered through the proliferation of languages, but rather, was being drawn back together by learning to “sing new songs” (Ps. 98.1) in “strange new tongues” (Mk. 16.17).

Hence, we are doing the Acts reading in five languages this Sunday. However, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out one key difference here. One of the most significant details of the story of Pentecost––one that is sometimes missed––is that Pentecost doesn’t leave us back where we started. Did you catch that? Before Babel, there was one language. At Pentecost, they continued to speak in different languages, but by the gift of the Spirit they were able to understand each other. In other words, the reconciliation inaugurated at Pentecost is not one that forces uniformity. Pentecost has redeemed Babel, not by mitigating the diversity granted by Babel, but by creating a people who have developed the capacity to speak to one another in different languages, and so, to tell different stories––a people who have learned how to be patient, how to be at peace, how to listen in a world of impatient violence.

Difference remains. That means the gift of Pentecost entails slow, hard work. We must not only learn to suffer those we understand; we must learn how to suffer those whose stories might make us vulnerable. And so, the gift of Pentecost marks, not an ending, but a beginning—the beginning of a long series of hard and painful lessons in failure—and surely, the church throughout its ages has failed again and again in its mission of peace.

Yet even failure turns out to be a gift if through failure the church can be called back to Pentecost, and be reminded that others—that all—are included in God’s promise.