... Ecclesiastes 2:26 ...
Cast your bread upon the waters,
for you will find it after many days.

The Day of Pentecost Year C(2), Message May 19th, 2013

Community and Communication Lost and Found

Text: Acts 2:1-21; Genesis 11:1-9

The celebration of Pentecost has always projected images of people being able to speak in foreign languages and in fact both the readings from the Acts of the Apostles and the Book of Genesis appear on the surface to deal with language as the object of division and connection between people depending on circumstances. Where the story of the Tower of Babel points to a disconnect among people as their language is confounded by God, the Pentecost experience is a reconnecting as the disciples, filled with the Holy Spirit, are able to communicate their message and the Gospel good news through the speaking of various foreign languages.

However, as we delve further into these two stories we discover that the issue of language is secondary to the issues of community communication and sin. Listening to the events which took place in the land of Shinar we witness a people united by a common language and goals building a city with a tower to protect themselves from being scattered over the surface of the earth. This protectionism of a single city becomes thwarted by the actions of God so that the human fears are realized as they are indeed scattered over the face of the earth. In some ways the story is reminiscent of the eviction of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden. Yet the reason for the eviction is not so much as a sin committed against God as it is a correction of self-absorbed isolation. By the very confounding of language the common goal for building a single city is shattered, the people scattered and growth of opportunity is given. Herein lies the problem of diversity for in diversity lies estrangement, and that is what happened. The correction of this estrangement is the topic and focus of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit gives to the disciples and those around a glimpse of what it is to be able to communicate and understand one another and see a unifying goal in worship and praise of God.

Having mentioned previously that the twin stories of Babel and Pentecost deal with community, let us look at that aspect. Community may be defined as a locality where people reside or as a people with common interests or people in general with shared possessions goals politics or pleasures. With this definition and despite the specific mention of Shinar or Jerusalem we can see that both stories deal expressly in the concept of people with common interests or uniform intent. It is this aspect that we come to see the human nature of we-they, us versus them competition materialism and various aspects of domination. Babel represents that break down which prompts such things as war, disputes between peoples nations and races. The confusion of perspectives gives rise to all kinds of misunderstandings.

Whereas the story of Babel gives a picture of the world as is, the story of Pentecost reveals the world which might be. In such a place God’s word is revealed despite the obstacles and barriers and everyone is able to comprehend the nature of new life. Unfortunately it is but a glimpse for as the records show – just a short time after Pentecost there again existed conflict, prejudice and we-them scenarios.

Again as we consider what it is to be community we realize that language is the basis for sharing ideas concepts knowledge and self. It thus is imperative that we spend some time in language and communication.

We all here speak English – some might dispute this point – but we might not necessarily understand what each is trying to communicate. A great example of this comes to mind from my other profession. Recently in the Emergency Department I was seeing a patient for chest pain and came out and stated to the nurse that we needed to get a cardiac work-up. What I didn’t realize was that she had come out from another cubicle where a child with a cold was being assessed. The RN seemed taken back and not to comprehend my orders. It wasn’t until she questioned by orders that we came to realize we had been talking at cross purposes and about different patients. This particular incident was easily resolved without detriment to my patient. However there have been (and will be others) where miscommunication has resulted in drastic consequences.

Communication is the act of imparting information from one to another. This act requires several components to be functioning properly. Of these the first component is the integrity of that which is to be communicated. A person who states I like you while gritting his teeth or pounding fist into palm is giving a mixed message – the integrity is broken and what is perceived and heard are at odds. Second the reception must be functioning. Speaking to a deaf person who doesn’t lip read will never get the message across. And third, you need to ensure that which was communicated is exactly what was understood. For me to talk about the blessings of God to someone who has never been or known the concept of God or blessings would be a futile exercise. There has to be a reference whereby we can have a mutual or common benchmark to compare.

Babel is about the disconnect of communication, the loss of commonality and the description of the common benchmark. Pentecost is about the restoration.

Notwithstanding, this focus on restoration is not to be construed as the final word, for as we have already noted, it was not very long after the day of Pentecost that the early church found themselves debating the need for Gentile converts to the Way to undergo Judaization with Torah indoctrination and circumcision. Pentecost is the glimpse of what might be of what God offers and of what our minds and hearts can be opened to comprehend.

The events of Genesis 11 remind us of the problems of egocentrism of uniformity in the extreme and of the fear which drives us to commit sin and atrocities of every kind. The actions of God at that time were to save us from self-absorption and self-implosion and to give us a chance at what life could mean. Pentecost was the snapshot of the opposite. The Holy Spirit opening for all the possibility of what God offers to a community which is focussed on God and accepting of God’s presence.

May we come to appreciate fully what Pentecost offers and to live in the post Pentecost time living unto God and for the welfare of others so that all might come to know God and to live in the fellowship of God’s realm.