I’m a long time fan of the TV show “Inside the Actor’s Studio,” which features one-on-one conversations between the host Jim Lipton and prominent performers. The interviews always conclude with Lipton asking every guest the same series of questions. My favorite is the last one: “If heaven exists, what do you want to hear God say when you come through the Pearly Gates?” Anthony Quinn, who played Zorba the Greek, among other roles, gave an answer that brought me to tears. He said he most wanted to hear God say “I understand.”
Why did I cry at that simple answer? Because so much of life is colored by people misunderstanding and feeling misunderstood. The isolation created by people not getting each other prompts wars and misogyny, racial discrimination and religious intolerance, homophobia and xenophobia and a host of other ugly responses. The idea that God, at least, understands perfectly what I do/have done (and why) is deeply moving to me.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if such understanding were widespread? It is among the reasons Christians have long clung to Galatians 3:28: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” We could add to that, “no longer 1st world and 3rd world countries, no longer liberals and conservatives, no longer Gen X or Y or Millennial….” We could go on and on about the ways in which we are divided that lead to misunderstanding. It would be such a comfort to have all our differences simply erased, to be one in Christ Jesus.
But I’ve come to believe that this way of thinking is misguided at best and xenophobic at worst. While God may understand me, evidently I have misunderstood God—particularly God’s gift of diversity. Certainly we are all “one in Christ Jesus,” but that doesn’t eliminate the differences among us. Nor should it. It simply removes any claim of inferiority or superiority based on identity markers. All humans are made in God’s image. All humans—every race, every gender expression, every size, every ability level—all people! This means God is incredibly, wonderfully, incomprehensibly multi-faceted! Does God understand me—my hopes, questions, background, and all? Yes. And what’s even more astounding is that God understands each of you too AND each person who ever has or ever will grace this earth with their unique story! God gets and appreciates us all in deeply personal detail.
That miraculous unity and diversity is what’s on display in the events of the first Pentecost. Jews from around the Mediterranean world were gathered in Jerusalem to celebrate a harvest festival. Suddenly fire descended on the disciples’ heads, and they were filled with the power of the Holy Spirit, enabling them to proclaim the Good News about Jesus to everyone in the marketplace, and everyone heard The Good News in their own language!
All too often this remarkable event is considered a reversal of the reading we heard from Genesis today—the story of the Tower of Babel. This little story attempts to explain how people united by common ancestors became people of many cultures and languages. I grew up hearing the story of Babel interpreted as God’s punishment on those sinful people for their pride, their false sense of self-sufficiency. Basically, I learned that diversity was a curse from God.
But what if that’s not what the story of Babel is really about? What if Pentecost isn’t a corrective to what happened at Babel, but a revival of it? After all, if Pentecost is meant to undo what happened at Babel, shouldn’t the Holy Spirit have enabled everyone in the marketplace to speak the same language, rather empowering everyone to hear the Gospel preached in their own languages? If Pentecost undoes what happened in Genesis, shouldn’t everyone suddenly have been able to communicate using one universal, heavenly language? Since that’s not what occurred, maybe we need to revisit what happened at Babel.
Maybe creating diversity was not God punishing the people, but a deliberate expression of God’s greatest hopes for humankind. Maybe God wanted to break up the monotony of creation. After all, from disparate communities around the earth we have been blessed with the gifts of African drumming, Incan architecture at Machu Picchu, French Impressionism, Inuit carvings, Middle Eastern hummus and carpets, Chinese calligraphy, and oh so many other wonders! Maybe God enjoys using the whole big box of crayons (64 colors and a sharpener in back!) to depict beautiful skin tones, rather than being reduced to just one shade. Maybe God enjoys the musicality of tonal Asian languages as well as the guttural growl of German and the lilt of Gaelic.
If Babel was the initiation of God’s vision to celebrate differences, then maybe the day we call Pentecost is an expansion of it. Because when the disciples speak and are understood by people representing a collection of different populations, everyone encounters the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is obviously fluent in a whole host of languages, and makes the Gospel available and comprehensible in each tongue. It just may be that the whole impact of God’s story cannot be contained or expressed by any single language. Perhaps it is only by tapping into multiple forms of expression that the fullness of God’s nature and good works can be extolled.
If you’ve ever tried to learn a different language, you know how incredibly difficult it is just to get by, not to mention become fluent. Even if you get pretty good at saying simple phrases like “Good morning,” and “Where is the bathroom?” sometimes you encounter words or phrases that simply can’t be translated because they are so specific to a particular culture’s vocabulary. And that doesn’t even begin to touch on the complexity of sentence structures, verb conjugations, idioms, and all the intricacy involved in expressing a concept in another language or cultural setting.
But there’s no denying that diversity does bring confusion. Even when those around us speak the same language we do we have trouble understanding each other. That is only exacerbated when we are working in different languages. What makes the miracle of Pentecost so profound is not just that a group of illiterate fishermen suddenly began uttering new languages, but that all kinds of people understood what they were trying to say—that God loves them, in all their particularity and preciousness. Somehow, all that separated the crowd was over-ridden by intense, genuine communication about what really matters: “The Holy Spirit was poured out on all flesh.” God made it known that all people, in all their splendid differences, are one family, loved and cherished as they are.
The celebration of diversity that has been unspooling ever since God began creation is continuing now. Maybe we won’t all suddenly begin speaking Chinese or Russian today, but we trust Jesus’ promise that the Holy Spirit, the paraclete (helper or comforter) accompanies God’s people as we seek to share the gift we have received: we are understood! God’s saving grace is available to all people of every language and race and social class and age and sexual orientation and cultural group and on and on and on.
Whether or not we believe it or understand it or think we deserve it, God cherishes us deeply and truly for just who we are in all our uniqueness. We don’t have to be just like everyone else to be loved. We are precious to God not in spite of our quirks but including our quirks.
The question for us on this Pentecost Day, 2019, is who hasn’t gotten that word? Who has not yet heard in their own native tongue God’s forgiving, affirming understanding? The fire of Pentecost spurs us on to share the warmth of God’s amazing, expansive embrace with those who most need to hear it in a way that they best understand. Come, Holy Spirit, come.
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