The Importance of an Apostrophe
The message this morning is profound and rather simple. It has to do with an apostrophe. Here is the sentence: We are God’s. If you say it out loud, it is not clear whether you are saying “We are God’s” or “We are gods.”
In the Hebrew Scriptures, we heard about the story of Babel. In this story, the people have one language – they are all one people. Like the story of the Garden of Eden, the people decide they want more than they should reach for, they decide they are gods, not God’s. In the Garden of Eden, of course, they reach for the tree of knowledge. Here they reach for the heavens. They will build a big tower. They have discovered a new technology. Baked bricks last a lot longer and can be stacked up, unlike reeds, which can only make a single story dwelling. God is alarmed at their attempt, and scatters them. They are no longer one people with one language.
Before I started researching this, I thought this was simply a nice story to explain to children why there are different languages in the world. But there are many theological subtleties in this story. It is about human overreaching and God’s interaction and scattering.
It is, of course, no accident that this story of Babel is paired with the Pentecost story. There are many pieces to the Pentecost story, but one that captures the imagination is about the uneducated peasants and fishermen from the Galilee suddenly speaking in all of the languages of the Mediterranean. It is not exactly clear if they are speaking these languages, or rather, if the crowd is suddenly understanding them. The upshot of the situation is that the followers of Jesus were praising God and the crowd understood – and they knew they shouldn’t have been able to understand, and therefore that something very special had just happened. From that point on, “speaking in tongues” became one of the known gifts of the Spirit.
There was immediately controversy. People were speaking in tongues that no one present knew, and so a new category arose, those who could interpret tongues. Paul made it very clear. It was not OK to have babble. Interesting word choice, yes?
But what is going on here with this phenomenon of tongues? Is it the reversal of the story of Babel? No, actually, not at all. If Babel was about people doing what they wanted, that is, acting like gods, Pentecost does not bring us back to doing what we want. Rather, it calls us even more to knowing that we are God’s. And, the next thing that happens after Pentecost is that the people are scattered – to do God’s work in the world.
Furthermore, in the story of Babel, there was one language and one people. In the story of Pentecost, there is not a reversal back to one language. Rather, the people understood each other in a new way. There was not a unification – this was not a first try at Esperanto. Everyone still spoke their own language and had their own people. And they all praised God.
There are many parts of this that I think are relevant for us today. For one thing, I am struck by how difficult it is for people to understand each other. Even when we are all speaking English, there are big problems. I have a student right now in Australia, and every once in a while we will hit a phrase or word that means something very different than what we meant to say. Because we are comfortable with each other, it is easy to ask what was meant, to laugh, and carry on. But when we are not comfortable with the other person or group, it is so easy to misinterpret, to think that the other means to damage, and to respond with outrage, provoking a similar response. There is a great book by a friend of mine called: Taking the War Out of our Words, that talks about how to deal with this kind of situation in a way that does not escalate the situation into a disaster. We should make everyone in the government read this book!
Another issue is that of unification. I think there is a confusion because of the words in the Gospel of John about being “one.” People have lamented ad nauseam about the various branches of the church and isn’t it terrible that we cannot just be one. Well, yes and no! On the one hand, it is terrible that the reason that some churches have divided have been highly political – not about religion really at all. But I think the reason for having different churches, and indeed, different religions, is that people perceive reality differently. It’s a little like wearing different glasses. If this church is like this set of glasses, and that one is like that set of glasses, and this one helps me to get to God better, then I should go to this church. However, it may be that that church helps you to get to get to God better. If that church were not there, we would be diminished. I actually think more is better, as long as we are not fighting with each other. What is important, as far as I’m concerned, is that we work to understand each other, and we can ask for the Holy Spirit to help us in that work.
Beyond the languages, which really are not the main part of the story, what is going on here? This is one of the two stories of the giving of the Holy Spirit. In the other story, Jesus “breathes” the Spirit onto the disciples after the resurrection. In this one, they are waiting, like they were told to, and whoosh, the Holy Spirit comes in and takes over. The language that is used to describe this is that they were “filled” with the power of the Spirit. What does this mean? They no longer had any sense of being gods, they knew themselves as God’s. But hadn’t this happened before? Yes, of course. So what is new here? It is that the Spirit was given to everyone – that’s the point of the different languages – everyone, not just special people like prophets, everyone, like you and me. And, not just for a certain time, but permanently. That’s new.
Pentecost is sometimes labeled as the “birthday” of the church. I know some churches actually have a birthday cake, lots of churches tell folks to wear red, sometimes there are balloons, lots of things. But what is underneath all of this? Pentecost is the celebration of the Holy Spirit.
So what is the Holy Spirit? In the Christian Church, we talk about God in three major ways. There are many ways to describe God, but there are three major ways. There is the traditional Father, Son and Holy Spirit, which talk about God the creator, or better, creating One, because we know creation is still happening. The Son is Jesus, the human one who was or became God in a different way than we had seen before in the prophets, and is known as the Christ or saving One acting even today. The Holy Spirit or Comforter is the aspect of God that is within us and among us, giving us the power to do what God is calling us to do. We can talk about this in many different ways, but that is a beginning.
Bill Countryman, one of the retired professors over at CDSP has this to say about the Holy Spirit. First, the Holy Spirit will always remain a mystery to us, and that is a good thing. Why? Because it makes it very clear that we do not know it all. That, in and of itself is a protection against idolatry. We know what we know, and we believe what we know is truth, but at the same time, the truth as we know it does not equal God.
This is helpful to me, trying to “explain” the Holy Spirit. Jesus said a couple of things about the Spirit. He said that the Spirit is like the wind – and in Hebrew, wind and spirit are the same word. We cannot see wind, only the effects of the wind. The wind is a force that moves things. We cannot control it at all. We cannot make it start, and we certainly cannot stop it. We can observe its effects, and we can be respectful, and if we want, we can step into it and choose to be affected by it. Like stepping into a river that is rushing, if we step into it, we will be changed, and indeed, that is the way we talk about baptism, isn’t it? This is a second baptism, the baptism of wind and fire, which changes elements even more quickly than water.
We do not have to accept this awakening of the Spirit. We can keep pretending to be gods. Or we can acknowledge that we are God’s.
The presence of the Spirit is already in you. When we talk about receiving the gift of the Spirit, it is an awakening, it is opening the door to a room that is already there, that floods the rest of your house with light, and hope, and joy, and power. In other religions, this would be called enlightenment, but this one comes from the heart, not from the head.
The invitation is given to you. The key is in your hand. Will you open the door to love? The God who is maker of heaven and earth has sent the Spirit to dwell in our hearts, to guide us through our days, to lead us into joy, to help us follow the way of forgiveness that Jesus showed us.
Will you accept the invitation? Will you use the key? Will you open the door to love?