Saturday, 3 June 2017

Pentecost, Babel & Baptism

In his book “What is thePoint of Being a Christian?” Timothy Radcliffe critiques the notion that baptism brings us into being a part of God’s family in any sort of exclusive way.  He suggests that “In baptism we die to all that divides us from other human beings; we are pointed beyond the small confines of any lesser identity.  Our parents, perhaps unknowingly, having received us as a gift from God, give us away.”

It is true to say that there is a sense in which we are brought by baptism into the Church but being a part of the Church is fundamentally about being truly human.  In this way baptism does not enclose in an exclusive group it opens us to reality of our identity as human beings.  This was told to us today in the readings as we heard the stories from Babel to Pentecost.  These stories are two sides of one coin: they are the story of God’s faithfulness to an unfaithful people.  I want to pick up on the connecting thread that runs through the two stories concerning the transition in the relationship between God and humanity.

To begin with the story of the tower of Babel we are taken back to a time not too distant from the great flood of Noah described in chapters 6-9 of Genesis.  Noah’s sons and their descendants peopled the earth and in Genesis 11 we are given an insight into their growing pride.  What is notable about these people is that there is only one people and one language in all of humanity and as God indicates in their unity human beings are capable of great things. 

So, prior to the tower of Babel there is only one people that inhabit the earth and these are all God’s people.  In a manner, which has clear echoes of the story of Adam and Eve, these people begin to believe the notion that they can control their relationship with God, that they have a right to build a tower up to heaven.  This idea denies God’s presence and care for them as God’s people and could even be seen as them challenging God.

The story carries with it a mix of sin and grace.  The people act in a manner that can only be considered unfaithful to the truth of their relationship with God but God in his grace does not choose the way of destruction again, that is to say another flood, but offers a new way forward.  God confuses the language of the people and in so doing turns one people into many nations. 

In this way the many different languages and dialects of the world created by God at this point serve as a metaphor to remind humanity of its fallibility and our place in relationship with God.  So the story of the Tower of Babel is a transition from one people to many nations.  However, this does not mean that God abandons humanity because from these many nations arise the one people of God called Israel.  Following the story in Genesis 11 the Scriptures lead us to Abram and his calling and the promise of God to him concerning Israel.

Now, as an aside, whilst God chooses Israel to be his people, Israel is chosen to be a priestly people and a light among the nations.  In other words Israel’s relationship with God as God’s people still serve as a representative group for all humanity.

The important thing to remember here is that prior to Babel one people, God’s people, true humanity, is a common people on all the earth.  The evolution of different languages at Babel is given as a corrective by God for human pride.

This brings us forward to the day of Pentecost.  Pentecost occurs 50 days after Passover and was a Jewish festival but this event among the believers in Jerusalem redefines its significance for the church.

The believers had gathered together and the Spirit came upon them.  The gift of the Spirit on that day had many signs: rushing wind, tongues of fire, and the speaking in tongues.  Each has its own allusions to Old Testament scriptures, but picking up the thread of language from the Tower of Babel what we hear about is most significant.  People spoke in their own language, people from the divided nations, but others were able to understand despite the fact they did not know the other languages. 

This is not so much a gift of tongues as a gift of hearing.  Douglas Adams in his novel The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy captures the idea of this gift in the strange animal called the “Babel Fish”.  In the story the Babel fish is a small fish inserted in the ear of a person that enables them to understand every other language.  (It is now also an online translation site) The Holy Spirit comes into the gathering of believers and does just this – enables them to hear in their own language.

What happens is a reversal of what had occurred at the tower of Babel.  Human beings separated by language were drawn back together in their ability to understand one another.  A significant aspect of this reversal though is that God did not heal everyone so that they all spoke the same language but rather were given a gift of understanding one another which did not diminish the cultural differences established by language.

Taken to its logical end the two stories of the Tower of Babel and the Day of Pentecost combine to speak to us of the truth of our being human is about the unity of all humanity.  The Church as the first fruits of the new creation is called to live as people of that unity now.  This means understanding exactly what Timothy Radcliffe expressed that baptism does not isolate us in some select group but incorporates us into what it real means to exist as a human being.

This has important implications for all who are baptised.  Yes baptism makes us part of the church, God’s family, but understood through the lens of a reversal of the Tower of Babel being a part of the church is meant to break down barriers not create some sort of exclusive community. 

Being baptised establishes a person in their relationship with God as well as all other human beings.  Baptism brings us into a restored and reconciled humanity in which people of different languages are made to understand one another and live as one once again.  This is the scandal of the Christian faith.

This means that the expression used by Radcliffe, that in allowing a child to be baptised parents in a sense give the gift that God has given them away, rings true.  Baptism takes us beyond our biological ties of family, beyond our cultural and linguistic ties and into something deeper and greater: a truly shared and common humanity.  In the Uniting church we recognised just such a truth in a response to a baptism when a congregation promises the following:

            With God’s help,
            we will live out our baptism
            as a loving community in Christ:
            nurturing one another in faith,
            upholding one another in prayer,
            and encouraging one another in service.

On an internal level this is a commitment to care for and nurture all in our midst as brothers and sisters in Christ.  This has very practical implications in the way that we support parents and children, of whatever age, come to know of God’s love.  We all have responsibility for one another.

Yet on an external level this is also a commitment to live openly witnessing to the world around us that God has reconciled us with one another and all things.  The Church is not to exist as some sort of religious ghetto constrained by an exclusive language or piety and culture that shuts others out.  No we are to live as people reconciled with one another for the sake of the world.  The people who were enabled to hear and understand the good news were not simply the Christians gathered on that day but the observers as well.

Of course this does not mean that all will hear and respond and understand – in fact sometimes it means quite the opposite.  People will ridicule and question us – have they been drinking?  Are they filled with new wine?  Proclaiming the gospel is not guaranteed with a positive response but our call to live as the one people of God, which is the new humanity, is at the heart of our faith.

The witness of the scriptures is clear that it is only through Christ and in the Spirit that this new humanity is formed put the promise is that it has been formed and we who are the Church are called to respond in a way which gives honour to God’s faithfulness and our new existence as God’s people.  

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