Pentecost Sunday, May 15th 2016.
Genesis 11:1-9; Acts 2: 1-13
Toronto is one of the most multicultural cities in the world, with over 140 languages and dialects spoken, a rich variety of ethnic food choices and restaurants available every day of the week, and the largest population of some nationalities, beyond their home countries, in the world.
But the diversity here is as old as it is contemporary. Prior to European colonization, this land was populated, and still is, by various Indigenous tribes who used different language systems, and while there was extensive cultural and economic interaction between them no one tribe exercised domination, as Europeans have done since our ancestors arrived.
This is important because there are schools of thought and powerful political figures who continue to socialize us into believing that cultural diversity is a dubious modern development to be feared, not a deep past from which we can learn. Despite their best efforts, however, demographic trends in Toronto represent the future of the globe as a whole, namely that we have already been, and continue to be, transformed, whether we wish to be or not, into a cultural kaleidoscope. The question that remains is how we will adjust to this new and old reality.
..Now the whole earth had one language….
One of the earliest stories in the Bible, our lesson from Genesis for today, is a warning tale about the direct relationship between ethnic supremacy, empire and human oppression – and it begins with the ominous phrase “now the whole earth had one language.” The tower story serves to unmask these seductive human heights as the pinnacle of the human fall from the original communion of creation!
Today more than half the world’s population resides in cities, compared with about 9% a century ago. In many ways, the entire globe is becoming a vast, networked metropolis, with more worldwide mono-cultural traits than ever before. The erosion of human diversity brought about by European imperialism and colonialism is quickened with the western-led revolution in global communications, the opening of trade barriers and rise of multinational corporations, and the mobility of populations. Human variety and species diversity as well, is falling victim to global capitalism. The new tower of Babel is the mind-numbing conformity of commercial culture and a transnational economy.
The story of Pentecost revisits the divine antidote to Babel’s imperial focus on a single language and culture by again asserting diversity. Acts 2 speaks of the fresh start of the church through the power of the Holy Spirit. In Luke’s story the Spirit sparked a multilingual explosion at the heart of cosmopolitan Jerusalem, right in the face of Roman social control.
Pentecost’s tongues are put to the practical use of cross-cultural communication. They proclaim the message of a divine Spirit which proclaims cultural diversity as a strategy to end the domination and dehumanization of empire building and imperialism. The gift of tongues communicates across language lines and differences without either suppressing or seeking to eliminate them. This is what is distinctive of true gospel mission, as opposed to the cross-and sword conquest that has been typical in the history of Christendom. Unity through the Spirit does not mean a single culture or language, but the celebration of human variety!
The church reasserts the Genesis wisdom of a “scattered” human family by nurturing diversity and should reaffirm the Pentecost calling of native language empowerment. Throughout the biblical narrative God is always subversive of the power of empire and always on the side of the excluded and outcast, the refugee and immigrant. The Spirit has disrupted business as usual countless times since Babel and Jerusalem, and She is waiting to do the same in our own time – if we will but loosen our tongues and lay claim to her liberating legacy! Amen.
Where do you experience the work of the spirit within you and your life and the world?
What signs are there that native language empowerment empowers us all?