Pentecost 2020 Acts 2:1-21, 1 Corinthians 12:1-13, John 20:19-23
The Spirit of God
We live in a beautiful world, rich not only in diverse species but also a variety of languages and cultures! The variety of languages and cultures should be celebrated for they enhance and enrich the magnificence of humankind. The diversity of languages and cultures is like a most beautiful garden where the variety of flowers complements each other to form a rich and colorful tapestry.
Unfortunately, the diverse mosaic, instead of being celebrated often leads to distrust and conflict. Even in an integrated world, people don’t always celebrate and appreciate other languages and cultures. Instead of commending and marveling at cultural and linguistic variations, people are threatened by differences. One’s own culture and language are treasured but the unfamiliarity of another’s culture is frowned upon, not appreciated and viewed with suspicion.
I did not know that as a Westerner, when speaking to a Korean, one should avoid using direct language: “You should do this” or “You must help me“. It will be interpreted as a verbal attack, or at least a rude command.
Some time ago, Pepsodent toothpaste tried to sell toothpaste in Southeast Asia by emphasizing that it “whitens your teeth.” They found out that the local natives chew seeds to blacken their teeth, which they find attractive.
A golf ball manufacturing company packaged golf balls in packs of four for convenient purchase in Japan. Unfortunately, the number 4 is equivalent to the number 13 and in Japanese the number 4 sounds like the word “death“. The company had to repackage the product.
Clairol did not properly consider the German language when they launched their hair-curling iron “Mist Stick“. It flopped – why? ‘Mist’ translates in German as “manure” and no German would buy a “manure stick”.
From very early on people knew that language and culture barriers confused people and resulted in mistrust, fear and conflict. And people were asking the question: “Where did all of this start? Was there a time when there was only one language and one culture?”
The Jewish tradition knew that God created human beings as a human family, as brother and sisters. And at the beginning of creation it was assessed as good – very good. And yet, soon thereafter things spun out of control, brothers became enemies, families became alienated and human beings viewed one another as foes instead of friends. The only time human beings managed to cooperate was to do so for wicked purposes. They built a tower to show off their hubris. And then the human family became competition and foes.
The tower of Babel turned the world upside down. Before the tower of Babel, the story goes, the whole earth had one language and the same words. So, there was supposedly very little chance of misunderstanding.
The confusion at Babel became the turning point, it became a symbol for how far humanity has fallen from God’s purpose with God’s creation. That what God made so good, with so much care and love, has turned into confusion and chaos. Babel resulted in barriers that kept people apart, strangers, yes enemies.
And even as many things changed over the millennia, some things stayed the same. For centuries, human beings felt the need to label people, putting them in categories – them and us. They are different, for they speak a different language, they don’t look the same, their culture is strange. They must be a threat.
Instead of celebrating the variety of one human race, human beings have come to celebrate what makes us different or better than them! Over time we have erected barriers and now we accept these barriers as normal and natural. Some have even argued that these differences were God given and therefore part and parcel of God’s order.
This distinction between them and us has often led to war, discrimination and oppression. How many wars have been fought, how many soldiers have died because of an ideology that turned “them” into the enemy?
Just last week we have once again, sadly seen an African-American died, when he was brutally arrested and treated like a subhuman enemy. And let us be very clear about it – the color of his skin played a role. This, sisters and brothers, was not God’s plan for the world. God’s intention was not to place barriers between human beings. God created us as one humanity, as one human family.
Which brings us to the theological significance of Pentecost. God has promised that there would be a time when God’s Spirit would be poured out on all people. This event would be the introduction of a brand-new era. It would be a time when God would bring new life to the old world.
There are precursors and promises in the OT of what would happen when God’s Spirit is poured out. In Ezekiel 37 God’s new work was seen as an act of bringing back life to dead bones. It would be as if dead people would rise from the grave.
The pouring out of God’s Spirit would be a time when God would destroy any barrier that inhibited God’s intention for humankind. In rich metaphors, God’s work was described as new life, as an act that destroyed separating walls, an act of removing sin and bringing righteousness.
And in Acts it happened! Pentecost is not only seen as the birth of the Christian church, it is actually seen as a new creation. In Acts we see the new work of God’s Spirit that reaches beyond obstacles that separate peoples. God’s Spirit brings new life to the old world, making everything new. And when people heard this, they believed, they became part of God’s plan to restore the old.
And then Peter, the man who had been so afraid that he had denied Jesus, after receiving God’s Spirit, stood up and preached the good news of Jesus Christ. And thousands of people came to believe his message.
Whatever their differences were, and there were many, they spoke different languages, they had different backgrounds, place of origins, not to mention their own personalities, and upbringing. The Holy Spirit drew these disparate people together and made them one!
Gone were the things that caused mistrust, gone were the things that place them into categories of “them and us”. This became an event that restored God’s plan for creation; one human family where people could be sisters and brothers and ceased to be enemies.
Call me a dreamer or idealist but this is exactly what I love about the Gospel. I am attracted to the idea that God created us as one human family, and that there are more things that unite us as human beings than the artificial things like language, culture and nationality that separate us. The church that was born this day about 2000 years ago was God’s way of saying: “See it can be done! It is possible for this diverse world to put away the things that divide. A focus on Him who made us whole and gave us new life can unite people. It is possible!”
We all know that there is still much work to be done. We urgently need the destruction of these barriers that turn the world into “us” and “them”. There are barriers like national boundaries, geographical and cultural boundaries, but they are not the greatest to overcome. One can learn a new language, one can travel and experience other cultures, one can learn about other religions.
There are other barriers like ideology. The 20th century was dominated by conflicts over ideologies: communism, unfettered capitalism, Nazism, totalitarianism, fascism and race superiority.
Some of these ideologies are raising their ugly heads again. We should be alert but not lose faith.
We have to remind ourselves that Pentecost did happen. We, as people of faith should not lose hope or grow weary. The Spirit of God is able to break down what separate people and to bring new life. The Spirit has done so in the past, and the Spirit will continue to do so.
There are other barriers that exist between human beings that God’s Spirit can remove: anger between spouses, distrust between parents and children, grievances between colleagues, disappointment between friends, impatience with those of another generation, or unkind words spoken between neighbors or friends.
Each kind of division can be overcome by God’s divine work because of Pentecost.
God wants community and trust between people who are all created in God’s image. The Holy Spirit showed us that there is a way of reconciliation and clarity of purpose. Pentecost did happen – the disparate became united, enemies became friends.
Many of us are desponded when we see the deep divisions in our country and our world. Will the divisions ever end? Let us remind ourselves of Pentecost. God’s Spirit moves like a fire and a wind! God’s Spirit breaths life into the dry bones of distrust and animosity. God’s Spirit is able to make sisters and brothers of enemies. God’s Spirit is able to break down all kinds of walls and barriers that keep people apart. We are the Body of Christ, the church! We are called to show that it is possible for all people to be one! Amen.