For those who want a change from the Gospel
Pentecost – Gen 11:1-9
Although this is meant to be a blog on the OT, I want to begin in another great Pentecost chapter, 1 Corinthians 12. I wonder how you read that passage? Most of the time, we emphasise the motif of unity. It’s the same Spirit who gives gifts to the Church, for the glory of the same Lord and for the benefit of the one body. Since we already know that the Corinthians could be a disunited lot, it’s easy to believe that this is the point Paul is making here. But can we read it in a different way, as a call for diversity, not uniformity? We know also that the church was somewhat hung up on the gift of tongues, so might Paul be saying that there are loads of different gifts, not just the one, given by the same Spirit? There are different kinds of service and activity, all given by the same Spirit. The body isn’t just one great big toenail: there are all sorts of bits and pieces belonging to the one body. So don’t get hung up on and limited by the one thing you feel familiar with. Diversify!
The same principle is often applied to the Babel story in Gen 11. The fact that it is set in our lectionaries for Pentecost Sunday suggests that we read it in one particular way, as a contrast to the events on the Day of Pentecost. In Gen 11 God made it impossible for people to understand one another, but in Acts 2 they can do so again. The ‘problem’ of Gen 11 is ‘solved’ by Acts 2. I’m not so sure.
First of all, Pentecost doesn’t ‘undo’ Babel. It’s different. There isn’t the restoration of a single language: there’s the ability for all languages to be understood. But secondly, like 1 Cor 12, the problem might not be unity, but rather lack of diversity, a diversity which is celebrated at Pentecost, not negated. Now of course a first reading of Gen 11 does seem to give the impression that God is cross with the people and needs to do something about it. The language of ‘scattering’ and ‘confusion’ sound more like a telling off than a blessing. But with what, exactly, might he be cross? Might it be their uniformity? They all speak one language, and they all want to live together in one huge city. Maybe this isn’t what God wants for his creation. Only a few chapters earlier he has made an astounding variety of plants, trees, animals, fish and birds. Could it be that the human race wants to turn this gorgeous kaleidoscope of colour into a dull grey monochrome monotony? That God has to step in and enforce variety in the face of human lack of imagination? If that is so, what might this passage more helpfully be saying to the Church today at Pentecost? What huge variety of gifts and graces does the Holy Spirit want to pour out on Christ’s Body this year?
In a previous existence my job was to promote charismatic renewal within the C of E, through an organisation called Anglican Renewal Ministries, which I headed up for five years. As an apologist for Renewal I was very well aware of the image that charismatics had in the Church as a whole, and I often addressed it head on when speaking and teaching, particularly to those who would not self-identify as charismatics. I would collect from the audience such terms as ‘happy clappy’, ‘mindless’, ‘superspiritual’ and so on, and then go on to suggest that what those terms were describing was a culture, not a spirituality. The jury is out as to whether the charismatic movement has come to an end or not, but one thing that I am grateful for is the fact that the Holy Spirit seems to have permeated the Church far and wide since the 1980s, and I have detected in conversation with all kinds of Anglicans a much greater awareness of the work and power of the Holy Spirit now that the charismatic culture has certainly waned. We seem to have got the message that you can be open to the Holy Spirit without being a particular kind of Christian who likes guitars, arms in the air and mindless songs. In the past I heard many people saying, in effect’ ‘If the Spirit will make me behave like that, then no thanks!’ Now I hear all kinds of people open to the power and influence of the Spirit within their own cultures, whether Catholic, Liberal or whatever.
So maybe this Pentecost what we need is openness to diversity, not a conforming to a particular monochrome culture. The Spirit, Jesus told us, blows where he wills. Maybe, without fear and with genuine expectation we can invite him to blow through us.