Towering ambition and tongues untied or what?

Signpost for Sunday 19 May 2013 – Pentecost: Gen 11:1-9; Acts 2:1-21; John 14: 8-17, 25-27

Genesis and Acts are obvious parallels. In Genesis God multiplies languages so that people can’t understand each other. In Acts God makes sure each person hears in their own language so that everyone understands.

I don’t like Genesis’ story of Babel. In my ignorance, I can’t help reading it as a story of a stroppy God who doesn’t want people to get too big for their boots. Of course that might be true – they are getting too big for their boots according to many evangelical preachers. Many commentators focus on the fact that they only want to build a tower that reaches up to heaven because then, as it is translated so often, they will make a name for themselves (Gen 11:4). But I’m not so sure. Making a name for yourself seems to me to a thoroughly modern concept (NZ’s Got Talent and X Factor, not to mention the Kardashians). But let’s not judge them by our standards.

Actually none of that is really the point because going for literal truth in the bible always creates problems. Acts 2:3 describes tongues of fire, and who knows if tongue-shaped flames actually flew in and came to rest on each disciple’s shoulder or what really happened. The image makes a great painting, though, (El Greco, Giotto, Reubens) but is that the point? Tongues of fire seem to me to represent a burning desire to speak about Jesus and his message. Pentecost makes this an absolutely immediate impetus for Peter and the rest of them. Then Acts:8 is supposed to be a miracle. Again I don’t think so. You can waste a lot of time arguing about what happened that day. But surely the real point is not that each disciple was magically able to speak 15 languages at the same time (Acts 2:9-11) or that that they were ‘speaking in tongues’ that miraculously translated in the ear of each listener. You could say it’s simply pointing to the fact that the Gospel was intended for everyone, not just the Jewish people. Or you could put it this way: Jesus’ message can be understood by everyone in the world, no matter what language they speak or in which country they are born. Love your neighbour as yourself. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Those are universal concepts. Most people just seem to have trouble living up to them. That’s usually where the trouble starts.

Paul

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