Genesis 11:1-9; Psalm 104:24-34, 35b; Acts 2:1-21; John 14:8-17, (25-27).
The Spirit of Pentecost transcends the diversity of languages, and is carried by disciples into an unknowing world.
The outpouring of the Holy Spirit that is celebrated in the Christian Pentecost includes (1) the language miracle of communication among foreign-speaking people of faith, (2) the testimony of prophets and apostles to the age of the Spirit, and (3) the birth of the community of believers later called the church.
(This is the alternate reading; the regular reading from Acts is given as the Epistle reading below.)
The Genesis reading is a story about how there came to be many languages over the earth. In its familiar English form, this story is about “the Tower of Babel.” In Hebrew, however, it is the story of the Tower of Babylon. (The name in Genesis 11:9 is the usual Hebrew word for Babylon.) Popular legend knew of a ruin at Babylon that had once been a “ziggurat,” a pyramid-like structure, the upper-most chambers of which were in “heaven.” (Old Babylon flourished as an empire under Hammurabi in the early 1700’s BCE, about 800 years earlier than the time of David and Solomon.)
The story of the Tower of Babylon is that of a grand enterprise that failed to make it. There is a certain note of pathos at the grandeur aimed at, including some admiration for the technology of the builders. There is also, however, some mockery at the hubris and foolishness that aspired to reach the heavens and to avoid the wide diversity of the peoples and nations.
As in some other stories in Genesis 1–11, the human players come off better morally, if more tragically, than the divine ones. As with the events in the paradise garden, humans acquiring advanced knowledge and skills becomes a threat to the powers above.
Look, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech (verses 6-7, NRSV).
When the heavenly powers carry out this proposal, the great enterprise is abandoned and the foreign-speaking peoples are dispersed.
Peeking out of this story, pretty conspicuously, is the polytheistic background of the good old stories taken over in Israelite teaching materials from Canaanite culture. Israelite youths aspiring to high office in the Kingdom of Judah had to learn some foreign languages for their diplomatic service. Here, as they practiced their reading and writing in Hebrew, they discussed why there were all these languages! In the long perspective, they learned, the diversity of languages was a judgment of God because of impious ambitions — or because of perverse disobedience by humans.
Only prophetic powers of later ages (see the Joel prophecy in the Pentecost story) would transcend these human divisions.
Psalm 104:24–34, 35b.
The Psalm reading is the last portion of one of the great hymns of praise for God’s work in creating and structuring the world.
The earlier sections of the psalm fondly viewed the organization of God’s heavenly residence (verses 1–4), the establishment of the earth within the cosmic waters (verses 5–9), the blessings of waterways and the harmony of plants and animals in the lands (verses 10–18), and the rhythms of time obeyed by animals and humans (verses 19–23).
In our reading the psalmist pauses in wonder. “Lord, you have done so many things! / You made them all so wisely!” (verse 24, Common English Bible). The particular interest in God’s Spirit (ruach) is as the agency of renewal in the cycle of life and death in the world of animals and humans.
When you hide your face, they are terrified;
when you take away their breath [their ruach, spirit]
they die and return to dust.
When you let loose your breath [ruach], they are created,
and you make the surface of the ground brand-new again.
(Verses 29–30, CEB.)
The psalmist portrays the dynamics of life in a harmoniously created world, a creation dependent on the sustaining and renewing work of God’s Spirit.
In the reading from Acts we move to the work of God’s Spirit in transcending the diversity of human languages, producing a kind of reversal of the Tower of Babylon event. The Acts passage emphasizes the unity of the assembled group, like the oneness of humans in Genesis 11:1–4. “They were all together in one place.” As they are thus gathered, a mighty wind and tongues of fire fall upon them, and they were “filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues…” (verse 4, NRSV).
The passage elaborates this language miracle. A long list of peoples and regions is given (verses 5–11) whose languages were understood on this occasion. The hearers are identified as foreign Jews resident in Jerusalem. The phenomenon of speaking in tongues (called “glossolalia,” from Greek glossa, tongue) was familiar in the New Testament world (see I Corinthians 14:1–25) and right on down to present times, but that phenomenon does not involve speaking in other languages.
Those who told the Pentecost story thought of this as a one-time event. (Later references in Acts to speaking in tongues after the Spirit is given, 10:46 and 19:6, make no reference to speaking other languages.) Here, however, a bunch of religious ecstatics are heard to speak languages native to many foreign-speaking immigrants in Jerusalem. Skeptical onlookers, of course, regarded them as tipsy (verse 13), but the hearers are assured that the speaking had meaning to many. The message of repentance and forgiveness through Jesus the Christ transcends limitations of language. The power of the Spirit breaks through linguistic boundaries among people of faith.
What the foreign-language speakers heard, presumably, is what we learn from Peter’s speech to all the Jewish people present (verses 14–36).
In our reading we hear only the first part of that speech, the part that proclaims these events as the fulfillment of the prophecy of Joel, quoted at length by Peter. That prophesy tells us that the pouring out of the Spirit of God on “all flesh” will be the beginning of great and new wonders of God’s work, and the outcome of that work is that “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved” (verse 21).
Peter and the disciples are there to declare what that Name is, which will be such a blessing to those who respond. (The “name” of Jesus is used very powerfully by Peter and John in the next three chapters of Acts.)
John 14:8–17, (25–27).
The Gospel reading may be an anticlimax after the previous selections.
Chapter 14 of John continues a series of dialogues that began with Peter’s question in 13:30. There are four questions asked by disciples, Peter (13:30), Thomas (14:5), Philip (14:8), and Jude (14:22). Each question gives Jesus an opportunity to spell out further to uncomprehending disciples how he can go away now and yet be present to them in the times ahead.
When presented as a Pentecost text, verses 16–17 are the primary statement.
I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever [literally “until the (new) age”]. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.
[Some early manuscripts and the great mass of later manuscripts read the pronouns here as neuter, "it" instead of "he" or "him." The Greek word pneuma, "spirit," is neuter.]
This is about as clear a promise of the gift of the Holy Spirit as Johannine rhetoric will allow: “You know [the Spirit] because he abides with you, and he will be in you.” Only the actual bestowal of God’s Spirit by the Risen Jesus in 20:22 is a more direct statement of the coming of the Spirit to the disciples.
The effect of the Holy Spirit on the disciples will be to separate them from the world. (“…the Spirit of truth, whom the world…neither sees…nor knows…”) The world cannot know the reality brought by the Spirit; but that reality is the “truth,” the divine reality that will be fully manifested when the world has passed away in the age to come.
The final problem of the Spirit in the world is not just language; it is the lack of that gift of life that unites humans with the divine reality – agape, love of God and neighbors.