A Sermon for Pentecost – Genesis 11:1-9

The collect and readings for the Feast of Pentecost may be found here. The following reflection focuses on Genesis 11:1-9 (the Tower of Babel story) and Acts 2:1-21 (the traditional Pentecost story).

When we think of Pentecost today’s reading from Genesis is probably not the first thing we think of. We do not usually associate Pentecost with making bricks, building ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens. We do not think of making a name for ourselves.

Mention Pentecost and most of us probably recall the story of the disciples gathered in the upper room. We hear a sound like the rush of violent wind filling the house. We imagine divided tongues, as of fire, appearing and resting on each disciple. We picture drunken chaos in which people are speaking, hearing, and understanding strange new languages.

I suspect many, perhaps most, of us wish for such an experience of God. We want something tangible, a sign, a sound, a vision, that reveals God’s presence, that guides us in our life, that reassures us. If that does not come in the way we expect or think it should then we resort to making bricks and building our own cities with a tower that will reach to God. We work to make a name for ourselves. We try to experience God on our terms. We build walls and structures and try to raise ourselves up to God telling God to work within the walls and structures we have built. But that is not how God works. The uncompleted Tower of Babel and a scattered and confused people attest to that.

God does not work or act within the walls and structures we have built.

Instead, God lives, works, and acts within us.

The miracle of Pentecost is not in the upper room where the disciples gathered. It is not in a sound like the rush of violent wind blowing through the house. It is not in the divided tongues of fire, and it is not in the strange new languages.

The miracle of Pentecost is the outpouring of God’s spirit on all flesh; on you and me, on those we know as well as strangers, on those we love as well as enemies, on those who are like us as well as those who are different. All flesh. No one is left out.

The outpouring of God’s spirit, God’s own life and breath, was prophesied by Joel. Later, John the Baptist would remind us that while he baptized with water we would be baptized with the Holy Spirit. Finally, Jesus himself reassures us that we will be clothed with power from on high, that the Spirit of Truth will abide with us and in us as a Comforter, an Encourager, an Advocate who will teach us and remind us of all Jesus’ words.

The Spirit of God is not simply a thing or an event. It is the abiding and transforming presence of God’s life with us and in us.  Wherever life is being created, renewed, put back together, inspired the Spirit is present. In that sense we might think of the Spirit more as a verb than a noun.

The spirit of God has always been and continues to be our source and sustainer of life.

  • In the beginning the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground and “spirited” man into a living being when God breathed into man’s nostrils.
  • In the valley of dry bones Ezekiel watched as the wind of God “spirited” new life into old dry brittle bones.
  • God “spirited” the Blessed Virgin Mary so that the child to be born would be holy and called the Son of Man.
  • Jesus was “spirited” through the wilderness and anointed to bring good news to the poor, release to the captive, sight to the bind, and to let the oppressed go free.

Today we are “spirited” by the wind, the breath, the life of God. The descent of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost does not mean the Spirit was previously absent. The Holy Spirit has never been absent. With Pentecost it is now present in a different way. It is no longer limited to particular circumstances, events, or persons. It is poured out on all flesh making us members of the Body of Christ and empowering us to participate in Christ’s victory over sin and death. This means we are free.

We are free from making bricks. We no longer need to build ourselves a city for we have become the city where God dwells. We no longer need to build a tower with its top in the heavens for we have become the tower that bridges heaven and earth. We no longer need to make a name for ourselves for we have been named Children of God. That is the miracle of Pentecost, God living, breathing, acting, and working within us.

That means that Pentecost, more often than not, happens in what we see as the ordinary everyday circumstances of our lives. Our “pentecosting” looks like places of forgiveness and reconciliation; courage in the midst of a confusing and fearful life; hope in spite of what feels like unending sorrow and loss; joy and gratitude for everyone and everything you see; silence in which you hear over and over God’s presence.

Every one of us could name those times when life seemed inspired and we dreamed new dreams, saw visions of hope and new possibilities; and spoke about God’s deeds of power; deeds such as mercy and forgiveness, love, compassion, justice, beauty, generosity, healing, courage, hope. In every one of those moments we were being “spirited.”

This “spiriting” is what sustains and renews our lives and our world. God breathes out and we breathe in. We breathe out and God breathes in. Back and forth it flows. God and humanity sharing the divine breath of life. Take a deep breath, it is Pentecost. Let it all out, it is Pentecost. Now do it again, it is Pentecost!

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