When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.
Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken. Utterly amazed, they asked: “Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language? Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “What does this mean?”
– Acts 2
If the Tower of Babel is the story of God’s dismantling of Empire – the Babylonian one, particularly, as a stand-in for the Egyptian empire – through the scattering of language from the one dominant culture, the babbling of Pentecost is the antidote, the unprivileging of any one specific people or culture. It is the decolonization of a God who only speaks for and from the perspective of the privileged.
Pentecost is also the completion of the incarnation begun on Christmas – allowing human participation in divinity in an effort to allow each access to each other. Before, the God of all creation spoke through one, limited people group. Through the incarnation of Jesus, God then becomes a member of that people group (as an able-bodied male, at that), but grants access to God to those denied that access previously – including people with disabilities, women who are deemed unclean, foreigners, those who cannot afford to buy sacrifices. Now, in the Pentecost, God is present through the Holy Spirit upon all people. It is a movement of divine solidarity that spreads out to all.
And this is radical. It is so radical an introduction to a new way of life that the recipients are labeled drunk. So radical, indeed, that the participants decide to gather, live together, eat together, pray and learn together about this new way – about this revolutionary, anti-Empire God revealed through Jesus and the Holy Spirit.
This is also known as the introduction of the Church – the inauguration of its particular mission on Earth.
And we see the way that this explosive, revolutionary gathering is met out – through gathering in communes.
The Holy Spirit comes upon the people, and the people become a collective, inclusive mishmash of willful, participatory communism.
Why does it look so different today? Why does the Christian Church often deny access to God through our practices and the policies that we endorse? Upon reading this interpretation, the typical US Christian may become defensive – may sputter that communism never works and that English is the primal language of the real world as they did on my friend David Henson’s blog.
Christians in the age of the American Empire, in other words, have an awfully small amount of holy imagination – we are busy building the tower of Babel when we need tongues of fire.