Sermon for Sunday, June 8, 2014
ONE IN THE SPIRIT
When I was a youngster growing up in the state of New York, I remember how proud we all were to be living in the Empire State. New York had the largest population, the greatest economic activity, and The City. Anywhere in the state if you referred to “The City,” they knew you were talking about the Big Apple. But above all else, we were especially proud to have the world’s tallest building, the Empire State Building. It was the stuff of legend.
Well, of course, Chicago, the “Windy City,” so named not because of its windswept location but because the people are always so full of hot air, couldn’t stand being second, so they built the John Hancock Building, a real engineering feat, and taller than the Empire State Building. Naturally, New Yorkers would have none of that, so they countered with the World Trade Center, and once again boasted the world’s tallest building. Not to be denied their glory, Chicago retaliated by constructing the Sear’s Towers. Donald Trump was going to counter, but then the Khalifa Tower was built in Dubai, and the competition ended. But the newly completed One World Trade Center in New York, the Freedom Tower, is now the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere.
The desire to have the world’s tallest building is a modern echo of the ancient story of the tower of Babel. According to legend, all people had only one language and were living together in one big group in the land of Shinar in Mesopotamia. But they were afraid, afraid that their name would be forgotten, and that they would eventually be scattered over the face of the earth. Their solution was to build the world’s tallest tower, the very first skyscraper. Then they would be famous for their achievement, and the tower would be a rallying point to keep them from being scattered.
The tower was also built, however, as a site of religious devotion. The idea was to build a holy mountain where God could meet with them. To that end, each of these Ziggurats, as they were called, which means “to rise up high,” had a temple on top for worship.
The Hebrew writer saw only vanity in this. He recognized this tower building as humanity’s attempt to get closer to God, not in devotion, but in order to influence and manipulate the divine will toward human ends. But the Hebrews understood that the will of God was that humankind should be fruitful, multiply, and cover the whole earth. The tower building defied God’s will, so God came down and confused their speech. Unable to communicate with each other, they left the tower unfinished, and were scattered over the face of the earth. The very thing they sought to avoid, happened. God had the last word, as God always does.
In this way, the Hebrews explained the diversity of language in the earth despite their conviction that all peoples descended from a single source, and the division of humankind against itself. That division prepared the way for their calling to be a holy nation, whose purpose was to draw people back to the one true God. Great stuff, eh?
Well, we know we are still a people divided against ourselves, scattered throughout the world, and speaking different languages both literally and figuratively. Nations are divided by rival systems of politics and economics. Groups within our nations are divided by class consciousness and prejudice. Families are divided by internal conflicts. Even the church is divided, suffering from splits and divisions, and heated disagreements over liturgical practice, proper piety, and biblical interpretation. In fact, our own General Assembly will convene on Saturday in Detroit, and there are some issues they will address which are contentious, to say the least.
The threat, of course, is that these divisions could destroy us, not just the church, but all of us. Our name would be forgotten and we would be scattered. So we keep trying to unite ourselves in a common cause, be it freedom, or fair trade, or the United Nations, or the Olympics. But these causes are all finite and ultimately doomed to failure, because they are our cause, not God’s. God will have the last word, as God always does.
Last week in John’s Gospel Jesus prayed that we would be one with him and God through faith. But in praying for that unity, he acknowledged that it would necessarily require God’s participation and power. That power is the gift of God’s Spirit, the reception of which we celebrate today on Pentecost. It is the Spirit that can make us one, that can unite us, that can transform us into the body of Christ. How does the Spirit do that?
First, the Spirit unites us in a common devotion, our love for Jesus Christ. Before the day of Pentecost the disciples were afraid. They feared death from the Romans, being scattered from one another, and being forgotten. They were anxious for themselves. But when the Spirit came upon them on Pentecost they remembered their love for Jesus, their conviction that he was God’s son, that there was power and strength in living according to his teachings, and that they were united in him through faith. Their devotion to Jesus cast out their fear, pushed them beyond self-concern, and emboldened them to proclaim the good news of reconciliation in Christ. The first person, Adam, was brought to life by the inbreathing of Gods’ Spirit. At Pentecost, the Spirit came again to give life to God’s new creatures, the disciples of Jesus Christ.
Nothing unites us like a common devotion. It takes our attention away from ourselves, away from our vanity, our pride, and our tower building. Any devotion will do, even to country, but only devotion to God and Jesus Christ unites us in a cause that is eternal. That cause seeks the glory of our creator and the uniting of humankind into a community of faith, hope, and love. But the devotion is key. A cause only requires commitment. Devotion requires love, and love is always selfless. Selflessness is important to unity. It is a divine quality.
Second, the Spirit unites us in praise. On that first Pentecost, what broke down the barriers to communication between them were words of praise to Almighty God. Instead of speaking in their own language, they were suddenly united in the language of praise, a language that is acknowledged and recognized by all people. Instead of praising themselves and increasing the divisions among them, they were praising the one true God and drawing themselves together.
Even today what brings us together as disciples of Jesus Christ is to praise God. Each Sunday we come to this place, drawn by the Spirit’s presence in us, to unite in praising the God of our salvation, healing, and reconciliation. This is where we become as one member of the universal body of Christ, speaking a language that is common to all. It is not our liturgies or hymns, our ceremonies or rituals, or our buildings or forms of church government that are important. It is our shared love for Jesus Christ and our devotion to God that unites us. In praising God, the Spirit gives us a common language and make us one. Any of you who have worshipped in a foreign country have experienced this.
Finally, the Spirit unites us in power, the power of faith, hope, and love. The Spirit fills us with courage, with energy, and with the desire to share the good news of God’s amazing love, and leave behind our towers of pride and vanity to follow where God wills. In the power of the Spirit we become builders, not of a tower to our glory, but of a whole kingdom to God’s glory. And that is a kingdom taller than the tallest building ever built or that will be built; a tower that truly reaches into heaven. That tower is the church of Jesus Christ, created by the Spirit on Pentecost, and it is designed to lift everyone up.
We are indeed one in the Spirit. One in devotion to our Lord, Jesus Christ; one in praise to God the Father, and one in the power of the Holy Spirit. Let others build the tallest building to make a name for themselves. It will fall. Let us be about building the church of God, a timeless edifice of heavenly proportions that will never crumble. It will be built of living stones, you and me, and our neighbor. It will have Jesus Christ as its foundation and cornerstone. And it shall be to the glory of God. Let us then remember and celebrate this day of Pentecost, the day when life began anew for the people of God, and we were reunited, made one, in the Spirit of the triune God.
PRAYER: Almighty God, on this day of Pentecost we thank you for the unity we have in your Spirit, a unity of devotion, and praise, and the power of faith, hope, and love. Help us to communicate that unity in the language of praise, to live together as the body of Christ, that your will may be done, on earth as it is in heaven. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Mark P. Thomas
Ladue Chapel Presbyterian Church
St. Louis, Missouri
June 8, 2014 Pentecost