Saturday, May 29, 2010

Babel and the Euro Zone

Genesis 11.1-9, Acts 2.1-8 and 13-21, John 14.8-17

The authors of Genesis were obviously fairly wedded to the concept of the nation state. They didn't share the ideals of the people who conceived the European Super-State and the single currency. They believed that the different nations and languages into which the human race is divided were no accident of history but something willed by God to prevent human beings from getting above their appointed station in life and grasping at equality with Him.

Of course, in many ways it's a positive development when human beings collaborate together. But it does depend on what they are collaborating to do. If their aim is to dominate nature and their neighbours, collaboration may simply allow them to make an even more spectacular mess of things than when they were competing with one another. And even when human beings collaborate for good, to try to save the planet from disaster, there is still the danger that we will become too self-reliant and forget our need of God. So, on balance, Genesis is not in favour of working together and sees the mosaic of different nations, languages and customs as part of the created order.

The recent problems faced by the Euro-zone certainly remind us that working together and forging a common identity may be laudable but it certainly isn't easy and lots of things can go wrong and threaten to bring back Babel with its cacophony of chaotic background noise. Perhaps the Eurocrats were in too much of a hurry, like the enthusiastic builders of the great city in the sky, and cut too many corners in their attempt to reach quickly their eminently desirable goal of peace, harmony and universal prosperity.

Of course, like the Euro-zone, Babel is a real place - the City of Babylon with its hanging gardens, was one of the seven wonders of the world. The peoples there didn't speak one language, but their masters were forging a common identity and a shared culture in their mighty new Empire which spanned the Middle-East. But, by the time that Genesis reached its final form, the Babylonian Empire had come crashing down. Was this God's judgement on the Babylonians' hubris?

We might think so, and yet Acts understands God's will quite differently from Genesis. With the exception of the writer of Revelation, who was fond of describing Rome as the new Babylon and its ruler as a painted whore, the New Testament writers were broadly in favour of the Roman Empire and saw it as a pretty good thing. They believed in a single language - in their case a simplified version of ancient Greek - and they were willing to adopt many, though not all, aspects of a shared classical culture. It's against this background that Peter describes the Holy Spirit as unifying humanity and reversing the chaos of Babel by bringing a new shared understanding and a common allegiance to Jesus.

Moreover, not only does the Holy Spirit reunite the different nations of the Earth but it also overcomes the biggest and oldest divide of all - that between men and women. According to Peter and Paul, men are not from Mars and women are not from Venus. Instead we are all one in Christ Jesus our Lord. Peter reminds the astonished crowd that being inspired by God's Spirit is not just a male prerogative. After all, hadn't the Old Testament prophets said, 'Your sons and daughters shall prophesy'?

There are other ancient and enduring divides which are overcome in the Spirit, too - the inter-generational divide and the class divide. 'Young men shall see visions', and 'old men shall dream dreams', and God's Spirit will be poured out on handmaids and male servants, as well as on their masters and mistresses. It's all very inclusive and democratic. Here at last, true harmony is being restored. And, contrary to expectations, this is the fulfilment of God's intentions, not part of some gigantic global conspiracy to thwart Him.

We often concentrate on the flames like tongues of fire which seemed to settle on the believers' heads, and on the different human tongues which they spoke on the Day of Pentecost, but just as amazing is the unity of purpose which the Spirit gave them, regardless of age, gender, rank or race. Pentecost is about the creation of a new humanity, prefigured in the Christian community gathered together in congregations like this one all across the world.

Do we feel part of that global reality, which spans time as well as distance and unites us with Christians of the past and Christians of the future? Do we feel that we are all one big happy family with other believers? And do we manage to get along within our own congregation? Are we filled with the Spirit and centred on Christ, galvanised by a shared vision of what God wants us to be, or are we fractious and divided? Do we allow petty differences of opinion or belief to divide us, or do we celebrate the fact that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved, no matter how they might differ from us in other ways?

The unity which the Spirit confers on believers is, of course, but a reflection of the essential unity which lies at the heart of God's nature. God is Himself in community. Jesus is in the Father, and the Father is in Him, and the Spirit of truth - the Advocate - is their joint gift to the universe, and to the human race.

Actually, someone I know well has been in need of an advocate this week, a person who could tell him what to say and how to put across his case so that he can defend himself and make the strongest possible impression in a hostile environment. A lawyer friend offered him very sound advice and helped him to transform his situation.

How like the role of the Spirit that is, helping us - if we will only listen and take heed - to know how to express our personal faith and proclaim the Church's mission in a world where people are often not on our wavelength and where we need special wisdom to know how to get our message across and communicate with them. Once we start to describe the Spirit as the arch-communicator we are back where we began, of course, with the Tower of Babel. Perhaps it's not unfair to describe the Spirit as God's spin doctor, helping us to try to reconnect with the fractured communities which the Babel of competing nationalisms, faiths, cultures and languages has created.

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