Saturday, May 14, 2016
God Loves Infinite Variety: Reflections on Pentecost (RCL Pentecost C, 15 May 2016)
God Loves Infinite Variety
Reflections on Pentecost
RCL Pentecost C
15 May 2016
Saint Faith’s Anglican Church
In what is otherwise an unforgettable re-telling of the Robin Hood legend, Kevin Costner’s Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, there is one unforgettable scene. A young girl approaches a Moorish warrior, played by Morgan Freeman, who has followed Robin back to England to discharge a debt of honour. She has never seen a dark-skinned person, let alone a Muslim with facial tattoos.
She reaches out and touches his face. ‘Did God paint you this way,’ she asks. ‘Truly,’ he replies, ‘for Allah loves infinite variety.’
On this day almost two thousand years ago Jews from throughout the Roman empire gathered in Jerusalem for the festival of Shavuot. This festival takes place fifty days after Passover and celebrates the giving of the Law by God to the people of Israel at Mount Sinai.
The streets of the city were filled with the sounds of languages from north and south, east and west. Then, as the Acts of the Apostles tells us, a remarkable thing happened. A group of predominately illiterate Palestinian Jews stood on a balcony and began to speak in the languages of the street. It was strange enough that they were speaking in the various tongues of the peoples below, but their message was even more strange.
Peter, the leader of this strange company of men, proclaimed to the crowd that the prophecy of Joel had come true. All the peoples of the world were now to hear the good news of God, good news found in the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. Many in the street thought that Peter and his friends were drunk, but others were drawn to the message. God’s message was not to be limited to one group of people in one geographical region; it was a message for the whole world.
The story of the first Pentecost reflects back on the familiar story of the tower of Babel. Often the story of Babel is told as a cautionary tale about human beings striving to be God and God’s predictable reaction to put the annoying humans back in their place. God puts an end to their disturbing but ambitious project by confusing their speech, the story goes, so be wary of reaching too far.
But there is another way of understanding the tower of Babel. This story follows on the heels of the re-population of the world by the family of Noah. Through his sons and daughters-in-law, a new humanity and diverse humanity arises: rural and urban, agricultural and industrial, nomadic and settled. At some point between this story of different peoples with differing languages and customs, there comes a new development. Humanity now shares a common language and a united purpose. We might want to think that this isn’t such a bad thing, but God sees it as an assault on God’s original intentions in the creation of the world.
God knows that the beating heart of creation is its diversity, whether human or non-human. This variety, especially the diversity of humanity, offers a range of perspectives on the mystery of existence and the mystery of God. No one way of speaking about God is sufficient; God is more than any single vocabulary can describe.
As God looks down from heaven, God sees humanity abandoning its rich diversity. Its new-found common language and common project have the potential to lead to the suppression, even the persecution, of those who do not share the common perspective that has laid the foundation for the tower that rises from the city. When God ‘confuses’ their speech, God is not punishing them so much as giving the people back what is truly theirs: the many and varied ways of proclaiming their experience of the living God, the Creator of all things, visible and invisible.
Truly God loves infinite variety. A tree farm, however useful it is to us, is not a forest with its complex relationships between flora and fauna. Aquaculture, however useful it is in combatting human hunger, is not the same as the marine eco-system with its wonders still emerging. Esperanto, however admirable an experiment it is in enabling human communication, is not the same as learning the language of another culture and people.
Pentecost, fifty days after Easter, celebrates the diversity of the human encounter with the God who raised Jesus from the dead and at whose side in honour Christ sits. Our vocation throughout the ages has been to express the good news in all the ways used by the human societies among whom we have lived, worked and loved. All Christians are called to be multi-lingual and multi-cultural, able to share the good news with those who do not necessarily speak, I mean speech in its broadest possible meaning, the same language as we.
There is nothing new in what I am saying. The moment that Peter, whose native language was probably Aramaic, began to preach to non-Palestinian Jews, he had to translate his experience of Jesus of Nazareth into words and ideas that would help Gentiles meet the risen Christ.
This is the gift of the Spirit we celebrate today. Through God’s Spirit we are inspired and empowered to tell others about the Jesus who has given meaning to our lives. We can find new ways to tell others about the God who fills the universe with the gifts of life and love. Through the Spirit we are en-couraged, given a hope that dwells within the core of our being, a hope that overcomes our fears of those who are different from ourselves.
Hope is, I think, the best gift of the Spirit. Hope enables us to rejoice in our distinct gifts because we know where God is taking us. Living in hope means trusting in God’s ‘yes’ to us as the beloved of the Creator.
Today we live in a world where many people fear difference. Our consumer society is built on the premise that we want to be like someone else who is more athletic, more attractive, more wealthy, more whatever, than we are. The immigrant and refugee crisis we see in Europe and elsewhere in the world leads some otherwise reasonable people into an unreasonable fear of the ‘other’. We know all too well the fear of ‘otherness’ that cause some radical religious groups to attempt to eradicate, not only believers in other faiths, but believers in their own traditions who do not share their particular interpretations of the faith. Each one is trying to build a tower of Babel built on a foundation of denial, a denial that God loves infinite variety.
But we shall not build such a tower. We shall give thanks to God for the many and varied ways human beings speak of the mystery of God. As Vincent Donovan, a Roman Catholic theologian of mission, once said, ‘We will not know the Gospel until we have heard it proclaimed in all the world’s languages and cultures.’ Each one reveals a facet of the diamond of faith.
For truly, God loves infinite variety.