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To this day we have problems communicating with one another. In international relations, translations often fail to convey proper meanings. Multinational corporations learn the lesson the hard way. A friend of mine on Hilton Head used to be in the advertising business and was responsible for the Pepsi Cola account. He is the one who came up with the slogan, "Come alive. You're in the Pepsi generation." Remember that? I am told that Pepsi tried to market their product in China using the same slogan. Ha! In Chinese the meaning came out as "Pepsi brings your ancestors back from the dead."
Pepsi's problem was an inconvenience, but we know very well that other international misunderstandings can lead to disaster. In the late David Brinkley's excellent book, Washington Goes to War,(1) we find the story of the transformation of our nation's capital from a sleepy southern town into the massive machine it became during World War II. Brinkley was a young reporter at the time and recalls the isolationist feeling that was pervasive in America prior to Pearl Harbor and blames much of it on the foolishness of previous conflicts, wars so stupid that when Kaiser Wilhelm II was asked during World War I why his country was at war with half of Europe, he responded, "If only I knew."(2) War had become massively brutal, and in our day is now even worse. The world needs communication and we all breathe a bit easier when potentially hostile neighbors talk together. In a nuclear age, we would never survive another "If only I knew." Effective communication can mean the difference between life and death for the planet.
To be sure, communication is tough enough even when folks speak the same language. The same word means different things to different people. One person talks about justice and means that everyone should have fair and equal opportunity for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness - no one should expect a free ride at the expense of society...each one should pull his or her own weight. That is just. But another thinks justice means that life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness should be understood to guarantee a home, a job, and medical care for everyone, regardless of any other consideration, and we should all chip in to make sure that no one falls through the cracks. Same word...justice...VASTLY different meanings.
Sometimes, misunderstandings are accidental. In my files is this vignette. A little old lady planning a vacation wrote a letter to a particular campground to inquire about its facilities. She could not bring herself to write the word "toilet" so she finally settled on the term "BC" which to her meant "bathroom commode." The initials baffled the campground manager who showed the letter to some of the other campers. They did not understand either until one of them suggested the woman might be referring to a Baptist Church. The owner agreed and wrote this reply:
Dear Madam: Thank you for your inquiry. I take pleasure in informing you that a BC is located two miles north of our campground, and seats 250 people. My wife and I go quite regularly, but as we grow older, it seems to be more of an effort, particularly during cold spells. If you visit our campground, perhaps we could go with you the first time, sit with you, and introduce you to the other folks. Ours is a friendly community. Sincerely yours,"Mistaken impressions notwithstanding, research has been done which shows that some of what we hear and do not hear is quite deliberate. One experiment had two groups of subjects, smokers and non-smokers, listen to messages, some of which implied that smoking causes cancer and others which claimed the opposite. The messages were obscured by static, which could be eliminated if the listener pressed a button. Smokers more frequently removed static from the "smoking does NOT cause cancer" messages while NON-smokers more frequently cleared up the "smoking causes cancer" messages. The conclusion is obvious: people are more likely to hear what they want to hear than what they don't. Any wife who has ever asked a husband to mow the lawn during the telecast of a World Series game could say Amen to that. It is the Tower of Babel, 21st century style.
Unfortunately, the problem is just as bad in the church. There are communication gaps all over the place...gaps between denominations, gaps between the pulpit and the pew, gaps between young and old, gaps between rich and poor, gaps between liberal and conservative. If anyone wonders why, in almost 2,000 years, we have not won the world for Jesus Christ, the answer is that we have not communicated the Good News of the Gospel with much effectiveness at all.
Think about it. For centuries, the language of the church was one which no one except scholars read or spoke...Latin. That was a problem recognized in the Reformation. One of the historic statements of faith is from Switzerland over 400 years ago - the Second Helvetic Confession. In part it says:
Let all strange tongues keep silence in gatherings for worship, and let all things be set forth in a common language which is understood by the people gathered in that place.(3)We wish it were that simple. Some wag once said that England and America are two countries divided by a common language. That is often also true in the church. For example, we say that the Bible is the Word of God. Everyone agrees with that. But one Christian hears that and pictures God dictating every word that appears; another Christian understands it to mean that God miraculously speaks to us through fallible human words. There have been, and continue to be, great fights in the church about that. Same phrase...the Word of God...VASTLY different meanings. The Tower of Babel continues to impede the witness of the Gospel.
The shame of it is that there was once a day when the divisions of Babel were mended. It was the Feast of Weeks, Pentecost, one of the three great holy days of the Jewish year. Thousands of the faithful had gathered in Jerusalem from all over the known world to celebrate the giving of the Law to Moses on Mt. Sinai, fifty days after the Passover.
That small band of Christians was there as well - they had been praying together for ten solid days and now were enjoying an ecstatic religious experience. They were creating such a commotion that their noise began to draw a crowd. Some thought it was just a drunken party.
But others listened more carefully to what was going on. And miraculously, each one hearing understood. It made no difference what their native tongue might have been. As they listened, they heard the story of what God had done in that group and was prepared to do in all who would believe. The ancient divisions at the Tower of Babel had been healed. The result? Scripture says that 3,000 people responded to the invitation of Peter that day to "repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ." It was a great day!
One wonders why there have not been more days like that. After all, the Holy Spirit who imparted such power on that rag-tag band did not suddenly vanish. Christians continue to believe that the Spirit empowers the church. We believe that the Spirit is with us now, ready to warm cold hearts, soften stiff necks, penetrate thick skulls, and heal the divisions of Babel. What has gone wrong?
If we consider that brief scene described in the beginning of the Book of Acts, several things jump out at us that are different today than they were back then. First, the church no longer prays and waits for God's leading like it did. The instructions given to the disciples at Jesus' ascension were to wait in Jerusalem for divine direction, divine power. They did. For ten days they waited and prayed. When was the last time you heard of a ten-day prayer meeting...or even a ten-hour prayer meeting? In a society that demands instant food, instant coffee, instant banking, instant success, instant everything, prayerful waiting no longer seems to be a priority.
Second, the church no longer cares as much about being "all together in one place" as it did. If that day of Pentecost were transplanted to 2003, more than half of the 120 in the room back then would probably be absent - Peter and his wife would have been at their cottage in the mountains; Bartholomew would have had guests in from out of town for the member-guest tournament at the club and would not be there; Phillip and his family would have been up late the night before and overslept; Andrew would have had a business conference about a new fishing boat; and James would have had to stay home to cut the grass.(4) Togetherness is not considered as important in the church as it once was.
Third, the message of the church these days seems less about "the mighty acts of God" than about social justice or abortion or sexuality or any number of other things. Exacerbating the problem is the fact that the church speaks with more than one voice on the questions. People on the outside do not know what or whom to believe. Those issues are all important, but the result is that our message has been skewed and filled with static.
Prayerful waiting - communicating with God; fellowship - communicating with each other; our message - communicating with the world. We do not seem to be doing a very good job of any of them. Babel is pervasive.
Perhaps that is why the modern church does not appear to be as excited about its faith as the early church was. No one could come into our Sunday morning worship these days and mistake it for a drunken party. In far too many instances, we make Christianity, not only confusing, but downright boring. Charles Haddon Spurgeon, the great evangelist of the last century, once commented about another minister he happened to hear, "He would make a good martyr; he was so dry he would surely burn well." If the Gospel is the Good News we say it is, we should positively radiate. But we don't.
The miracle of Pentecost was not simply the coming of the Holy Spirit. Scripture makes clear that the Spirit was active in human affairs from the beginning of time. The real miracle was that the divisions of Babel were overcome. Real communication took place, and the result was an exponential growth of the church.
Amy Allen is a Lutheran minister who teaches at Columbia Seminary in Decatur. In a sermon she wrote on this text she recalls an incident from early in her career. She writes,
Can we experience the miracle of Pentecost again in our day? Can that sense of joyful abandon, the party atmosphere, return? Of course. The Spirit is still active...still ready to bridge those communication gaps. The task of the church is to make itself available for the Spirit to come in real power.
If we can restore corporate prayer to the important place it once held, God is still willing to hear and answer. If we can impress upon members of the church the importance of gathering together for worship, even when there are other things we might be doing, the incredible bond of fellowship that those early Christians shared can be brought back. If we can focus our message upon God and the Good News of love and mercy, the God who was made known in Jesus Christ, rather than confusing people with theological jargon and too many ancillary issues, the world will be more inclined to tune out the static and listen. It might even feel like a party again.
Yes, Pentecost can beat Babel once more. Why not here? Why not now?
1. David Brinkley, Washington Goes to War, (New York : Alfred A. Knopf, 1988)
2. pp. 27-28
3. Book of Confessions (Louisville, KY : Presbyterian Publishing House) 5.217
4. Adapted from Halford Luccock from a column some years ago in Christian Century