“What plot of land or what stream turns up only one stone of a single kind? Or what forest produces only one tree of a single species?” —Aelred of Rievaulx, Spiritual Friendship
To arrive at Pentecost, we should go through the Tower of Babel. The arrival of the Holy Spirit rhymes with that story on purpose—so let’s take a moment and follow a story we might not have thought about in years.
If you haven’t read the Babel story in Genesis 11 recently, it’s worth it. We sometimes misremember it as a story about pride—people trying to seize power from God by building a tower into the heavens.
But in the actual story of Genesis, God has sent human beings into the world to be fruitful, multiply, and fill the whole earth. What, then, do the people do? They find a valley and stop. They huddle together, afraid to lose themselves in the expanse of the wild planet. They decide to halt their very human vocation—to learn, to change, to spread, to grow—by building tall buildings and thick walls. They don’t just settle or burrow; they turn inward to a fortress.
In the narrative, God has to come down to see what the people are up to (the tower is evidently not very tall). Upon seeing the construction, God shares an interesting worry: the human beings will succeed in thwarting their own humanity. By choosing only one way, one culture, one language, and by hiding, human beings just might be successful at destroying everything that is their true identity. It’s like monoculture in farms—they produce one thing in volume, but over time strip the soil, become ever more vulnerable to disease, and ultimately fail to thrive.
So God blesses them with confusion, giving them different languages. This has the effect of encouraging people to spread out, but it also gives the people the gift of different cultures, of a human richness across the richness of the wild planet. We don’t think of confusion as a blessing—God, who does not worry about our need to feel in control, evidently feels otherwise.
The human story is one of diversity, of wondrous and different cultures.
After Jesus has gone through the whole bit—life and death and life again, before returning to eternity—and after Jesus has told the disciples to go out and preach to the ends of the earth, the disciples find a convenient house and stop. They huddle together, willing to talk only to the local religious community in Jerusalem, who meets in a giant, fortress-like temple. They seem to assume that the Jesus message is really just for the Galilee-crowd, literally and not metaphorically—it’s just for people with that zip code, not for all of the people and the poor of the whole earth.
That’s when the Holy Spirit shows up, blessing them with confusion again. At first, it looks like understanding. After all, every person hears Jesus’s teaching in their own language—and more than that the Spirit is present in this full diversity of human life. No culture and no language has a monopoly on God’s presence. Jesus is definitely Jewish, but his teaching is native to every native tongue. It’s not only a miracle—it’s a view into who God is. Human diversity is no barrier to God’s fullest presence and love.
The confusion sets in as the disciples realize what this means. The Bible talks about this as the Gentile question, and it’s a blessed confusion. It takes them a while to realize that the full diversity of the human family can share in the fullness of God within their own cultures, their own lives, without first becoming Jewish men from Galilee. They’ll have to leave their fortress behind.
We continue to struggle with how broad, how deep God’s love is for the human family in all of our rich difference. We see something of God in our lives—in our favorite hymn, in our community, in the mountains—and we think that must mean everyone needs to sing that hymn, join that community, go to that mountain. We feel confused, even threatened, when someone wants to replace our favorite part of worship with something else; or engages the Bible from a different lens; or wonders what the first church of Mars will be like. It’s hard to feel the blessing in confusion.
But the Spirit comes, anyway, to chase us out of our towers and upper rooms and favorite hymns. The Spirit comes, rejoicing at the sheer wondrous difference among us all, unlocking our closets and prisons. The Spirit chases us onto Zoom in a pandemic (even a computer can serve as tabernacle, an ark), and out into the outdoors with a vaccine (the Spirit speaks with and without masks). The Spirit shoos us back out into the sunlight.
Blessed confusion leads us, not to where we thought we’d be, but into a richness in this universe that defies our attempts to hide in a single tower or idea. Blessed confusion offers a Pentecost-road out of this valley and into the place where God and the diverse world meet.
Maggie Napoli says
Thank you, Ryan. Thought of you today, especially, because our second grandchild was baptized at St. Gregory in Athens. You baptized Rowan, our first! Also, our first Sunday back in church! Wonderful in every way and also underlined the differences in us all. Blessed confusion!
Good morning. As the lector delegated to read the relevant verses from Acts at our HE liturgy this morning, I’m very glad to have read this first. Thank you for enhancing and expanding the images.