In ‘A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’ – a very useful book to have read if you happen to find yourself unexpectedly kidnapped by aliens just in the nick of time when the Earth is just about to be demolished by a Vogon Destructor fleet in order to make way for an intergalactic hyper-expressway –the Earthling, Arthur Dent, naturally can’t understand a word anyone is saying to him even after he gets over the initial shock of finding himself on a spaceship surrounded by large and spectacularly ugly Vogons – until a fellow intergalactic hitchhiker hands him a Babel fish. Named, of course, after the Tower of Babel, the Babel fish looks pretty much like a regular goldfish except that when you insert it into your ear you can hear and understand everything that’s said to you in your own language. Unfortunately the fish has to stay in there for the duration, apparently the fish gets something out of the relationship as well, I can’t remember what. Also it tends to wriggle a bit, which Arthur initially finds a bit disconcerting, but you can’t have everything.
The Babel fish is one of those clever ideas that catches on in popular culture – on the Internet, for example, you can go to the search engine, Yahoo, where you’ll find a thing called Babel fish translation – you just type in a phrase of English and select what language you want it to be translated into – though sometimes the results are a bit surprising - for example when I typed in ‘what are these mad Galileans on about’, and translated it into German and then back again into English to get ‘just what exactly are these furious Galileans on?’ Which, actually, is more or less what everyone was thinking at the time, even if they didn’t say so.
You see, Luke, in our story today from The Acts of the Apostles, also comes up with the clever idea of reversing the basic idea of that much older story in the Old Testament about the Tower of Babel. And in fact there’s some very rich symbolism in the riotous scene that Luke paints for us – where the original Tower of Babel story tries to explain how it is that people can’t understand one another, why we get separated into factions that can’t see eye to eye, why we spend all our time arguing and fighting one another – here in the story of Pentecost we have the opposite - a miracle of comprehensibility, the miracle of people inspired by the Holy Spirit who do get the point.
Maybe, in fact, Luke has got in mind another very old story associated with the Jewish harvest festival of Pentecost – so named because it falls fifty days after Passover this was one of the great pilgrimage festivals that gathered together Jews from all over the known world, the still-scattered remnants whose ancestors had gone into exile and never come back – people by now who spoke mutually incomprehensible languages who were at home in foreign lands and cultures but who still knew themselves to be the people of God’s promise. By the first century Pentecost had become one of the great annual festivals to celebrate the coming of the Law on Mt Sinai – where, according to the Talmud a flame had come down from heaven and divided into 70 tongues of fire – one for each of the nations of the earth – everyone could understand what God was promising and what God required, but only Israel promised to keep the Law. So Luke, the great story-teller, has got a lot of material to work with and he weaves it together to tell the story of how, in the promise of God made real in the crucified and risen Jesus, communication is being restored. The nations of the world are being gathered in again like a great harvest – the Spirit comes as wind – a play on the Hebrew word for God’s Spirit, ruach – which, just like the Greek word, pneuma - also means wind, or breath. And the Spirit also comes in tongues of fire!
Like Douglas Adams, Luke uses a bit of humour. He makes it sound a bit like the phenomenon of talking in tongues, what anthropologists call glossolalia, the symptom of religious excitement that worries St Paul so much about the Church in Corinth because of the all-too human tendency to get carried away, to mistake the unusual effects of our own excitement for the presence and the work of the Holy Spirit. Calm down, St Paul tells the Corinthian Christians – the real work of the Holy Spirit is love. If love is growing among you then God’s Holy Spirit is working. It’s that simple. The Spirit of God is incompatible with the spirit of competitiveness and the spirit of showing off. Luke, writing 30 or so years later than Paul, makes his story sound a bit like talking in tongues – he even says that to people who don’t know what’s going on they sound like a lot of drunks - but then he gives it a twist – the faithful Jews gathered from across the ancient world hear them talking plainly, miraculously making sense. The curse of Babel is reversed.
For all Luke’s poetic licence, it’s clear something remarkable happened that first Pentecost. An excited crowd of Jews from different language groups and cultures witnessed some sort of phenomenon that transformed these witless Galilean country bumpkins - who just weeks earlier had been scattered and scared – into fearless and compelling witnesses of God’s new deal for human beings. Luke, no doubt, makes a good movie out of it, which is more or less what we do ourselves, when we dress up in red and decorate the church with vases of poinsettias. Pentecost is a day for theatre, for celebrating the truth of the miracle even if we’re a bit hazy on the details.
So what’s the good news in this story for us, in 2009? I really think there is good news here, and it’s summed up in one of Jesus’ favourite sayings that also gets repeated at various points in ‘A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’ - whenever Arthur Dent gets himself all anxious and worked up about the strangeness and unpredictability of the galaxy he turns over to the next page of the strange little book that his fellow hitchhiker has given him and reads: ‘DON’T WORRY!’.
Or, as Jesus generally puts it: ‘Don’t be afraid’.
Pentecost, the celebration of the gift of the Holy Spirit, marks a turning point in the life of the early Church, and it also marks a turning point in our own lives that, very appropriately, we reflect on at the end of the season of Easter. Pentecost marks the turning point for disciples who have been pretty much OK about being called and nurtured, who are pretty much OK about following Jesus and being impressed – but who are a bit iffy about being gifted and commissioned and sent. Pentecost is the feast of the Church that understands itself as the body of Christ – the body of women and men who speak Christ’s words and who live Christ’s risen life - not just because that makes us feel good or because it guarantees us a spot in heaven, but because we are faithful to our Lord’s commandment – ‘make disciples of all the nations and baptise them in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit’. Pentecost is the feast of Christian maturity, a feast of the turning point for Christians who recognise that the Spirit of the risen Christ is a gift that doesn’t just redeem them personally but also challenges them to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ wherever they go. Pentecost is for Christians who know Jesus calls them to be in mission to a hurting and fragmented world - but are a bit iffy on how to go about it.
Because it turns out that as you fly around this amazing and rather scary galaxy – or even just around Cannington – the only job you have is to grow in love. The Babel fish in your ear is going to do the rest, because the miracle of comprehensibility is God’s work, not yours. That’s the promise of Pentecost. The Babel fish – or to use slightly more Christian terminology – God’s Holy Spirit – is going to keep wriggling in your ear, going to keep pushing you slightly off balance, going to transform you precisely to the extent that you are prepared to trust its power to do so. You will find yourself in some pretty unusual places, there’ll be times when you’re not too sure how it’s all going to turn out. But the promise is that the words of God will come from your lips, and they are going to be spoken in the language that is just right for the unique situations that you are going to find yourself in
Does that mean we can just forget about mission, leave it all up to the Holy Spirit? Well, actually, no. But if you’ve really put the Babel fish in your ear – and sadly, some Christians never seem to get around to it – not only do you find yourself tuning into the languages of love that are all around you, but you find yourself growing in the desire to live the way Jesus modelled for us, the way of compassion and forgiveness, and yes, even the desire to talk about it. That, of course, is mission, which is the art of translating God’s love into the social contexts of our own time and place. Nobody can do it for you, you’re the only mission expert there is in the challenges and the opportunities of your own daily life. The promise of the Babel fish is that, if you actually want it to, God’s Holy Spirit will wriggle and grow in you and make you incandescent.