This coming Sunday is Pentecost, which, in the Christian tradition, marks fifty days after Easter (the Resurrection), and the event often considered by some to be the beginning of the Church.
In this week's story (which you can read in Acts 2), many Jews had gathered in Jerusalem to celebrate Pentecost, the Jewish holiday which marks Moses receiving the Law from God on Sinai. And as the followers of Jesus gathered together to celebrate, this strange thing happens involving the sound of a loud wind filling up the house, and these tongues that looked like fire and rested on each of them. They were then all "filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in different languages as the Spirit enabled them."
In the commotion, all the other Jews around, who had come to worship in Jerusalem from all corners of the Roman world (i.e. speaking different native languages), started hearing these other Jews, the followers of Jesus, in their own native languages. They're obviously confused because they're foreigners – Asians, Egyptians, Romans, Arabs, Cretans, Mesopotamians – and they're hearing these folks from Jerusalem praising God in their own native languages.
So as the Holy Spirit comes to them (as Jesus promised His followers in John 15-16), their language begins to go beyond what they know. In many ways, it calls into question all previous notions of identity, which for most of the people in this story (and as I'm sure, for many of us) language is a defining and distinguishing factor.
Lets go back to another story, this one in Genesis 11. Human beings have not yet been separated by tribal, ethnic, and linguistic identities and decide to build themselves a giant city that would be the tallest thing on earth, making a name for themselves and unifying themselves by this city so as to not be separated and scattered apart across the earth. But God sees this and decides to confuse their speech so that they can't understand one another. So as this happens, language develops, the people scatter across the earth, and their grand unifying city becomes a relic of human ingenuity. Right?
I think that we've often read this story incorrectly, as if God is just arrogant, trying to thwart these human geniuses, gets afraid, and then decides to split them all up with language. But I think that's the wrong way of looking at this. The humans in this story desired unity as a people, but having thrust God out of the center, they were dis-oriented. So, in their mislead jumble of honest desire for something good (this is what God made them for, but they couldn't remember), they go to build something to unify them on the outskirts of creation. This city becomes for them, perhaps without realizing it, their new god. And if they succeeded, it would be nearly impossible to reform them once again into a unified people of God, because they'd see no need for it. That's a generalization as to what I think this story is about, but I think it connects to Pentecost.
Because of their inability to communicate, the humans break off into tribes, showing their true colors – as soon as they're not alike, they kill and steal from each other. The city would never change their hearts. So from their proceeds the Jewish story of God taking one of these peoples, themselves a family of often-warring tribes, and unifying creation and humanity through them in orientation around God – creating a people out of many divided tribal identities.
As a junior in college I traveled to a place in Burgundy, France called Taizé. It's an ecumenical monastery founded in 1940, composed of a little over 100 brothers who come from both Protestant and Catholic backgrounds. It has become an important pilgrimage site, where people gather together for prayer, study, and communal work. When I arrived with a group from my university, I anticipated getting placed into a daily Bible study/sharing group with people my own age from around the world. I was excited for rigorous and in-depth theological discussion. However, due to the odd numbers that week (they try to place people from different countries together as much as possible), a few from our university ended up getting placed in groups with a number of German middle-schoolers and their teachers. I was one of them. Total bummer. Not only did these kids not speak great English, their experience with Christianity or faith in general was sparse to non-existent. There went my chance for rigorous cross-cultural theological discussion.
However, as the days went on, we learned to communicate, little by little. Their English got a little better, as did my German (but let's be honest – their English was better than my German). But our discussion also changed. And I'd argue that rather than simply adapting to our weaknesses of communication, our discussion became so much clearer and honest than I could have imagined. We didn't have the ability (intellectually, spiritually, or linguistically) to talk about "substitutionary atonement" or "transubstantiation," but we slowly delved into discussion using only words like "fear," "hope," "desire," "trust," "love," "frustration," "doubt," "pain."
Once again, language is unified at Pentecost, but in a way that allows God's heart and intention to speak rather than simply our own. The result is shocking – as the people of Babel were once confused by their new division, the people gathered in Jerusalem as confused by their new unity. What a shift. In Taizé, our vocabulary changed, and it wasn't a weakness as much as it was a gift of the Holy Spirit to guide our conversation. All my wordy intellectual baggage lost its currency. I was confused. The conversation was not longer on my terms, but the terms of "grace," (or, as I came to learn, “gnade").