As part of my series on language and unity, last week I wrote about the story of the tower of Babel. We talked about the way that story reveals the source of the division in our world: It’s sin. And that sin has left the world in a pretty broken place.
But thankfully, God never leaves us in our brokenness. There is always hope because he is always working to redeem the world we live in. And sometimes, he gives us little glimpses of what that redemption looks like. This week, we’re taking about the story of Pentecost, where get a beautiful glimpse of that broken unity breaking back through into our world. Jesus has just ascended into heaven, and he’s promised the disciples that if they’ll just wait, he’ll send the Holy Spirit to them. That’s where we pick up in Acts 2.1:
When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place. And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance.
Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven. And at this sound the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one was hearing them speak in his own language. And they were amazed and astonished, saying, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language? Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians—we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God.” And all were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?”
At this point, the apostle Peter beautifully and insightfully shares the gospel with them crowd, and in verse 41, we get to see the end result:
So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls.
What a beautiful image of what happens when the Holy Spirit comes onto the scene and people respond. God really can take a dire situation and turn it around can’t he?
So the disciples are following Jesus’ instructions and waiting around for the Holy Spirit to come, and meanwhile, everyone comes to town for Pentecost. In Jewish tradition, Pentecost was a time to celebrate God’s giving of the law to Moses. And just as God showed up at Sinai at the first Pentecost, now he’s about to show up again in a new way at this one.
We know that when the Holy Spirit falls, he’s going to do something big. And it was no different this first time. As the Holy Spirit came upon the disciples, there was noise and there was fire and there was a lot of commotion. Enough commotion, in fact, to draw a crowd. And the disciples, suddenly invigorated with the power of the Holy Spirit, were led to preach the gospel to the crowd right then and there.
And as they spoke, something amazing began to happen. Because this wasn’t any old crowd. The festival had drawn people from all over the world to Jerusalem, so this crowd represented every nation and people group imaginable. The passage even lists a sample of all the different places these people were from, including Egypt, Arabia, Media, even Rome. And each and every person in that crowd could understand what the disciples were saying. This was incredible!
You see, the disciples were Galileans fishermen. They weren’t fancy city folk. They weren’t eloquent. They weren’t educated in the languages of the world. They were just speaking what the Holy Spirit led them to say, but in his power, they were doing so in languages that they didn’t know, maybe even languages they’d never heard before. And miraculously, every person in that crowd was able to hear the gospel preached in their native tongue. Can you imagine? If something like that happened today, it would make international news, if anyone would even believe it.
As the disciples preached, every person heard, and thousands were converted to the cause of Christ. The church immediately grew from a tiny group in a tiny room to a vast collection of international believers spread throughout the world worshipping God in their homes. This motley crew of people from all over who couldn’t even understand each other suddenly became brothers and sisters in Christ. Linguistic barriers, cultural differences, and international conflicts were torn down in light of the gospel, and the unity of humanity was restored just a little bit.
Scripture goes on to tell us about what the church was like after Pentecost. The Christians met constantly in one another’s homes to worship God. They sacrificed and shared everything they had to make sure that each member had enough. They loved one another and cared for one another. They had what in Greek is called koinonia. We translate it a lot of different ways, but one way to translate it is “community.” They had true, deep community with one another, the kind that can only come from having a real connection with other human beings. I don’t know about you, but to me, that’s beautiful.
Here’s what I know: When the Holy Spirit shows up and our hearts are in tune with God’s, nothing else matters. It doesn’t matter what language you speak, where you come from, or what you look like, because we are all brothers and sisters in Christ. The things that would ordinarily divide us don’t seem to matter as much in light of all that Christ has done for us. When we’re in the presence of the Holy Spirit, we are united.
Now of course, the unity that the church felt at Pentecost wasn’t permanent. When it was all said and done, many of them still couldn’t communicate with one another because they didn’t speak the same language. They all still lived in separate places and eventually had to go back home. They weren’t fully reunited in every sense, but they shared one thing in common: their faith in Christ. And that was enough to start a movement that we now get to be a part of today, and that’s the universal church.
Pentecost was a glimpse of the restored unity that God is bringing into the world through the Holy Spirit. And today, we get glimpses of that unity, too. When families that were once broken are reconciled in the name of Christ. When enemies learn to forgive each other as Christ forgave us and become friends. When people from different walks of life come together to serve their community and their God. These are glimpses of the unity God intended for us.
My church is about to take a step in participating in that unity ourselves. In June, several of us are going to hop on a plane and fly to Puerto Rico to help rebuild a church that was destroyed by the hurricane there. We’re going there and doing that because we have decided that the people of that church are a part of our ingroup. They’re one of us. We’ve chosen to care even though we didn’t have to.
There are a lot of reasons we could use to not think of that church in Puerto Rico as part of our ingroup. After all, they’re so far away that we can’t even get there by car. We’ve got to fly just to reach them. And they don’t speak the same language as we do. We’ve had to use translators in our conversations with the pastor there to make our arrangements because working with someone who speaks Spanish is completely new to us. It’s different. It could be a barrier to working together if we allowed it to be.
But, there are so many more reasons that the church in Puerto Rico should be considered a part of our ingroup. They’re our brothers and sisters in Christ, first of all. Not only that, but they’re a part of the same denomination as we are. They’re also our fellow Americans. (Yes, Puerto Ricans are Americans. Look it up.) And even more importantly than all of that, they’re human beings created in the image of God, and they are loved by him.
I am so proud and excited that my church is taking this step to serve our Lord and his people. It’s already been such a blessing to everyone involved. And in doing this, we are getting to take part in that unifying work that God is doing in the world.
Here’s the secret that your brain doesn’t want you to know: As much work as it does sorting people into ingroups and outgroups, trying to figure out who belongs and who doesn’t, when you really look at the world from God’s perspective, we’re all one big ingroup. Sure, we may look different and speak differently, and sometimes we disagree on some pretty important things. But at the end of the day, every single person on this planet is created by God in his image for a purpose. He loves each and every one of us, and he wants to know us. And we’re all in the same boat: hopelessly lost in our brokenness without him. His plan is to save us, to redeem the world, and to bring humanity back together.
And he’s inviting us to take part in it. To look past the shallow things that separate us, to stop leaving our brains on default mode, to overcome our instinct to exclude, and to join our fellow human beings in their struggle. We’ll talk about it in more detail next week, but God’s plan for the world has always included bringing humanity back together. We’ve got some pretty important differences, but God’s got a plan to overcome them, and he’s giving us a chance to be a part. Don’t you want to be a part of what God is going?
We’re nearing the end of this series, but I promise that next week’s story is even better than this week’s. Thank you for reading, and I hope you’ll join me next week as we conclude this series with a look at Revelation 7 and the greatest worship service in all of history. I’ll see you then!