Babble Fish and Barriers
May 27, Pentecost, 2012
In Doug Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series, one of the tools available to galactic travelers is the Babble Fish. This fish, when placed in one's ear, allows one to understand, and be understood by those who speak any of the languages in the galaxy. Wouldn't it be great if there really were a Babble fish? Today is Pentecost, the day the Christian Church was born. This is the day the Holy Spirit removed the linguistic barriers that separate humankind. It is sometimes thought that this was a gift of tongues, but it was equally a gift of ears. Like the space travelers with their Babble fish, all of those present heard the Apostle's speaking in their own language.
Speaking another language not only crosses linguistic barriers, it crosses the cultural barriers as well. It is language that allows us to think, and language that limits our thinking. What makes science and mathematics so difficult for some is the inability to think symbolically—to understand the language. In the same way, it is hard to imagine a phenomenon, if there is no word or words to describe it. That's one reason prophetic and apocalyptic scriptures are so hard to understand, and so easily misinterpreted. The writers are dealing with concepts and ideas for which their language has no words.
Pentecost is about not just crossing, but tearing down barriers. No longer need we be separated by language, culture, race, class, ethnicity, gender, or any other barrier. With the coming of the Holy Spirit, God's grace is now available to any and all. And that came as a surprise not only to those gathered outside that house, but to the apostles as well. For the next 2000 years the church would, and still does, struggle with the idea that God's grace is open to everyone—even those we may think are unworthy.
Within the book of Acts, Pentecost takes place shortly after the ascension of Jesus. We might think of the Ascension as a spectacular event that filled the disciples with awe. They experienced it as a profound disappointment. They thought the resurrected Jesus would bring in the kingdom and their work would end. They asked, "Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?" They didn't realize the gritty, dangerous, exhausting work of bearing witness lay just ahead of them. After the Ascension, two men in white robes ask the disciples why they stand staring up into heaven. Maybe even divine messengers can ask dumb questions! I wonder why the disciples didn't respond, "Well, because Jesus just floated up to the sky in a cloud, that's why!"
Even before the disciples became the church they misunderstood the mission, and they longed for the good old days when they could depend on Jesus' leadership. The coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost changes everything!The Apostles had several thousand years of “chosenness” behind them. They were Jews, the chosen people of God. They had carefully separated themselves from the gentiles; clinging to their own traditions, restrictions, and laws. Only Jews could be part of God's chosen race they had been taught, but now all that was being turned on its head. If God's grace and love were for all humankind, then the Jews were no longer “chosen.” They were no longer any more special than anyone else, and they would spend the rest of their days convincing other folks that they were special and loved by God.
Pentecost set the Apostles on fire. O that he Spirit would set us on fire! O that we would proclaim the gospel as boldly as Peter standing before the crowd. O that we would get out of our pews and into the world every day, like we did last Sunday. O that we would tear down the blockades that keep us from listening to one another. O that we would each hear the Word of God in our own language—in a way that makes us understand and respond. O that we would quit waiting for the ascended Jesus to come back, pick up our mantles and follow where the Spirit leads us. O that rather than complain that no one comes to church we would give them reasons to come to church. O that we would proclaim the gospel not just with our lips, but with our lives. For that is the empowerment of Pentecost—to send us into the world proclaiming and living out the Gospel. It's what the disciples did, and it's what we are called to do.
The story is told of Fritz Kreisler (1875-1962), the world-famous violinist, who earned a fortune with his concerts and compositions, but he generously gave most of it away. So, when he discovered an exquisite violin on one of his trips, he wasn't able to buy it. Later, having raised enough money to meet the asking price, he returned to the seller, hoping to purchase that beautiful instrument. But to his great dismay it had been sold to a collector. Kreisler made his way to the new owner's home and offered to buy the violin. The collector said it had become his prized possession and he would not sell it. Keenly disappointed, Kreisler was about to leave when he had an idea. "Could I play the instrument once more before it is consigned to silence?" he asked. Permission was granted, and the great virtuoso filled the room with such heart-moving music that the collector's emotions were deeply stirred. "I have no right to keep that to myself," he exclaimed. "It's yours, Mr. Kreisler. Take it into the world, and let people hear it."
The good news is not ours to keep, but to share. As the old hymn says:
I love to tell the story, more wonderful it seems
than all the golden fancies, of all our golden dreams.
I love to tell the story, 'tis pleasant to repeat,
what seems each time I tell it, more wonderfully sweet.
And when in scenes of glory, I sing the new new song,
it will be the old old story, that I have loved so long.
Let us tear down the barriers and tell the story: long, loud, and often. AMEN.