“All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.” Acts 2:4-6
Once upon a time, the story goes, all humankind had one language. We spoke the same words, and this made us powerful. But God confused our language, so that we could no longer understand one another. Until, at the feast of Pentecost, the Spirit of God descended upon the apostles, and empowered them to overcome the language barrier – the barrier that, according to Genesis, God had created in the first place.
So what was the point of that detour? Didn’t God just bring us back where we started? Not quite. Once upon a time, we shared one common language; but at Pentecost, all heard the good news in their own separate languages.
One language may sound like a utopian ideal. But one language can also mean one culture, one worldview, one-party politics. No wonder they were so powerful: they had no opposition. When God confused human language, God created human diversity. This should not surprise us at all, really. It’s what God has been doing all along, ever since God separated the darkness from the light: bringing forth diversity, out of uniformity.
God’s ways are not our ways; we aren’t always comfortable with those who don’t speak our language. When God confused our language, the story goes, we became scattered and divided. The price of our human diversity was that we became strangers to each other. And for the most part we remain strangers to this day. Humanity seems to be faced with a choice, between the unity of uniformity, and the discord of diversity.
But there is a third way. When the apostles gathered for the feast of Pentecost, people of every nation heard the good news in their own languages. God’s Spirit empowered them to bridge the gap between languages and cultures — not by erasing diversity, but by embracing it. The church was born in that moment. To borrow a phrase from William Sloane Coffin: “Church is the place where all hearts are one, so nothing else has to be.”