SCRIPTURE STUDY: A new start
When we last left the apostles, they were holed up in a room, hiding, unsure of what what was to happen next. The book of Acts opens with Jesus enjoining them not to depart from Jerusalem, intimating that this was exactly what the apostles had hoped to do. And who could blame them? Just a few short days ago they had seen their leader arrested, tortured and crucified by the powerful religious and political leaders of Jerusalem. There was a good chance that such a fate might await his followers as well.
But during the appearances to the apostles following his resurrection, Jesus does convince them to stay–and to wait. Something is going to happen.
Chapter 2 of Acts opens with an allusion to “Pentecost,” but not the later Christian Pentecost; rather this is the religious festival of the Jews of Jesus’ time, the “Feast of Weeks,” centered around the harvest and agriculture. As with Passover and other religious festivals, Jews from all over would have come to Jerusalem, swelling its numbers. (Later in the passage, verses 5-11, we’ll hear the breadth of Jewry present in the city.)
The opening of chapter 2, verses 1-13, is rife with imagery that would have helped its earliest listeners to recall their stories about “beginnings.” In verse 2, we have a reference to “a noise like a strong driving wind,” the word “wind” being a cue to the opening verses of Genesis, when God’s spirit swept over the waters of creation like “a mighty wind,”–the pregnant pause, the poised in-breath just before God initiates the work of creating. So with this “wind,” we, as readers, should be alerted to some new “creating” action of God in history.
God’s choosing of this small, ragtag, frightened, marginalized people also recalls God’s action on behalf of the Hebrews when they were an enslaved, disempowered, frightened and marginalized people in Egypt. Both times, God does not enter into history on behalf of the powerful, but on behalf of the powerless.
Verses 5-12 recall another story in the opening section of Genesis–the story of the tower of Babel from Genesis 11. The fact that there are many languages in our world is used to tell a story about vanity, pride, misunderstanding and the ultimate aim of communication. Early in the Babel story, the people all share a common language, but their ability to understand one another leads to an inflated sense of importance and a desire to show off their power. Their attempt then to build a “city and a tower with its top in the sky”, made possible because they share a common language, is an attempt to build a monument to their own greatness. Such a building, like the pyramids of Egypt and the ziggurats of Babylon, would be built on the backs of the poor, enslaved masses. So God strikes down their efforts and scatters them by “confusing their languages.”
What happens in Acts 2:5-13 is then a reversal of the Babel story. Jews from “every nation” are gathered, but each hears the apostles–now emboldened and speaking out, testifying publicly–in their own tongue. At this new moment, the beginning of the Church, understanding despite language barriers (cultural barriers, etc) is possible. Understanding revolves around the content of the message. Unlike their predecessors in the Babel story, the apostles’ testimony is not to their own greatness but to the greatness–the mighty acts–of God.
The apostles had been hiding and afraid. Their leader, despite his promise to them, had left. There was the real possibility of the story coming to an end at this point. But a new beginning has now happened. The gift of the Spirit isn’t the charismatic gift of “speaking in tongues.” The gift of the Spirit is courage to proclaim the mighty acts of God–despite the threats of the powerful–and the possibility of understanding, despite our differences.
Posted on 10/01/2008, in SCRIPTURE STUDY and tagged Acts of the Apostles, babel, Genesis and Acts, Pentecost, speaking in tongues, the beginning of the Church, tower of babel. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.