Pentecost reminds me of that time I was trying so desperately not to be your typical American tourist.
While accompanying my sister-in-law on a trip to welcome my newest nephew into our family, I witnessed not just the vibrant landscapes and jostling cities of China, but also the “Gotcha Day” of my newest family member.
During that time, I found myself at a McDonald’s in Guangzhou, attempting to order a Diet Coke. This was not my first attempt at procuring the drink during our time in China, and each time the fast-food worker would pause, shake his head apologetically and say, “No. Coke?” I was hardly going to complain about missing my beverage of choice during my visit since there were so many new dishes to try, but on this particular day, I was truly craving the crisp taste of Diet Coke.
I took a deep breath, and the lady behind the counter smiled encouragingly at me. I asked the fateful question: could I have a Diet Coke?
She didn’t respond right away, and I could tell she was thinking. After a moment, she brightened and replied, “Coke Zero?”
It may seem silly, but at that moment, our smiles transcended the language barrier between us. She had gone out of her way to interpret my request, and she gave me–quite literally–a taste of home. I wanted to tell her how much I appreciated her kindness, that I had really needed a boost that particular day, and though I gave her my biggest and brightest grin and a heartfelt, “Thank you,” I knew I couldn’t convey what I truly meant. I needed words to do that.
Our use–or disuse–of language reveals a deeper need than a bubbly carbonated soda. It highlights a gift given and a gift fallen, and it leaves us thirsting for a gift restored.
Though language was one of the initial gifts bestowed upon humans at creation, languages (plural) did not exist until the tower of Babel. Humans, made in the image of God, were designed to be in perfect harmony with the Creator and with each other. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God,” the Gospel of John tells us. God spoke, and it came to be. To Adam and Eve, the first sub-creators specially designed to tend the world He had made, God gave the gift of language. This gift was perfectly implemented by our first parents; Adam and Eve were truly one in a way that we, post-Edenic exile, can hardly comprehend: one in body, spirit, soul, and both language and communication. No mixed messages, no signals crossed, no frustrating barriers to anything but pure and complete unity.
The problem is that Eden without God is hell—an eternity apart from the Creator is nothing but darkness and death.
But the Fall changed everything. Once Adam and Eve disobeyed God and chose to believe the gilded words of Satan instead of trusting in the word of God, the world shattered. Sin, death, and confusion slithered in through the rift, and the language that Adam had once used to joyfully name animals now became the vehicle by which he betrayed his wife and shirked his duty. Eve’s words, instead of building up the relationship, tore it down. The perfect unity with the word was broken, and thus the relational unity brought about by language was also splintered. You don’t have to read very far into Genesis before you see the thorns and thistles of backbiting, lying, and boasting springing up from the ground. The gift of language had fallen.
Fast forward to Genesis 11, and we see the gift slide even further into the mire of sin. “They said, ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth’” (Gen 11:4). The builders’ disdain for dispersion was a rebellion against God’s own command to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth. By using the gift of language to reject the word, they hoped to design their own permanent Eden. The problem is that Eden without God is hell—an eternity apart from the Creator is nothing but darkness and death.
God was not content to let them hurtle down the sinful path unchecked: “And the Lord said, ‘Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, so that they may not understand one another’s speech.’ So the Lord dispersed them from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city” (Gen 11:6-8). Just as God banished Adam and Eve from the garden, lest in their fallen state they should eat of the Tree of Life and thereby live forever apart from the Creator, so the word also confused the words of the builders at Babel. Unity won apart from God turns out to be division from Him, but he would not allow this division to stand forever.
The scattering and wandering that began at the outskirts of Eden, was exacerbated at Babel, and highlighted in the Israelites’ 40 years in the wilderness was present in another Garden several thousand years later. Jesus, prophesying his coming betrayal and abandonment, said to his disciples, “You will all fall away, for it is written, ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered’” (Mark 14:27). His disciples were united in their words and united in their rejection of the word; none were left before him. The gift that was given and then ruined was ultimately restored and fulfilled in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ Jesus. What mankind broke in Genesis 3 and rejected in Genesis 11, God himself redeemed in the perfect life, innocent death, and glorious resurrection of his Son.
Out of all nations, God will call forth his children, and at Pentecost, we see the lengths to which he will go to ensure that every tribe, every tongue, and every nation will hear of his marvelous acts. After Jesus’ resurrection and ascension into heaven, Luke gives us this startling sentence: “When the day of Pentecost arrived, they [the disciples] were all together in one place” (Acts 2:1). All together. One place. Here we see a glimpse of the restoration of unity, though it will not be fully realized this side of eternity. Then came the “mighty rushing wind” and “divided tongues as of fire” that came to rest on each of them, followed quickly by the ability to speak in other tongues “as the Spirit gave them utterance” (Acts 2:2-5).
What mankind broke in Genesis 3 and rejected in Genesis 11, God himself redeemed in the perfect life, innocent death, and glorious resurrection of his Son.
The confusion, begun at the Fall and exacerbated by Babel, was temporarily suspended to proclaim the One who had hung on the tree. “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... ‘how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language?... we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God’” (Acts 2:5-6, 8, 11b). The crowd heard the objective truth of the Gospel in the subjectively beautiful tones of their own language. Their mother tongue was used to proclaim the Father’s love through his Son by the Spirit. This was no simple courtesy, a proffering of refreshment in one’s native language. This was the outpouring of the Water of Life to souls thirsting for righteousness. This was the word made apparent for “every nation under heaven” (Acts 2:5b). Pentecost was Babel reversed, the fulfillment of the Genetic promise: God was pounding home that the Gospel was for every tribe, every tongue, every nation. No one who is washed in the blood of the Lamb is a foreigner in God’s kingdom.
Earthly unity is fleeting. Gatherings may disperse, and death may separate, but it will not always be so. This, too, shall pass, and unity in Christ lasts forever. That’s why I love celebrating Pentecost: it is the second Epiphany, the reminder that the Good News is for everyone: awkward American tourists and those living on the other side of the world, and everyone in between.