Well, we’ve made it as far as Pentecost in this tumultuous year. I can barely type, having gotten into a tussle with a rose bush, yesterday, in my efforts to bring order and constraint to my garden—beating back the weeds and the pests and making the plants I want to be there grow up in the way they should go. As I mucked around in the dirt, I listened to this whole podcast, with various interruptions from children and animals. It is a nearly three hours long discussion between Alissa Childers and Steven Bancarz, a former new age guru. They work methodically through Richard Rohr’s book, The Universal Christ. Bancarz knows the Bible so well—whole passages of scripture roll off his tongue in rational lucidity, smoothing out the confusion of Richard Rohr’s heady, heretical, and for so many, intoxicating theology. And he knows the world where the idea of the Universal Christ came from, and why it is not, in fact, the actual Christ. It was a most helpful and clarifying afternoon.
Strangely enough, as I listened along, I kept thinking of the Tower of Babel, which is one of the lection possibilities for this morning. You must remember how it goes. The whole earth was there, after the flood, settling themselves comfortably in Shinar. They started building houses and a town and finally a tower that was meant to reach up into the heavens. They didn’t want to spread out and go away from each other. They were interested in unity, in peace, in having one language and one culture, and in understanding each other in all matters.
The thing that unified them, of course, was chiefly their desire to be God, to take for themselves what was properly his. Their elegant and imposing tower was pure rebellion. They wanted to “make a name” for themselves, the way we all do.
It’s so fascinating, from the Universal Christ option, that the name some people are trying to have now is actually “Christ.” Not to be called a “Christian,” of course, to be adopted by Christ and brought into his own family, humbly submitting to him as God. Rather, they are living into their own “Christ” consciousness. They are trying to be God, in that very old and foolish way.
But today is Pentecost, the reversal and redemption of Babel. And there are two nice things about it. The first is that, so long ago, observing the tower winding its way up to the sky, God’s solution to that wicked problem was so fantastical. Rather than smiting the people down, or explaining to them their error (as he does in so many other places), he confuses them—on purpose. He makes it so that they can’t understand each other, so that they go away from each other and abandon their project. They are still horrible idolators, but they can’t do it altogether anymore. They will have to be awful in smaller family groups, though eventually cities, and even kingdoms and countries.
The inclination to get along “all in one place” and have peace and concord is hard wired from the garden. It’s actually a good thing, though it is corrupted and ruined by that other ancient desire, the one to “make a name” for oneself. The two desires can’t be held together because only one of them is good. The antidote—confusion—is a great mercy. It allows human civilization, as fractured and distressing as it so often is, to keep going quietly along without the whole world rising up and, in unity and concord, demanding the overthrow of God.
Which brings me to the other nice thing about Pentecost, and that is that God, by his own power, establishes the unity we all so long for, but he does it in the way it is supposed to happen—wherein he is God, and we are his creatures. He doesn’t get rid of the kaleidoscope of language and culture. Instead, he makes it possible for His own Name to be known in all of them, in their own tongues, in their own places where they already live. He does it by the power of the cross and the gentle work of the Holy Spirit, removing the desire and need for each of us to be an idolator, to be known on our own for who we are. Now we get to know Christ. We are remade and transformed by him.
If you come into the church, you shouldn’t try to build yourself a tower, or work hard so that other people will notice and adore you, but rather should spend most of your time thinking about Jesus and what he is like, and gradually you will find true unity with all the other people who are there. You become conscious of Christ, rather than conscious of yourself as “Christ” which is not a thing.
But I do think that the confusion factor goes on being a mercy, even in the church. Because though God has forgiven the sinner, yet the sinner still sometimes really wants to worship herself rather than God, and would build small rebellious kingdoms in every cupboard and corner. When two people just can’t understand each other, nor work together, that is too bad, but it is also God organizing his own church. He doesn’t need our brilliant plans and efficiency. He doesn’t need our well-devised programs. He doesn’t need our clear communication. No, rather, he desires for us to worship him in spirit and in truth. When we do that, a lot of the confusing muck gets swept away—by him, by the Spirit.
Likewise, I find it stressful when a group of people suddenly all gets along and everyone understands everyone else—and agrees—and then goes on to do some “mighty work” which is often full of all kinds of problems and sin. Getting together “all in one place” to agree might be good, but as a person goes along in the Christian life when one later discovers what was really going on, usually one concludes that it wasn’t that good, that the inclination of all the members of the group was actually to make a name for themselves. They even agreed on the name. And it wasn’t the one to which their own knees needed to bow.
So anyway, go to church. There you will (I hope) find no tower, no cleverly devised message that makes everyone get on board with some new and strange idea. Rather, you will sit in your pew and listen to the clear and perfect word of Christ, who knows your language, and knows you, and can fit you in, and make you comfortable, and help you get along with all the other people sitting around you, however distant or muffled or unintelligible.