January 22, 2017 is World Fellowship Sunday. It is a time to consider our relationships with churches of the Mennonite World Conference as well as people of all cultures, religions, and situations around the world.
The stories of the tower of Babel (Gen. 11:1-9), and the hearing in their own languages (Acts 2:1-18) are intriguing when read parallel to each other.
In the Babel story, the people are described as of one language, but more than that, they are of one mind. It's a culture of self-aggrandisement. They want to make themselves great, to raise a tower into the clouds. With their amazing technology, being able to make bricks as hard as stone, they can build bigger and faster than ever before. When you consider that they thought the mountains were the dwelling places of the gods, it is quite clear that they seek to become gods themselves, they are aiming for that level of control over their own destiny.
But who will stand on the top of that tower? Everyone who builds it? Not possible. And if you think of how humans tend to build these wonders (think pyramids, Roman roads, castles...) it's not so wonderful. They were so often build on the broken backs of slaves and poorly paid and overused workers. Unfortunately, this isn't just ancient news, Here's a page from fairly recent, (late 1800's) Canadian history.
Although Chinese played a key role in building the western stretch of the railway, they earned between $1 and $2.50 per day. Unlike their fellow white railroad workers, the Chinese had to pay for their own food, clothing, transportation to the job site, mail, and medical care, leaving barely enough money to send home. Chinese workers were delegated the most dangerous construction jobs, such as working with explosives. Not only did families of those killed workers not receive any compensation, they were not even notified of the deaths. Sadly, many of these Chinese men spent their remaining years in lonely and poor conditions because those who did survive working on the CPR often did not have enough money to return to their families in China.http://www.library.ubc.ca/chineseinbc/railways.html
Nation building has always been about connections, communications, new technology, and most of all, power and control. It's always the case that only a few have it-but we're all in pursuit of it. In the Bible, it's always the case that people get in trouble when they try to take the control that belongs to God. Control over both themselves and others.
The tower of Babel is never finished. The people cease to be able to understand each other and they are scattered to the far ends of the earth.
The Acts story begins with a scattered and subjugated (under Roman rule) people travelling to Jerusalem to worship God at Passover. They are people of many languages because they are from many places, but also because that is what happens to conquered peoples and powerless nations. They have their own "mother-tongue", but they learn the languages of their neighbours and conquerors as well. So in Jerusalem their problem isn't the multitude of languages-there are probably enough common languages at the temple for everyone to understand. The problem is that so many people are not hearing in their hearts, They are still subjugated, sidelined, hopeless, and disorganised. They are listening to words and ideas that simply are not their own.
The miracle of "each hearing in their own language" is that with the coming of the Holy Spirit, they all hear in the language of their heart. They are valued, at home, invited into the core of faith instead of pushed to the periphery. This is a people without control or power who are blessed to experience the control and power of God. When God is in control, the scattered are brought together to share a common message-a message of the good news of Jesus. And it makes sense to them. This is the leader who will not make them carry bricks, will not build his fortunes and power on their backs, and he will not make them great in the ways human rulers seek to do. This is a leader who will give his life for them and show them the power of love that brings scattered people together. He doesn't set up a new political power, but invites them to give God control. Not a message the human powers want to hear, but a message that speaks a new kind of power. Sharing instead of greed, love in place of hate, welcome instead of closed borders. It's wonderful and very hard at the same time.
Our world is so complex. We have unprecedented access to information in our little phones. The wealth of a few (8) rich individuals exceeds the combined wealth of 50% of the earth's population (I heard this on the news this week-sorry -I'm not citing a source other than my memory here) and in the wealthy countries we seem pretty self-aggrandising. Power is centralised. It sounds pretty Babel like doesn't it? It will, like Babel,not be sustainable.
On this world fellowship day, it is good to think of how we, as people of God, might come together and hear God right into the core of our beings, in the mother tongue of love for God and each other. That is where hope and unity reside in a fractured and fractious world. When the human towers fall, it is because God is in control. When people come together and hear their heart language, it is also because God is in control.