I wonder if you’ve been following the political kerfuffle about the BER programme? That’s BER for ‘Building the Education Revolution’, which was rolled out as part of the governments stimulus package - the kerfuffle of course isn’t over how effective the BER has been as a way of keeping the country out of recession, it’s over the rorting and rip-offs that inevitably attach themselves to any program that involves spending absolutely enormous amounts of money just for the heck of it. And so we’ve been hearing stories about shade sail structures worth $600,000, tuckshops worth over $1m that you can’t fit a fridge or a pie warmer into, and the basic allegation is that as soon as the bureaucracy gets involved money gets siphoned off for contingencies and architects and unspecified site works. The latest revelation is that Catholic school tuckshops only cost half as much as identical State school ones - because private schools got to manage the projects themselves and keep costs down.
Of course, I got thinking about the complexities of building school tuckshops because of the Tower of Babel. The Bible is maddeningly short on detail, but by any stretch of the imagination this would have been an astounding achievement - both technically, for Bronze Age architects and builders, but even more so in terms of administration. By all accounts everyone works together seamlessly, there are no strikes, no-one rorts the funding by quoting for vague contingencies and site fees, the brickmakers and stone masons work together harmoniously, everyone follows the architect’s vision of a city fit to rival heaven itself.
Everyone works together, sharing a common language, a common vision of how things should be. Everyone, that is, except God, who doesn’t like it one little bit. So why’s that? In the Book of Genesis, in the stories of creation, God’s way of going about things is not so much to create something out of nothing as to work order out of chaos -scientists studying the earliest moments of the physical universe prefer to suggest in fact that God creates order through chaos - that chaos and energy are the basic creative engines of the universe that throw up new possibilities, including the possibility of life itself. Chaos, they suggest, is the churning of the Spirit.
At Babel, human beings have achieved a high degree of order and cooperation, but God still prefers chaos. The highly tuned bureaucracy is smashed, the common vision and purpose is frustrated - and along with their systems the people are physically scattered, forced to work out new ways of building community and running their lives in small groups - often in competition, always communicating with difficulty, dreaming new and puzzling dreams. Why would God prefer that?
Right back in the 2nd century, the theologians of the early Church had already noticed the connection between the Genesis story of Babel and St Luke’s vivid pyrotechnic description of the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. And what they realised was that Pentecost undoes Babel, Pentecost reverses the tragedy of Babel. The miracle of incomprehensibility, the scattering and dispiriting that is Babel is reversed by the miracle of comprehensibility, the gathering and encouraging and strengthening that is Pentecost. The Church Fathers realised, also, that Luke’s language in this story is highly symbolic, and they worked out connections between Luke’s Pentecost and the coming of the Torah which in Jewish mythology is accompanied by tongues of fire. And I’ve preached on some of these connections before but now I’ve noticed something new, which is that Pentecost doesn’t entirely reverse the miracle of chaos that is Babel - because after Pentecost things get even messier. More chaotic, more creative, more uncontrollable. What sort of God doesn’t like things to be orderly and predictable and unsurprising? Well, our God, actually.
By the time of Pentecost, 40 days after the very unpredictable and upsetting surprise of the resurrection, the apostles were a textbook case of total lack of organisation. Never particularly noted for being organised in any case, but 40 days after the resurrection they have no vision, no direction, no unity of purpose except for following Jesus’ instruction to hang around in Jerusalem.
And that’s when it gets messy. Whatever the experience of being descended on by the Spirit of God was like, the immediate effect was chaos. Is the house on fire? Are they drunk? Some of them might have wished they were. And then confusion starts to turn to amazement as the confused crowd start hearing themselves addressed in languages they are surprised to be able to understand. These are Jews who have gathered from all over the known world for the great festival, the great and sophisticated and well-travelled, and they arrive in Jerusalem only to hear this unprepossessing gang of apostles addressing them in their own native language. Peter’s unscripted but electrifying sermon immediately pole-vaults him into a position of leadership - but Luke tells us that the Spirit is absolutely indiscriminate - everybody gets a dose and before the end of the chapter 3,000 are baptised and on fire with the Spirit.
What happens next is baffling and yet historically beyond question, a wildfire fuelled by collaboration and opposition, growth and transformation. The Church goes viral, it doesn’t just get off to a good beginning, it explodes. It can no longer be contained within Jerusalem, or even within Judaism. As it learns new languages and new cultures, enriched and challenged by converts from across the known world within the space of a few years, Christianity picks up and adapts new ideas, new social, political and religious traditions, and finds itself in new partnerships, facing new and unpredictable challenges, new enemies. The only constants are surprise and change and adaptation. But why? What sort of God prefers to work through disorder and innovation and challenge rather than certainty and unchangeability and tradition? Actually, our God.
The difference between Babel and Pentecost is about control. At Babel the illusion of control, the persistent human dream that if we can only get the right program, the right team, the right technology, we can get on top of this stuff and create order out of chaos. Babel is the founding mythology of management systems and efficiency experts and quality control gurus, and sometimes - quite often in fact - we get the idea that we can have a Christianity like that. That we can impose some certainty on the Bible, there should be just one right way to interpret it. That being Christian means to fit in with some identifiable social characteristics. There should be no surprises when we get to church - the music, the prayers, the decorations, the pews should never be shifted. There are different sorts of Babel-churches but the common theme is that the mission is human and the right way of doing things is defined by our own experience and our own need for security. Babel-churches are safe, they affirm the opinions we already have, including our opinions of ourselves. But the creative spirit of God is absent.
It seems to me that Pentecost isn’t just an event for the early Church, it’s a repeating challenge and a defining event for the Church - if we dare to really listen, if we’re prepared not just to listen to the story but to enter into it. At Pentecost we lose control, Pentecost tunes us into a common language but it turns out not to be any of our own languages, but God’s language that we briefly and startlingly comprehend. At Pentecost we hear ourselves personally addressed in a language we think we understand - but it turns out we don’t really have a clue. We hear the whisper of God’s own voice, and it resonates with our deepest sense of who we are, it transforms and re-creates us, but we haven’t got a clue how far it’s going to drive us. We get a dose of the constantly mutating, creative, wild and challenging spirit of God - in hindsight it turns out we don’t have a clue what we’ve let ourselves in for, any more than the startled apostles did. But first you’ve got to want it, the Holy Spirit of God, you’ve got to take the risk of being set on fire, of being driven by your hopes, not restrained by your fears.
A colleague suggests that of all the metaphors for the Holy Spirit - tongue of flame, wind moving over the water, breath of life, descending dove or even the sound of utter silence - the event that kickstarts the Church at Pentecost is best captured by an image that isn’t even in the Bible. The ancient Irish symbol for the Holy Spirit isn’t a gentle, fluffy-white dove, but a wild goose - geese, of course, being bossy, uncontrollable creatures that honk boisterously, resist any attempt to contain them and have a nasty habit of chasing unwary intruders and biting the hand that feeds them. They also fly faster in a flock than they can on their own.
The point, I guess, is that the Spirit of God, like a wild goose, is not sweet and calming but strong and challenging. The honking wild goose of Pentecost rounds people up and demands that they support each other and travel together. Men and women who get a dose of the wild goose spirit become noisy, passionate and courageous and sometimes off-putting advocates of the kingdom of God. Forget the quiet cooing of the dove. Pentecost's Spirit honks, demanding we pay attention to God’s agenda, demanding we pay attention to the cultures and values and different languages of the world we live in, demanding we pay attention to poverty and injustice and demanding that we get out of our comfort zones. The wild goose spirit of Pentecost is the spirit of mission, demanding that we find new ways of talking about and putting into practice Jesus’ life-giving agenda of compassion and forgiveness. Demanding that we fly in formation, that we support and encourage and inspire and love each other.
Today, Vivian has brought her family and friends along to bear witness to her baptism, to celebrate with her and to pray with us that God’s Holy Spirit will fill her and inspire her and work through her. Vivian’s name, of course, means ‘lively’ - I wonder if her mum and dad really thought through the implications of that? Today she becomes a child of Pentecost, attuned to the lively Spirit of God, and we pray that she will listen and respond whenever she hears it honk.