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Babel is Healed – Br. James Koester

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Br. James Koester

Genesis 11: 1-9
Acts 2: 1-21
John 14: 8-18, 25-27

I must confess that I have always been more than a little envious of those who, at least to me appear to be able, to acquire another language with hardly any effort. I have always struggled to learn a second language.

As a child my parents enrolled all my siblings and me in private French lessons, but when French became available at school, it was like starting over again. Each year was the same, I would struggle all year to learn a few basics, scrap by with a pass at the end of the school year, and then forget everything in the summer and start from square one again on the Fall. I finally dropped out of Latin in high school. In the first year of seminary, I enrolled in Greek. Early in the term of first year the Greek professor arranged for us all to take a language aptitude test. My years of struggling to learn another language all came together with that test, and finally made sense.

If you have never taken the language aptitude test, it is based on learning a few simple elements of Kurdish. The idea is to see how quickly you can learn it and then answer a few questions. A week or so after the test I sat in the professor’s office to hear my results. He began by telling me he didn’t understand why I was having such difficulty learning Greek as I had a perfect aptitude for foreign languages. Suddenly he stopped in his tracks. Mumbled “oh” under his breath and said to me, “James I see why you are having such difficulties. I was reading the score backwards. You have absolutely no aptitude to learn a second language!”

I don’t know exactly how that language aptitude test works, but after years of trying to learn French, Latin and then Greek, I didn’t need a test to tell me what I already knew. There is something about my brain that simply can’t absorb languages. I joke that even after thirty years in this country, I still don’t understand certain common Americanisms. Even though it has been explained to me countless times, I still only vaguely know what freshman, sophomore, junior and senior mean. And please don’t tell me you are a rising sophomore because that will just confuse me even more!

With my background of failing to learn another language, I can completely understand the confusion caused at Babel when a multitude of languages was thrown into the mix. Suddenly everyone was speaking a different language, and there was no way to bridge the gaps those differences created. The only solution was to stop work on the tower and find others whom you could understand.

Even though the story of Babel is what I would call myth, there is a grain of truth in it, as it is an attempt to explain the confusion, jealousy, division and even fear that comes with an inability to comprehend another. While the story itself may not be history, the damage caused by our inability to comprehend another is historic. We are living out the consequences of that historic damage today, as no matter how hard many try there is a major lack of understanding between Christian and Muslim which stretches back for generations.

But into this confusion, jealousy, division and fear comes the gift of Pentecost. Suddenly where there was once misunderstanding comes comprehension.

Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. 7Amazed and astonished, they asked, ‘Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 9Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.’ 12All were amazed and perplexed…[1]

It is interesting to note, that it was not the speaking, but the comprehension that amazed and perplexed this visitors to Jerusalem that day, for the ones who were speaking were Galileans, but those who comprehended heard in their own native languages.

The gift of the Spirit at Pentecost then did not undo or reverse the story of Babel. Rather the gift of the Spirit at Pentecost healed the story of Babel, for the gift given was a gift of comprehension that healed the confusion, jealousy, division and even fear of Babel.

In the same way the story of Easter does not undo or reverse the story of the Garden of Eden as it does heal the story of Eden. The risen Lord was recognized as being one in the same as Jesus of Nazareth whom his disciples knew not because he could walk through locked doors, but because his body boar the marks of the crucifixion.

A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’ Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ Jesus said to him, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’[2]

The resurrection did not undo the crucifixion. Rather the resurrection healed the crucifixion.

Today we remember and renew our own baptisms as we incorporate Charlie and Sam into their own life in Christ. As we do this we are setting about the task not of undoing or reversing, but healing. Just as the resurrection did not undo the cross and tomb, but healed them, baptism does not undo something, but heals it.

The sad reality is that one day, Sam and Charlie, like all of us here today, will one day die. It is not something we want to contemplate, especially at their age and on this day. But none the less, that is true. We all one day will die. Nothing we can do will prevent that, not even baptism, But what baptism will do is to heal that.

Our Rule of Life reminds us that:

the gospel proclaims that Christ has transformed death by his cross and resurrection and that through our Baptism we have already passed through death with him and been incorporated into his risen body.  But we grasp this mystery only by faith, accepting the inner struggle between doubt and confidence in Christ’s promise of eternal life:  “Very truly, I tell you, anyone who hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life, and does not come under judgment, but has passed from death to life.”  Day by day, as we feed on Christ in the Eucharist, our hope can be rekindled:  “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day.” [3]

It is that promised healing of death that we celebrate at Easter and into which we incorporate Charlie and Sam today. Christ’s promise of eternal life does not undo or reverse what will happen to us all but it is a reminder that confusion, jealousy, division and fear do not have the last word either at Babel, or Pentecost or at the hour of our death for the One who promises us life tells us that we need have no fear:

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.[4]

Do not let them be afraid.

Once Adam and Eve reached out and took the forbidden fruit, fear entered the world:

[The man and his wife] heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, and said to him, ‘Where are you?’ He said, ‘I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.’[5]

Fear was compounded at Babel when confusion took hold. The disciples fled and hid in fear that first Easter.

But we need fear no longer. We need fear God, nor the other, nor death no longer, because Pentecost has healed Babel and Easter Day has healed Good Friday.

This is the promise of Easter. This is the promise of Pentecost. And we share that promise as we emerge dripping wet from the waters of baptism and marked with the sign of the cross as Christ’s own forever.

It’s a good thing there isn’t a language exam in order to get into heaven. I would fail it and be doomed forever to live in the confusion and incomprehension of Babel. But instead Pentecost has healed Babel and Easter healed Good Friday, so that we and Sam and Charlie who have begun their new life in Christ through the waters of baptism today, may forever rejoice with the hosts of heaven.


[1] Acts 2: 6-12

[2] John 20: 26-29

[3]SSJE Rule of Life: Chapter XLVIII; Holy Death

[4] John 20: 27

[5] Genesis 3: 8-10

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