As a church, you have been going through a series of sermons based on the theme of a Healthy Church Walks in the Steps of Jesus. Although Jesus himself did not do a lot of cross-cultural ministry (he did some, like the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4), in Matthew 28 he did commission his Jewish disciples to “go and make disciples of all nations” (v. 19). In fact, the word “nations” in the original Greek is “ethnos” where we get the word “ethnic”. And “all nations” is often Jewish shorthand to mean the Gentiles. So, the Great Commission was originally a cross-cultural commission – go and make disciples of all ethnicities. And this vision of all nations is echoed by the apostle John’s vision in Revelation 7:9, where he sees “a great multitude from every nation, tribe, people and language, worshipping before the Lamb,” which is Jesus Christ our Lord.
Hence, I believe God and Jesus have an inter-cultural vision for the church. By inter-cultural, I mean a community where different cultures interact with one another, and are interdependent on one another, not just different ethnic groups worshipping under the same roof, or sitting side by side. I believe God intends his church to be inter-cultural. So, if we want to be a church that follows in the steps of Jesus, we need to also capture the heart of God’s inter-cultural vision for his church.
This morning I want to explore with you this inter-cultural vision by looking at two major stories in the Bible: the Tower of Babel in the Old Testament and the day of Pentecost in the New Testament. I’m going to compare and contrast the two stories. Both these stories are about creating communities, and we see two different kinds of communities: at Babel, we see Humanity’s Mono-Cultural Imperial Community, while at Pentecost, we see God’s Inter-Cultural Kingdom Community.
Let’s turn first to the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11:1-9. Many Christians have used this story to support a view that ethnic cultural diversity is a curse, a result of human sin and rebellion, and thus, ethnic diversity is not something to be affirmed or celebrated but to be mourned and, perhaps, erased.
I don’t think that is correct. For starters, I think different cultures and different languages, at least dialects and accents, will happen anyways with or without sin. When God created Adam and Eve he told them to multiply and fill the earth. Now, we know that people who live by the coastlines and depend on fishing have a different culture than those who live on the mountains, or who farm on the prairies. So, by filling the earth, we would eventually develop different cultures just by the fact that we live in very different geographical locations far apart from each other.
But more to the point, this story is ultimately about communal identity – who are we, as a people, as a community? The Babel builders tried to define their communal identity apart from God. They are basing their community on a God-emptied identity, a communal identity emptied of God. You see, to “make a name” for themselves in v. 4 means more than making themselves famous. Names in the Old Testament, and in the Bible in general, are supposed to capture someone’s essence or character; you are what your name is, so to speak. So, making a name here also means they are trying to define who they are apart from God. This tower, this city, is supposed to give them an identity, a sense of where they belong, and a sense of their mission in this world.
Secondly, they are basing this community on human achievements. There’s evidence to suggest that this story was composed with a glance towards the Babylonian empire. The land of Shinar (v. 2) is connected to Babylon. And the word “babel” in the Babylonian language means “gate of god”. This is the identity that the Babel builders seek for themselves: “the gate of god,” a heaven on earth. They desired to make their own perfect society, by means of technology (verse 3) and architecture (verse 4) and by implication through political and religious means, similar to Babylon’s empire building with its ziggurat towers that were the gates to the gods.
But “babel” in Hebrew is “confusion” or even, “folly”. So, the author of Genesis is poking fun at them. They think they are building a heaven on earth, a gate of God, but in reality, they are confused and foolish. Foolish in thinking they can create the new heaven and earth on their own. This is really a form of idolatry. It’s faith in human progress, faith in human ability and technology to make heaven on earth.
Thirdly, they are also confused about what unity is. This mono-cultural imperial community is based on uniformity and domination. Notice that these Babel-builders are worried about being “scattered over the face of the whole earth.” (v. 4) If you remember, Adam and Eve were called by God to “fill the earth” (Genesis 1:28) which is precisely what these guys at Babel did not want to do. God says, “fill the earth”, spread out, but they want to stay put in one place. Draw everybody here instead. But how can you keep everyone in one place without suppressing their freedom? You can’t. This story is a critique of the Babylonian empire. Like most empires, the unity of the empire is a unity of domination, oppression, tyranny and uniformity. That’s an imperial community.
We as church have to be careful not to fall into these kinds of confusions. Like everybody else, we want to have a strong united community. But so often we confuse ourselves into thinking that the best way to achieve such unity is by means of our own human efforts. We put in rules and regulations to make sure everybody falls into line: to think the same way, to behave the same way, to believe the same way. Instead of looking to God, we start putting faith in our own abilities, in human methods, skills or techniques, in order to build community, in order to make our communal identity. We confuse unity with uniformity. We think conforming to a set standard is the way to build unity. But that’s not God’s way. God’s kingdom is not empire.
In fact, God is opposed to such imperial projects of community building. God opposes this uniformity and domination by introducing diversity and difference, and spreading them out over the face of the earth. God’s confusion of language freed them from their deluded empire building. God’s diversity freed them from their idolatrous identity making. God’s diversity freed them to fulfill God’s original plan for humankind to fill the earth.
What about the new community created at Pentecost? Now, Pentecost is one of three major religious feasts that the Jews celebrate. Jewish people from all over the Roman Empire would come to Jerusalem for the Passover feast and often would stay for Pentecost, which was only fifty days after Passover. Now the Jews in Palestine speak Aramaic, and Aramaic is also the language used in all the synagogues in the ancient world back then. And everybody else who is part of the Roman Empire, would, by default, know how to speak Greek. It’s the language of the market, the language of commerce. So, all of these Jews and Gentiles (there were Gentile converts to Judaism there), all these pilgrims knew at least Aramaic or Greek or both. But they were culturally and linguistically different. Because they grew up in different countries, their mother tongues were different. They all know the language of the Empire, they all know the language of the Temple, but they also know their own languages and their own cultures. So, at Pentecost, we have multi-lingual and multi-cultural peoples coming together to Jerusalem.
And what did God do? The Holy Spirit came to empower a mono-cultural group of disciples to speak other languages, and to speak to other cultures. But there is no need for it though. I mean, why didn’t God just use either Aramaic or Greek? Everybody understood Greek or Aramaic. It’s not a very efficient way of reaching out with the gospel is it? Why use all these different languages when one or two languages will do?
I think it’s because God wants to create an inter-cultural community. At Pentecost, God blessed every language, and by implication every culture, on earth as a means of divine communication. At Pentecost, God created a unity that transcends culture and language yet one that does not erase those cultural and language differences. At Pentecost, the Holy Spirit established an inter-cultural church. Pentecost anticipates the vision of Revelation 7.
What are the lessons here? In contrast to Babel’s community, the community here is based on a God-centred identity. The disciples were declaring the wonders of God in various languages or tongues. The identity here is not based on cultural identity. Rather, it is based on faith in God. This is why I don’t believe in having ethnic churches. Having Chinese churches, or white, black, Latino, or Korean churches, none of these are God’s vision for his church. None of these reflects what it will be like in the new heaven and earth. At best, ethnic churches are temporary stopgap measures to reach out to new immigrants. But God’s default church is an inter-cultural church.
Secondly, this community is based on the Holy Spirit, not on human achievements. It is the Holy Spirit that empowered them to speak in different tongues or languages, to make that cross-cultural connection. God has to build his church. Does not mean that we do not become more intentional about this, but ultimately, we need to focus on God’s spirit of love, not on methodologies or strategies or five-year plans. I’ll talk more about God’s love in a minute.
Thirdly, it’s a community that is based on unity in diversity, not uniformity and domination. Unlike the empire building tendencies of Babel, the unity of God’s kingdom is the unity of love that embraces diversity. God’s spirit of love is a spirit that doesn’t have to change you to look, or think, or behave more like me. No, it’s a spirit that says: I love you as you are. It is a spirit that does not create barriers. It is a spirit that breaks down barriers, gender barriers, class barriers, language barriers and ethnic barriers. It’s a spirit that makes us introduce ourselves to someone who is different. It’s a spirit that risks making a fool of yourself for the sake of loving a stranger.
But there will be human opposition to God’s inter-cultural community. There are those who do not “get it,” and dismisses diversity. Look at Acts 2:13: “Some, however, made fun of them and said, ‘They have had too much wine.’” Why is it that some of the people see the miracle and are amazed, while others see the same thing and dismisses it?
An imperfect analogy may help here. I am sure it is not surprising to all of you that I, a Chinese person, am speaking to you in perfect English. But if I were a White Caucasian standing in front of a Chinese audience or a Kenyan audience and speaking perfect Mandarin or Swahili, NOW, that’s impressive, right? Am I right or not? Why is that? English is the language of our global economic empire. You are not at all surprised if someone who is not English learns to speak English fluently. In fact, you expect it. The imperfect analogy is this: those who are always used to getting things their way, in their language, their ways of thinking, their ways of doing, those who are dominant in the Empire, these are the ones who often don’t understand why minority or marginal groups want their distinctiveness, their voice, to be expressed.
The ones mocking at Pentecost, I guess, were most likely Jews whose mother tongue were Aramaic or Greek to begin with. They were used to hearing the gospel in their own language. So, for them, it’s no big deal. And they don’t see why it is a big deal for others. They don’t “get it”. They don’t see the miracle, and might even oppose the miracle.
And in this sinful world an inter-cultural community that works is a miracle. In a world where people kill each other over cultural identities, where people dominate and force each other to be more like them, in such a world, God’s inter-cultural kingdom community is truly a miracle of the Holy Spirit. May God bring such a miracle to this church. Amen.