5th June, Glynn Cardy
‘Spirit’ is a word with a variety of meanings, and much history. It can be thought of as the essence or energy of a person’s or a group’s life. Some might take that a bit further and link essence and energy with what matters most, or is at the heart of a person or group. So, someone’s spirit might, in essence and at heart, be joyous. Or be caring. Or be serene. Or holy. Similarly, the spirit of group, like a church or any organisation, might be joyous, caring, serene, or holy. Or none of these things, or a mix of them. Sometimes the spirit might be destructive, even evil.
When church language uses the words ‘holy spirit’ usually what is being referred to is the essence or energy that was known in Jesus. That ‘holy spirit’ was around before Jesus and after him. It is described with phrases like ‘transformative justice’, ‘joyous abandon’, ‘counterintuitive wisdom’, and, of course, in that big word ‘love’. It is a spirit that can be known in churches and other communities, and in and among you and me.
The first reading today is the fable of the tower of Babel. And the question we bring to the text is ‘what is the spirit that is driving these people’?
It seems, from the little we are told that it’s a story of people coming together, finding a common means of communication, and in their unity embarking on an ambitious building project. This sounds like success.
They plan out a city. They plan out a tower, with its top in the heavens. It’s a symbol, a beacon, a brand proclaiming ‘all things are possible’. They’ve done what others would consider impossible. This looks like success.
This coming together, this city and tower, is not the result of one man’s or one woman’s vision and drive. Or a group of leading men or women. There is no inspiring leader to the fore with their face plastered on billboards or TV screens. Instead, like many truly great endeavours, the people said ‘We did it’ and the leaders who led them applauded. Success indeed!
But, probably to their great surprise, their god is not impressed. And their god doesn’t give reasons, save saying: “Nothing they propose to do will now be impossible for them”.
Eh, what?? Is this god into ‘tall poppy syndrome’? Is this god jealous of or threatened by humanity’s success and potential for more? Really??
And if this god is thinking what they are doing is wrong, what about a sit down and talk through the differences, rather than quash the whole thing? Isn’t some activity better than none?
Some interpreters make a lot of the description of the tower “with its top in the heavens” and draw the inference that the people wanted to be like god, with the type of lofty power of the gods. So, the destruction of the tower was not dissimilar to the destruction of idols (a recurring theme in the Hebrew Scriptures).
But there is nothing in this fable that implies that the people saw themselves as gods, or were or wanted to worship other gods. Like a big corporation might today, they simply wanted to build a great inspiring place to live and work. Though maybe like a big corporation today they felt in the headiness of their success there was no need for a god, especially this demoralizing one?
Other interpreters see this critique of the Babel building programme as a critique of the city of Babylon. Other interpreters see it as an aetiological tale, explaining how the earth got multiple languages and positing the idea that there was originally just one tongue.
I choose to read this Babel fable as a cautionary tale about spirit. Sometimes our ability to and excitement about making something gets ahead of the ethical considerations of ‘should we’ and ‘for what purpose’. Sometimes corporations – church, business, government – think that ‘because we can’, or ‘because it will look great’, or ‘because it will benefit our members’, or ‘because it will be profitable’, we should. We should build our cities, build our towers, do the impossible, expand, develop, grow. It’s a constructive, busy spirit. But for what ends?
But maybe those words like success, benefit, greatness, profit, and growth need to be measured against considerations like the wellbeing (it’s broadest sense) of the whole planet, both now and into the future. How does what we’re building affect the mental health of the young? How does what we’re building affect the bird and insect life? How does what we’re building make a better living environment for our grandchildren after we are dead and gone? How does our constructive busy spirit enhance the spirits of all on this planet? So, I read this story through what could be called an eco-theological lens.
Then our lectionary gives us today another reading about spirit from Acts 2. ‘On the day of Pentecost’… Some would say this is the reading about spirit. Luke, the author, splits up the resurrection of Jesus into three movements. One is a movement out of the grave. Another is a movement 40 days later when the ghost-like Jesus from the grave ascends into the heavens. And another is a movement 10 days after that when from the heavens the spirit – the holy spirit, the spirit of Jesus – is said to descend. This last movement is accompanied by wind, fire, many languages, much understanding, and much joy.
However other gospel writers don’t have these three movements. Jesus’ spirit has never left.
To understand why Luke has this ascend/descend thing with wind and fire, you need to be familiar with the Book of Kings and the stories of Elijah and his disciple/student Elisha. It’s about the passing on of spirit. As Elijah had ascended into the sky (where God was said to dwell) and Elijah’s spirit then had descended upon his disciple Elisha, so Jesus ascended and his spirit descended on his disciples.
The point of these stories is not to make us believers in supernatural phenomena. Rather they use pictorial language and images to help us make connections. The point of these stories is that to follow Jesus (to make real his on-going spirit in our lives) we need to, like Elisha, put on Elijah’s mantle, and prioritize what he prioritized.
Elijah appears in only six chapters in the Books of Kings. He lives in Canaan where there is polytheistic worship. The Canaanites have a number of deities, one of whom is Baal. The Jews have just one deity, Yahweh. Prudent kings, like politicians, try to keep the peace by keeping the majority happy and appeasing the gods. Prophets don’t do ‘keep the peace’ or ‘appease’. Kings expect to be obeyed. Prophets don’t do obedience. No prizes for guessing that conflict is coming.
Elijah, like Jesus, believed that kings and their subjects were accountable to Yahweh. Elijah believed that the dispossessed, the poor, the foreigner, the widow, the sick, and the child are all part of God’s whanau, and need to be treated with dignity, respect and care. To be accountable to Yahweh meant prioritizing these people who were on the margins.
Such beliefs of Elijah come down to us in stories like that of Naboth’s vineyard, where king Ahab desired and took the land of the hapless Naboth in an underhand manner, only to be roundly condemned by the irksome prophet. Like too the story of the widow of Zarephath, where though desperately poor and starving shares the little food she has with Elijah, and is rewarded for doing so.
The point of these stories is that the least matter. Elijah and his god, Yahweh, are aligning with the least. And the least in 9th century BCE were foreigners, widows, women, the poor, and children. They were the nuisances and nobodies of that day. Foreigners were not part of God’s chosen people. Widows had no means of support unless taken in by the extended family.
Claudia Camp points out that five of the eight miracle stories involving Elijah and Elisha were with women. Women represent the groups struggling for survival, and the miracle story is a genre of empowerment.[i] The faith and empowerment of a poor foreign widow, says Camp, is then grafted into the faith legends of Israel to counter xenophobia and the insidious heresy that wealth is a sign of God’s approval.
To pick up and put on the mantle of Elijah, the mantle of Luke’s Jesus, is therefore to be fearless in promoting the spirit and values of justice, mutuality and wellbeing for all. This spirit asks for our ultimate allegiance. Kings, governments, enterprises, churches, and all who hold power – whether they are religious or not – need to be accountable to these values that serve and hold us to the common good of our planet. And that good is measured by how good it is for the little and the least.
Pentecost is something of an ecclesial sound and light show. The metaphors of fire and wind, of power and promise, decorate the liturgies of the season. It’s called by some ‘the birthday of the church’. There’s sometimes a red cake to celebrate it.
But Pentecost at heart points us back to Elijah to the hard and often lonely task of being a prophet. To walk in the spirit of Jesus is to walk with Elijah’s mantle. It is to question the priorities of the successful and powerful. It is to defend the weak. It is to empower the least. It is to hold up values that are often contrary to the gods of our day. It is to be courageous. And as Elijah and Jesus learnt, it is also to be misunderstood.
[i] C. Clamp, ‘I and 2 Kings’, The Women’s Bible Commentary, p.97, 106.