Is the gospel only about personal salvation? Or is there more to it?
On this Sunday, Christians celebrate Pentecost. This highlight of the church calendar commemorates the pouring out of the Holy Spirit, in fulfillment of prophecy, as recorded in the second chapter of the book of Acts. Jesus had promised His disciples that He would bring this about; He said it would happen upon His ascension into heaven – “It is expedient for you that I go away: for if I go not away, the Comforter will not come unto you; but if I depart, I will send him unto you” (John 16: 7).
And now, during the Jewish Feast of Weeks when the city was filled with people from all parts of the known world, the time had come, and the Spirit was poured out.
How did this manifest itself? By the disciples communicating directly with all those visitors, speaking in foreign tongues, or, as eyewitnesses put it, “How hear we every man in our own tongue, wherein we were born? Parthians, and Medes, and Elamites, and the dwellers in Mesopotamia, and in Judaea, and Cappadocia, in Pontus, and Asia, Phrygia, and Pamphylia, in Egypt, and in the parts of Libya about Cyrene, and strangers of Rome, Jews and proselytes, Cretes and Arabians, we do hear them speak in our tongues the wonderful works of God” (Acts 2: 8—11).
What is the significance of this? Peter’s explanation speaks for itself. But there is something else, which in our day is of great significance. The very fact that the outpouring of the Holy Spirit manifested itself in, of all things, the proclamation of the mighty works of God in foreign tongues, is not coincidental. It points to the plan for the ages that at this point took a new step forward.
According to the biblical testimony, which stretches back to the very origins of civilization, there was an event which indicates how foreign tongues came into existence in the first place. This is key to understanding the significance of that speech-making in foreign tongues.
The incident to which we refer is the building of the Tower of Babel, which took place at a time when mankind was already unified: “And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech” (Gen. 11: 1). And people wanted to keep it that way, so, of course, they decided to build “a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven” in order to make for themselves “a name,” to keep from being “scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth” (v. 4).
A name for themselves…
In man’s eyes, a necessity; in God’s eyes, not really a good idea. “Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do” (v. 6). The implication is that they will be doing bad things, just like they did before the Flood. God had promised no more floods, so He betook Himself to a different strategy.
For this urge to maintain unity was done by mankind in its own name, to “make a name,” to establish a self-contained kingdom of man which, with its tower reaching to heaven, constituted a challenge and an affront to someone else’s kingdom, namely, God’s.
And so the effort was thwarted. The means to accomplish this was by scattering mankind through the confusion of languages: “let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech” (v. 7). Mankind dispersed, and stopped building the city. Significantly, the place was Babel, in Hebrew meaning confusion, in Aramaic “gate of God,” a double-entendre of which the Bible is rich; the name would live on as the “code name” for illicit efforts at playing God, as we shall note.
Here is what makes Pentecost so significant. What it means is that the kingdom of God has arrived to achieve the reunification of mankind. What once upon a time was lost in the illicit power grab surrounding the Tower of Babel is now restored – but only on God’s terms. It is through the ministry of Word and Sacrament (Acts 2: 41) that that unity is restored, not through holding high a banner with the word “HUMANITY” inscribed on it.
A name for themselves…
This is the danger of the times we now live in. This urge toward global unification is occurring precisely in the name of humanity, precisely in the way, the Bible warns us, that we should not be pursuing it. There is a struggle going on between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of Satan, the kingdom of light and the kingdom of darkness, the Prince of Peace and the Prince of this world. For what did Jesus say on the eve of His crucifixion? “Now is the judgment of this world: now shall the prince of this world be cast out. And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me” (John 12: 31—32). It is in Him that men will be drawn together; but that will occur only through the judgment of the world, through the casting out of the ruler of this world.
How will that unification manifest itself? Jesus Himself spoke of it just prior to the crucifixion, in His high-priestly prayer. “Neither pray I for [My disciples] alone, but for them also which shall believe on me through their word; That they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me. And the glory which thou gavest me I have given them; that they may be one, even as we are one: I in them, and thou in me, that they may be made perfect in one; and that the world may know that thou hast sent me, and hast loved them, as thou hast loved me.” This unification is of the Spirit, in the name of Christ, as a testimony to the world.
What about the world itself being unified? The Book of Revelation warns of a renewed attempt to establish this unified world. It will manifest itself as a global kingdom of man. Significantly, the center of this empire, once again, will be Babel – Babylon – “Mystery, Babylon the great, the mother of harlots and abominations of the earth” (Revelation 17: 5), “that great city, which reigneth over the kings of the earth” (v. 18), whose “merchants were the great men of the earth,” by whose sorceries “were all nations deceived,” in whom was found “the blood of prophets, and of saints, and of all that were slain upon the earth” (18: 23—24).
This is globalism, but the wrong kind. The globalism of Pentecost restores unity in in the name of God. The globalism of man asserts unity in the name of man. Choose carefully.
“Now therefore fear the LORD, and serve him in sincerity and in truth: and put away the gods which your fathers served on the other side of the flood, and in Egypt; and serve ye the LORD. And if it seem evil unto you to serve the LORD, choose you this day whom ye will serve; whether the gods which your fathers served that were on the other side of the flood, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land ye dwell: but as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD” (Joshua 24: 14–15).
‘Tis the season to be jolly? For many, the answer is “What? Are you kidding?” Christmas conjures up images of desperation shopping, crowds, hurriedness, nerves (did I get everyone something? Was it appropriate?). Not to mention the thought of receiving presents for which a polite response requires an effort of superhuman self-control. This obsessive-compulsive gift-giving… what is it good for? Shouldn’t Christmas be more about rest and relaxation? About spending time with family and friends? And… about remembering the “reason for the season?”
But what begins as a desire for less stress and more rest can end up losing the plot altogether. We may seek the reason for the season in an aversion to commercialization… and end up with an aversion precisely to that reason.
“Keep Christmas in your own way,” one might end up saying, “and let me keep it in mine.”
After all, one must keep commercialization at bay, and that may mean taking a step back from the Christmas grind.
But the step isn’t that far from this place to another, the place where giving and receiving stops, and one, in insulating himself or herself from this round of imperation, takes a decisive step back from the holiday spirit itself. And in our day of rampant, solipsistic subjectivism, where (as Kant might say) autonomy has triumphed over heteronomy, this is anything but an imagined move. It might even be seen as an expression of individuality and authenticity. Yes – a statement.
And in the end we might hear someone saying to us, “Keep it! But you don’t keep it.”
To which might come our reasoned retort, “Let me leave it alone, then. Much good may it do you! Much good it has ever done you!”
But guess what? We might glory in our smugness… but all the while only be exposing ourselves to one of the great sallies of literary history.
“There are many things from which I might have derived good, by which I have not profited, I dare say, Christmas among the rest.”
Would we be able to hear this? Would we be able to bear a reproach in favor of something we didn’t choose – a shared, collective tradition? (How much of the current “war on Christmas” has less to do with atheism and more to do with self-determination? But be that as it may….)
Our interlocutor continues.
“But I am sure I have always thought of Christmas-time, when it has come round—apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that—as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys. And therefore, … though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it!”
We have, of course, here been witness to the exchange between Uncle and Nephew… Scrooge.
Look at what, in Nephew Scrooge’s eyes, Christmas accomplishes! Men and women open their hearts to each other collectively, freely, like they do at no other time of the year. They view each other in the light of ultimacy rather than expediency, “as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave,” which in Dickens’ time, everyone professed but few acted on. And furthermore, not as “another race of creatures bound on other journeys,” i.e., separate races on separate journeys… a line which, in our age of balkanized domestic politics, in itself speaks volumes.
Surely an institution that accomplishes all of this is worthy of our veneration and participation. “And I say, God bless it!”
May our exasperation, if not our desire for our own autonomously constructed, smartphone-oriented spheres, not take away from that participation in one of the great institutions of Christian civilization.
And lest we overlook: the above citation contains a line which is universally excised from every cinematic presentation of A Christmas Carol that this author has had the pleasure of examining. It shouldn’t be too difficult to discern of which line I speak.
Here is the objectionable clause in italics: “But I am sure I have always thought of Christmas-time, when it has come round—apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that—as a good time.”
“If anything belonging to it can be apart from that,” indeed. It would seem that the problem with Christmas has more to do with keeping things that belong to Christmas, apart from Christmas. If we would remind ourselves that all the gift-giving and -receiving makes little sense apart from the cosmic birthday party with which it is connected, perhaps we would find more of a capacity to approach Christmas and keep Christmas in the spirit with which it ought to be pervaded.
And the carols that ought to be sung together with it, indeed provide the right understanding.
Joy to the world! the Lord is come;
Let earth receive her King;
Let every heart prepare him room,
And heaven and nature sing,
And heaven and nature sing,
And heaven, and heaven, and nature sing.
Let’s do this right. Which is something different from, let’s make the best of it.