St. John 14:23-31
In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
St. John 14:23 [Jesus said] “If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word.”
Dear fellow redeemed in Christ our Lord… It is SO tempting to laugh at those builders of the Tower of Babel in today’s Old Testament lesson. It is easy to think they were ridiculous primitives who thought that they could storm heaven with a tower built by hands. Isn’t it? Most certainly they were foolish!
But… not so fast… We ought not laugh so hastily at those tower-builders; and here’s the reason: it is precisely because we may find in them a mirror for our own souls.
What they were trying to do with that tower was protect themselves from God. They were going to build it high and coat it with tar to waterproof it – for it was only in their grandfathers’ time that the world had been destroyed by a flood; they remembered those stories. But now, well now they would be prepared against the next once-in-a-lifetime flood! Now they would build their tower plenty high enough, and they would cover it well with tar. Now they would be safe. Now God could not touch them…
And in the same way we have tried to protect ourselves. You see, when God demands our perfect obedience, we throw up our walls of defense against Him: “I’m not as bad as some people!” “It wasn’t my fault!” “I didn’t really mean it!” Have you never found yourself on your knees in a crisis trying to cut a deal with God, you know, in order to tame him? “If only you will do this thing, God, then I will promise never, ever to do that again, or I will promise to do that other thing I should do.” It is as if God could be bribed and as if He didn’t already have our best interest at heart. At least a tower built to the sky has some weight and heft to it, unlike our flimsy excuses and self-justifications.
So, what are we to do? Repent. Repent. We must acknowledge that we are one with our ancestors at Babel. We must admit that our self-built safety nets will not hold us. We must turn away from trying to cut a deal with God on our own terms. And when we do, we will find that the deal He offers is better than anyone could ever expect. Behold, dear fellow redeemed, it is Pentecost, and the curse of Babel is undone!
In their pride and self-confidence, the people of Babel had to be scattered to the four winds. This really was the beginning of nations and ethnicities and disunity and wars in the human race. But today we rejoice, for on Pentecost that curse is overturned as the Apostles are given the ability to speak all the languages that had their start on that fateful day in the plain of Shinar.
Jesus has fulfilled his purpose: He has died for the sins of the whole world, He is risen from the dead for the world’s salvation, and He has ascended on high to rule the world as God and man. Christ has taken upon Himself the pride and pettiness of the tower-builders and the deal-cutters and the faithless and the cowards. The ridiculousness and full-bore punishment of our sins is laid upon Him.
Certainly it is ridiculous to try to ascend to heaven in a skyscraper – just as it is ridiculous and pitiful to try to ascend to heaven on a ladder built of our own human works and self-made righteousness – things which always stink as filthy rags before the Holy God. But all that is atoned for now. Jesus took it with Him to the grave – and the devil laughed at what he thought was God’s foolishness: that God would die for humanity.
But it is our Lord who has the last laugh, for He is risen from the dead victorious and has demonstrated that the foolishness of God is wiser than the wisdom of men or devils.
For this is God’s grace, dear fellow redeemed: to save those who have gone astray, even those who have strayed to the ends of the earth and have forgotten the true God of their father Noah. The curse of Babel is undone now that Jesus has united all humanity again in Himself and as He calls all humanity to repentance and faith in Him. For not only all Israel but even all humanity is reduced again to one man, the second Adam – Christ Jesus – who undoes the fall of the the first Adam. Where the first Adam and his offspring failed, Jesus, the Second Adam, succeeds. And now the Body of humanity will be built together again as the Body of Christ: one flock, one shepherd; one body, one head; one Lord, one Church.
And it all got started on Pentecost when Babel was undone, when the tongues of men were united again as a sign that the old had passed and the new had come. In Christ’s Church there is no Jew or Greek, no German or Swede, no Irish or Latvian: all are one in Christ because all are baptized into the one Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit by the washing of rebirth and renewal in the waters sanctified by the work of the Spirit who is sent by the Son from the Father.
And this gift is yours, dear Christian. Cherish it. In today’s Gospel lesson Jesus promises you this Spirit, this Comforter and Helper who guides you into all truth. How does the Spirit do this? At the end of Acts chapter 2 we read this description of the concluding events of Pentecost day: Then Peter said to them, “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is to you and to your children, and to all who are afar off, as many as the Lord our God will call.” And with many other words he testified and exhorted them, saying, “Be saved from this perverse generation.” Then those who gladly[g] received his word were baptized; and that day about three thousand souls were added to them. And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and the prayers.
There you have it. That’s the Church: the place where the Spirit works through Baptism, through the apostles’ teaching, through the breaking of bread – that is the Lord’s Supper – and “the prayers.” The Spirit regenerates us and makes us reborn in Baptism, for Jesus says in John 3:5, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” The Spirit leads us with the words of the Apostles – that is, the Scriptures read and preached – for Jesus promised these Apostles that the Spirit would lead them into all truth and remind them of what Jesus had said. The Spirit feeds us with Jesus in the Lord’s Supper – for Jesus is the God who calls into being what is not, He is the same God who said, “Let there be light and there was light” – thus in the breaking of what appears to the eyes to be bread we know that we have what Jesus promises: “Take eat, THIS IS MY BODY…THIS IS MY BLOOD given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.”
And note well the last item on the list of how the Church lives as the Church: they are devoted to “the prayers.” Note well that St. Luke does not say that they are just devoted to “prayer” but to “the prayers.” The Church doesn’t just gather together to have a time of free-form prayer; no. The Church gathers around the Apostles’ Teaching, and the Spirit’s Baptism, and the Son’s Supper, all the while saying “the prayers” that the Father gives us: the Lord’s Prayer, the Psalms, the canticles given to us in the Scriptures like the Kyrie (Lord have mercy); the Sanctus (Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of Sabaoth); the Nunc Dimittis (Lord lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace); the Agnus Dei (O Christ, Thou Lamb of God). You get the picture.
In other words, the Church lives from the Word of God. God breathes into her with the breath of his Spirit from the Words of Scripture and the Church breathes back out what God has given her to breathe. This is how the Divine Service, the Liturgy, grew up in the Church in a natural progression from “the prayers.” This is why we worship how we worship: we are simply living out what the Apostles gave us to do. You can look back to the earliest liturgies we have from the Church of the second and third centuries and still hear the same Scriptural prayers leading the baptized to the same Sacrament of the Altar. You can travel around the world and just as on Pentecost hear the same words in all the languages of men.
The Spirit sent by the Son from the Father – rebirth in Holy Baptism – forgiveness and strength in the Lord’s Supper – enlightenment from the Word of the Apostles read and preached – praying back to God the prayers he has given us to pray together as one body: this is the picture of the Church we receive on this first Pentecost.
And it is still the same today. Cherish your place in it. Know that you are a baptized, forgiven child of God. Know that the Spirit dwells in you, that your body is now the temple of God. Know that you are intimately connected to your Lord Jesus in soul and body as he feeds you with his true flesh and blood to incorporate you into his mystical body, the Church.
Know that the day is coming when the promise of Pentecost will finally and fully be fulfilled, when there shall be complete unity in the Lord when he returns to complete our salvation in the resurrection of the dead and the life everlasting.
In the name of the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.