For twenty centuries – in all places and spaces – the Christian Church in its life and ministry has struggled with the dilemma of The One and The Many. How to situate our one good news story of Christ that the kin-dom of God is near, in the midst of the many cultural situations we have found ourselves.
The Tower of Babel story today presents us I believe with one response to this One and the Many dilemma – our 20th century response. The Pentecost story, on the other hand, presents us with a vision more compatible with being church in this 21st century.
But before I get into that difference: Let me recap briefly my prior two messages that lead us to today. First, we heard of an extraordinary meeting: of Simon Peter the Jewish Christian fisherman and Cornelius the Gentile Roman centurion. It was a meeting so extraordinary that it dissolved all of the considerable social barriers between their worlds. For here in this story from Acts, a Palestinian Jew meets a Roman Gentile, that is: the Temple of the One God meets the Tribe of the World’s Many. And the Church has never been the same ever since.
The first message: God’s Temple meeting the World’s Tribe – and being transformed by it. In the second message, we heard of goings and then comings – versus comings and then goings. We heard of disciples going forth into Europe for the first time ever, then being invited to come back to worship in someone’s house.
A story of the One Temple – meeting the World’s Tribe of the Many. And then a story of going out to the World’s Tribe of the Many and then coming back to a place to worship the One.
See the connection between those two Sundays? In each Sunday’s scripture – much like today’s, also from Acts – the earliest Church ventured fearlessly among the Many. Encountering ethnicities without fear or pretense. Discovering it could live in the multilateral joy of understanding the Many in the context of the One. Going to the World’s Tribe of the Many that their experiences there may come back to them, and even make a home among them.
And so it goes with the Day of Pentecost story today. This story frames it all so well. It’s the story that the One Church is only the One Church insofar as it first honors and celebrates and houses the Many Tribes we find out there. And that sounds as well like the church we are becoming this 21st century day. Diversity shapes our unity. The Many shape the One.
The Tower of Babel story today, on the other hand, represents our 20th century model of being church. A model of one people worshiping with one language and having the resources and the means of large numbers and large programs to stay within that one body and language. To define itself as the world unto itself.
Until a holy confusion begins – holy, because God scattered that one language. In the U.S. church’s recent context, God scattered the language when WASPS opened up to Catholics (and vice versa). When whites opened up to blacks. When men opened up to women – straights to God’s rainbow diversity – Christian to Jew to Muslim to Hindu to Buddhist. Until all manners of privilege located in the one tower by the one language of heterosexual male WASPs no longer becomes tenable – if indeed those privileges were ever tenable.
That was the Christendom of the middle of our century past. God scattered the voices. A Tower of Babel ensued. The One dissolved into the Many. And the Many along the way lost any footing in the One.
Uncertainty reined. One thing, however, remained certain: We could not deny that God’s scattering of one church language was happening all around us.
And yet as this brochure before us attests – and as the three-year capital pledges we dedicate today attest: Today, we commit ourselves not to recreating the doom of Babel. Today, we commit ourselves not to mourn over an empty sanctuary when God has scattered our language of privilege.
Today, we commit ourselves not to the doom of Babel and a defensive crouch of fear in the face of a one-language world crumbling around us – a fear we hear emanating every day from a place fittingly called The White House.
Today, instead, we celebrate the church of the 21st century. For today, we celebrate the story of the Day of Pentecost. The story of the Many Tribes of God’s hurting world pitching their tent – making a dwelling – in a place like ours that celebrates the One.
The Many making a dwelling among the One. What a great way to describe the vision behind our capital campaign: “Love In Action: Into the Fourth Century”. What a great way to describe the investment of 2/3 of our campaign pledges for our church campus to provide for the erstwhile homeless, the alcoholic, the addict, and the children. It’s the story of the Many making their home among the One – whether the funds be used in a fashion as compelling as onetime homeless persons renting the Church House through Bethesda Cares, or in a fashion as prosaic as a new HVAC system benefiting the Del Ray Club, Bethesda Montessori and Bethesda Cares.
Either through Church House rental or HVAC replacement: two-thirds of our three-year capital pledges are committed to serving directly the least in general and the children in specific among us.
The least … the children: those whom Jesus identified with so directly that he places an equal mark between his name and them. It’s the only two times he equates himself – the One – with the Many. “As you did it to the least of these, you did it to me” … “As you welcome the children, you welcome me.”
And so the story of the One and the Many lives on. Not in the One Church distinguishing itself from the Many Tribes of God’s world. It lives on through the Many Tribes with whom Jesus – the One – equated himself making their home here among the One Church.
For our sanctuary will never be filled again, with that one Tower of Babel voice trumpeted to the world for so long: that one privileged white, straight, male-centered voice of serving our Father God by taking the word to the heathen and pagan masses.
Our church campus entire, rather, is being filled anew. Filled anew, with Pentecost voices of the Jesus who aligns himself with the least in general and the children in specific.
The One and the Many. Not the One apart from and lording it over the Many. But the Many among us – as a part of the One.
This is the Church of the 21st century. This is a church of Love In Action. And this is Love In Action: Into Our Fourth Century of being church. A fourth century that begins in four short years for our church.
For in 2023, we celebrate our 300th birthday. May each dollar of our $300,000 capital campaign represent a candle of that 300th cake. A candle of Pentecost Spirit-fire lit by the Acts of the Apostles.
The Acts of the Apostles. Love In Action. Into Our Fourth Century.
Into our fourth century: let the many faces of Jesus through the least of these and the children make their home among us, in this one place, anew.