The Olympics bring people together.They’re all over Facebook – everyone is sharing this wonderful moment.
The experience of being brought together reminds me of something Paul wrote to the church at Corinth. Paul’s got so much to teach us – sometimes we skip over the introduction to get to the “main” stuff, but Paul teaches right from start. He doesn’t wait for the body of the letter; there’s an important message in his opening greeting.
In First Corinthians I, we read, “Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and our brother Sosthenes, to the church of God that is in Corinth,to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”
You probably remember how divided the church at Corinth was. There were all kinds of different factions, all kinds of divided loyalties, so right out of the box Paul says exactly who he’s talking to: those who are sanctified, called to be saints – not just sanctified in their own group – not just called to be saints isolated from others – but together with all those who in every place call on the name of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Are you committed to missions beyond the walls of your building? Because being a Christ follower isn’t about holing up with our own comfortable group. It’s about moving outward – being connected – being together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.
But this together thing isn’t always easy, and that brings us to our passage from Genesis. The Tower of Babel – it’s a story of how humans became scattered throughout the earth – how we ended up with all kinds of different cultures and languages, right? Our punishment for arrogance and pride, right?
I’m not so sure…
We often hear about the grand narrative of scripture – how there’s one long arc from beginning to end that outlines God’s saving work in the world. That understanding of scripture resonates with me, but there’s an element of that grand arc that I think we overlook. It’s the arc of “scatteredness”(that’s not a real word – I invented it).
Scatteredness: let’s look closer at the story of Babel. The first thing we learn is that there was only one language and one people – “now the whole earth had one language and the same words” – that ought to be a red flag for us. It ought to alert us that something isn’t right.
Look at Genesis 1:28 – “God blessed them and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”
God clearly has a plan to scatter God’s creatures (including humans) over the face of the earth. Now look at Genesis 10. God’s starting over after the flood – beginning the process begun in chapter 1, filling the earth – so in chapter 10 we hear about Noah’s sons. We read of Japheth’s family expanding all along the coast, becoming a unique people group with its own language and identity. Ham’s family ended up all over the place: Egypt, Canaan, Babel. Each became a unique people group with its own language and identity. Shem’s family was the same: a unique people group with a unique language and unique identity.
Clearly God’s intent was to scatter. Scatteredness is part of God’s plan – diversity of language and culture was part of God’s plan.
Even God’s promise to Abraham is that all the families of the earth will be blessed through him.
But Babel sits right in between – just after the description of all those unique families and languages and right before God’s promise to bless all families of the earth through Abraham. Babel sticks out like a sore thumb.
Something must have been up with Ham’s clan in Babel – clearly they thought quite a lot of themselves. They had migrated from the East and had settled in their area as though it was the whole world – as though their language was the only language – at least from their point of view.
They decide to build a tower, to make names for themselves, because if they didn’t do that, they would be scattered across the face of the whole earth. They clearly weren’t in sync with God’s plan. They didn’t want to be scattered, they wanted to stay in their tower, insulated and isolated.
Have you ever felt like you wanted to stay in your tower?
That’s the way it was for Ham’s clan. They wanted to be homogenous and the same. But God wasn’t interested in that and he disrupted their plan. The problem for us is that we interpret that disruption as punishment.
But God wasn’t punishing Ham’s clan; God was putting them back on track with God’s original and ultimate intent, that human beings would be scattered across the face of the earth – that a plethora of languages and people groups and cultures and families would all flourish in God’s good creation.
Babel is a correction on God’s arc of scatteredness, and that arc bends directly to a new creation. We can see that in Revelation, when all different people groups that God has created are gathered.
But in between Genesis and Revelation is resurrection, and we can’t understand the arc of scatteredness without that important piece.
As Christians we believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus. He may have been radically transformed, but people could still recognize him by his physical body. In fact, that’s the only way Thomas was able to believe, right? It was Jesus’ recognizable physicality that convinced him.
That foreshadows a miraculous truth: on the day of resurrection, it is not only our spirits that will rise, but our bodies also. Just as the resurrected Christ was recognizable by his physical body, even though it was undeniably transformed, so we will be recognizable by our physical bodies, even though they will be remarkably made new.
That means that Christians don’t look forward to a day when things that make us different from other disappear; we look forward to an eternity in which those differences no longer divide.
Revelation chapters 21 and 22 show us what that eternity looks like; here we find the fullest vision of God’s intention for creation. Rather than taking us out of the world, creation is the context in which God’s kingdom comes. God makes God’s home among the people, who have gathered from every corner of earth and as God transforms creation, making all things new, we discover the purpose of it all: for the healing of the nations.
Here’s where it becomes real for us, especially as we seek to be faithful in mission and evangelism: we’re to be a foretaste of that Revelation image. We’re to be now what God envisions for the future – a community transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit, in which differences may remain, but no longer divide nor define. A community in which healing can be experienced and lives made whole.
We’re to be a place where all those scattered families of God can come together – not by losing their uniqueness – not because we’ve sacrificed our languages or cultures or traditions – but because we are sanctified, saints who all call on the name of the Lord Jesus Christ.
God doesn’t desire us to be Babels – God desires us to be means through which God blesses all families of the world, a foretaste now of what God envisions for the future.
I was in Kenya last year teaching at an evangelism seminar for Christians in the Wesleyan Methodist family. We have a big family in Kenya. There are United Methodists there, but we’ve only been there since the 1990’s. Others in our family have been there much longer: the Methodist Church of Kenya, Wesleyans, AME’s – you have many sisters and brothers and aunts and uncles and cousins in Kenya.
One of the challenges for Christians in Kenya is Islam. It’s aggressive and sometimes even militant. But part of the challenge is our own lack of unity, and I’m not talking about all being the same church, I’m talking about shared mission and ministry.
One of the critiques Muslims level at Christians in Kenya is that they aren’t connected; they’re fractured and each seems to work against the others. They isolate themselves in their own groups, even preaching against the work of others.
The folks who came to the seminar were so encouraged, so uplifted and empowered, not because of anything amazing we did, but simply because they were gathered together for the first time – the whole Methodist Wesleyan family – and they crossed the boundaries of their own churches in order to witness together to the saving power of Jesus Christ. They left with the commitment to continue that unified witness.
Have you made a similar commitment? Are you content to remain isolated within the confines of your own tower? Are you willing to move out, to scatter, to make connections, cross boundaries, take risks in places and with people who are far away?
Our witness is strengthened whenever we cross boundaries – whenever we scatter on behalf of the Gospel.
Some boundaries exist in far-away parts of the world, but some exist right here at home and some exist even within the Methodist Wesleyan family. Are you the only Methodist Church in your town? (Are there UMC, AME, Nazarene, Wesleyan?)
If we’re to leave our towers of Babel and be scattered as God desires, if we’re to be a true foretaste now of what God intends for all creation in future, then we need to keep John’s Revelation image firmly in our minds as we engage in all our mission, both at home and far away:
God’s holy city descends to earth. The home of God is among the people. He will dwell with them and they will be his people and why is all this going to happen?
For the healing of the nations.
The good news of the Gospel is that through the work of Jesus Christ, the God of all creation is reconciling all things. Not homogenizing all things – reconciling all things – Reconciling all people. Reconciling all nations.
The mission of God is to bring this all-encompassing reconciliation and healing to the whole of creation. This is the mission which God is accomplishing through Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit. This is the mission to which we are called as followers of Jesus Christ.
Do we want people of all nations and cultures to come to faith in Jesus as their Savior and Lord? Do we want people of all nations and cultures to become people of the Jesus way? Then in your town and throughout the world, we must leave our towers of Babel – we must scatter.
And when as a scattered people we come together through the power of the Holy Spirit we become more than the sum of our parts. That’s when we become a foretaste of God’s healing salvation. All are gathered around the throne – all proclaiming and demonstrating that Jesus is the renewer of all people – the renewer of the whole creation, the whole face of the earth, all the dimensions of life.
As Christians, the salvation we proclaim is that big. The news is that good.