by Eden Grace
Given to Western Yearly Meeting in Plainfield Indiana, on August 7, 2003
Come Holy Spirit — restore your people!
Lord, you who called the world into being and renewed the whole creation,
open our ears that we may hear your word afresh tonight.
Lord, you who are our cornerstone,
make us again into the living stones of your holy dwelling place.
Lord, you who cast out all evil,
fall afresh upon us tonight, draw us into your Trinity,
and teach us to pray.
Come Holy Spirit, and dwell in us, purify, renew and sanctify us.
This evening, I invite you to suspend your judgment of what Quakers do or don’t do, and join me in a journey of prayer, as we call upon the Holy Spirit to be here, to restore this wounded community. I know only a small portion of the pain and fear that is here, but God knows it completely. God, through the gift of the Holy Spirit, can minister to your condition. I am here to draw you more deeply into God’s presence. I will begin with some Biblical reflections and then lead us into an extended time of prayer.
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, ‘Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? (Acts 2:1-8)
I have placed here on the table an icon of the Pentecost, from the Greek Orthodox tradition. Gaze at it, for icons are evangelists, teachers of the deeper meanings of Scripture. The composition of an icon is always highly symbolic.
The text in Acts describes great sound and roaring wind, yet this icon shows the opposite. It is surprisingly orderly and calm. Its composition shows the inner meaning, not the outward signs, of the Pentecost. The Apostles are awaiting the fulfillment of Christ’s promise, with quiet waiting worship, not unlike what we experience as Friends. The icon teaches us that the Holy Spirit’s inrush into the apostolic gathering creates, not chaos, but a well-ordered community. There is harmony and unity in the composition of the apostles. Yet we can see, when we look closely at the icon, that no two apostles are alike. Their faces are different. Their ages are different. Their body postures are different.
Some are holding symbolic objects. They represent the diversity of the members, within the unity of the church. Like the Trinity itself, no two members are alike, yet all are united in a common identity. Triunity, that is singleness of nature and multiplicity of persons, is the principle according to which the church lives and carries out its mission. This icon expresses the triune nature of the church, of unity in diversity, more fully than any other. Gaze at it.
In the Orthodox liturgy of Pentecost, they say: “When the Most High came down and confused the tongues, he divided the nations. But when he distributed tongues of fire, he called everyone to unity. Therefore with one accord we glorify the all-holy Spirit.” This prayer makes it clear that, in order to understand the meaning of Pentecost more deeply, it is important to go back to the story in Genesis chapter 11 of the Tower of Babel, and God’s decision to confuse the languages and scatter the people. For in the overall salvation history narrated by the Bible, Pentecost is the counterpoint of Babel.
Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. And they said to one another, ‘Come let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.’ And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. Then they said ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.’ The Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built. And the Lord said ‘Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.’ So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore it was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth. (Gen 11:1-9)
This story is sometimes read as simply an explanation for the phenomenon of languages, or as an anti-urban cautionary tale. Yet if we are reading the Bible as salvation history, there is much more here.
The people who settled in Babel have a great fear of being scattered abroad, being dispersed over the whole earth. Yet this is exactly what God had instructed the descendents of Noah to do. To scatter or spread abroad (which is the same word in Hebrew) is a central feature of the Genesis narrative. Yet here, the people fear scattering. Against their will, Yahweh scatters them. Yet scattering is not quite a punishment, not a negative term. It is part of God’s plan for spreading the covenant blessing among all of creation. Thus the people’s resistance to spreading abroad can be seen as disobedience. They want safety and homogeneity, and they set out to build a city to guard their intent. There is a totalitarian impulse in their plan — they self-secure a homogeneous social structure. Their scattering is judgment, but it is also a way for God to accomplish his intent that the people should spread abroad and fill the earth. The demon of disobedience is cast out.
The people of Babel desire a certain kind of unity, but they base their unity on self-assertion in opposition to God. We’re used to thinking about unity as something God wills, but the Babel story shows us the danger of a unity which is self-serving. Its not hard to think of modern situations in which national identities become so obsessed with unity that exclusion of the other takes violent form. Clearly, this is not the unity God wills. Rather, Genesis shows that God wills a unity which permits scattering abroad, in all places, speaking to all conditions. Diversity is not disobedient, but rather it is part of God’s plan, provided that obedience to God is our common desire.
A contemporary parallel to the Babel community might be a church that is so concerned with shoring up its own identity, that it severs relationships with the greater community of God, and becomes fearful of all difference. And there is seldom a demonic influence more destructive of the Christian community than fear of difference.
Thus, the Babel text is not so much about pride and punishment. It is about three options: the unity desired by people in resistance against God; the scattering feared by the people and carried out by God as judgment; and the unity and spreading abroad willed by God and rooted in obedience to him.
God accomplishes the judgment of scattering in the story by confusing the language of the people. What God does is not so much to confuse their speaking as to prohibit their hearing and understanding. The words used in the text imply the failure of a covenant relationship. When we cannot hear each other, when listening fails, our relationships are broken and we become an unbelieving community. It is in this deeply painful way that God exercises judgment on the people of Babel. They can not hear each other any longer.
Are we, today, the people of Babel?
Having felt the anguish and disobedience of the people of Babel, as their fear of spreading abroad led to their confusion and scattering, let us return now to the Pentecost, and discover how the descent of the Holy Spirit and the inauguration of the church serve as a counterpoint to the Babel story.
Every year, on the fiftieth day after Passover, the Jewish festival of Pentecost was celebrated, commemorating the giving of the law on Mt Sinai. Jews gathered from all over the Mediterranean world to celebrate the festival in Jerusalem. In Acts chapter 2, the apostles are gathered in the upper room for their celebration of the festival, and like Moses at the burning bush, they experience God’s presence among them as a mighty wind and tongues of flame. They recognize it immediately as the event Jesus had promised, when he said “you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.” (Acts 1:5)
They discover, to their surprise, that they are able to speak in foreign languages. They go out into the street and begin preaching about the resurrection of Jesus among all those Jews gathered from so many distant lands. The visitors are of course surprised to hear these Galileans speaking this diversity of languages, and some in the crowd sneer that they are drunk.
When Peter comes forward to interpret this phenomenon to the crowd, they are profoundly surprised by what they hear. For, the apostles are aware that the Pentecost event is not only the fulfillment of Jesus’ promise to send the Holy Spirit, it is also the fulfillment of the prophecy of Joel, as Peter explains to the astounded crowd.
“Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: ‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters will prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy.’” (Acts 2:15-18)
Peter is claiming that this eschatological vision of Joel is coming to pass right before the eyes of the people of Jerusalem, as a result of the death and resurrection of Jesus. The gifts of language and prophesy to the apostles are a sign of the eschatological age, in which the most unlikely people will become witnesses to God’s word, in which all speaking is unloosed by the Holy Spirit.
The miracle of Pentecost is not in the display of wind and sound and fire, not in the special effects. It is in the giving of voice to the church. It is a voice that is particular to the language of both speaker and listener, but that speaks a universal message. It is, to use a Quaker phrase, the ability to speak to all conditions.
This is not the ecstatic speech described by Paul in his letters to the Corinthians. In that case, such speech needs interpreters, for it resembles no known human language. Pentecostal speech, on the other hand, is surprisingly intelligible. Pentecost is an infusion of the Holy Spirit into the post-Babel linguistic situation, unblocking our hearing and reaffirming the command that the people of God must spread abroad, be distributed like the tongues of fire.
It is an emphasis on hearing, not on speaking in tongues, that creates the link between Pentecost and Babel. Pentecost is not so much a reversal of the Babel punishment, as it is a gift of a fresh capacity to listen. God did not eliminate the multiplicity of languages but gave new ears to hear across differences. Just as in the Babel story, the unity God desires is based not on common language, but on common commitment to do God’s will and live according to God’s purpose. The beginning of the new community is the restoration of genuine speech and obedient listening.
In both the Babel story and the Pentecost story, the people must scatter abroad in order for all of creation to be saved. When they huddle together, they are disobedient to God and put God’s plan in jeopardy. Multiplying the languages and sending out the people is necessary in order for God’s plan of salvation to proceed. Diversity is part of God’s intention for the world. In both these stories, God makes a decisive move to safeguard the diversity of creation, and the universality of the offer of salvation.
Paul speaks a great deal about the diversity of gifts of the Spirit, and about the unity of the Christian community. Especially when writing to those troublesome Corinthians, he is at pains to describe the essential dialectic between unity and diversity which characterizes the Christian church. In Corinth, the manifestations of the spirit in worship were getting too heated, and were presenting two threats to the community — the tendency to chaos, and the pressure to conform. Diversity to an extreme is chaos. Unity to an extreme is conformity. For the Corinthians, the chaos came from competition about whose gift was better. Paul’s answer was that God’s gifts of the Spirit don’t bring chaos and confusion, but harmony and order, for the many gifts all come from the one Spirit. The conformity came from shutting down or limiting the expressions of the Spirit. Paul could see that a unity of message based in a fear of the variety of expressions leads to a fortress mentality, and permits the demons of fear and coercion. Paul’s answer is that harmony and unity in the church must not come at the expense of the Spirit’s astounding diversity, for from one Spirit, come many gifts.
The community that experiences many gifts from the one Spirit can spread abroad to speak to all conditions, to speak in all places and to all people, in all languages. We might widen our understanding of “abroad” to more than just global geography, and think also of the geography of the human condition. Many different approaches or languages are needed to speak to the spiritual conditions of all people. This ability to hear and to speak to all conditions was one of the remarkable gifts of the Spirit given to George Fox and the early Friends. They were indeed a Pentecostal community. Are we?
God’s will for unity and for scattering or diversity is delicately stated, and we must not be simplistic. God’s will for humanity reflects God’s own self in the triune life, “neither confused nor divided.” Neither confused — with parts inappropriately combined or indistinct — nor divided — with parts treated as autonomous or self-sufficient. The human community as both scattered and gathered is a reflection of the image of God as three in one and one in three. God’s judgment in the Babel passage and God’s gift in the Pentecost passage both serve to create a community reflective of God’s nature and dependent on God’s purposes. A church modeled on the triune life will find that true unity is a gift not found in self-assertion, but in self-giving to others.
Like the people at Babel, when we experience the judgment of Yahweh, we leave off building that church community in which we seek to exercise control and enforce our own will. Like the people of the Pentecost, when we experience the gifts of the Holy Spirit, we take up building that church community in which we seek only to be faithful hearers of God’s will, and doers of love and justice.
Return now to gaze at the icon once more. It is the icon of unity in diversity. In the Orthodox liturgy, it is used alongside the icon of the Trinity. Together, they express the inner nature of the church. We know, even from the book of Acts, that the church is always in process of manifesting that inner nature, and experiences conflict and disunity along the way. The unity of the church is not so much a memory of ancient times. It is a promise of God’s victory. The icon of the Pentecost is a vision of the kingdom, of the heavenly city, of the church triumphant, of the people of God drawn fully into the image of the Trinity, drawn fully into participation in the Triune life.
Lord, we give you thanks because you have breathed your Holy Spirit upon the apostles and upon us, giving us the power to proclaim your good news in all the world. We are not yet the fully reconciled community which is an icon of your being. We groan in waiting. Come, Holy Spirit, restore your people.
On the benches you will find baskets filled with markers and stones. As we move into the next part of the evening, please take a stone — a stone of Babel, transformed into a living stone of the body of Christ. Please pass the baskets along so that everyone has a stone. Then choose a marker and write your first name on your stone. Hold the stone in your hands in silence until everyone has finished writing.
Consider these stones, and listen to the first letter of Peter:
“Rid yourselves, therefore, of all malice, and all guile, insincerity, envy, and all slander. Like newborn infants, long for the pure, spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow into salvation — for surely you have tasted that the Lord is good. Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals, yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For it stands in scripture (Is 28:16) ‘See, I am laying in Zion a stone, a cornerstone chosen and precious; and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.’” (1 Peter 2:1-6)
And yet, O Lord, we are put to shame! We are brought low by conflict, fear, disobedience, and the failure to hear and to speak. We have all sinned before you; not one of us stands pure and blameless. Lord, in silence now, we confess our sins.
“Our sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, you will not despise.” (Psalm 51:17)
As the offering of a contrite heart, bring your stone forward and place it on the table. As we move to the table and back to our seats, please join me in singing our prayer “Come Holy Spirit, restore your people.”
With the psalmist, we pray for the forgiveness of our sins:
Have mercy on us, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out our transgressions. Wash us thoroughly from our iniquity, and cleanse us from our sin. (Psalm 51:1-2)
Hear now this word of assurance from 2 Corinthians:
We have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies. (2 Cor 4:7-10)
In Christ, we know we are forgiven. We bear his death, as he bore our sins, so that we might have new life through his resurrection.
Therefore we know that the spirits of this world have no power over us. Christ has given us perfect assurance that we are a new creation in him. Be reconciled with him and with each other.
In the name of Jesus Christ,
I cast out the demons which oppress you.
I cast out the demons which oppress this Yearly Meeting.
I call again:
Come Holy Spirit, restore your people.
Come Holy Spirit, you who raise the dead to life, deliver your people from the evil one.
Come Holy Spirit,
fill this place;
heal these people;
unblock their hearing;
unloose their speaking;
replace fear with love.
Come Holy Spirit, make these stones to live, that we may be drawn more deeply into your Triune life.
In the power of the Spirit and with grateful hearts, let us pray prayers of intercession to the Lord. After each petition, there will be time for you to name your prayers, either silently or aloud, and then we will offer our sung response.
Let us pray.
Lord, you have called us to be your people. You have heard our confession and offered again your hand in reconciliation. You have brought us thus far in the community of faith, and you have promised to walk with us to the end of the age. Therefore, we pray for ourselves and our salvation.
(silent & spoken prayers)
Lord, you prayed even for those who crucified you. You knew the pain and brokenness of your enemies, and bore even the sins of Judas on the cross. You have given us grace to see our enemies as you see them, and to feel that we too can love them, as you do. And when our enemies are also members of our church community, we know that you invite us to try to understand them with compassion, to appreciate their genuine desire for faithfulness, and to minister to their pain and fear. Therefore, remembering that we too are imperfect, we pray for our enemies.
(silent & spoken prayers)
Lord, you have called us into community, friends and enemies together, to be one Christian body in your name. By your grace we are called into your triune image. You dispel confusion and send us abroad with a diversity of gifts and a unity of purpose. You safeguard the essential unity of the church, even in our brokenness, and promise to lead us into all the truth. Therefore, we pray for the church.
(silent & spoken prayers)
Lord, you so loved the world that you sent your Son as our savior. Yet the world is sunk deep in violence; how great must your sorrow be. And still you raise up prophets and leaders with a vision for peace. Still you offer salvation to all the peoples of the world. Therefore, we pray for peace.
(silent & spoken prayers)
Lord, you see all suffering, illness, injustice and oppression. You have opened our eyes to these things, and given us the desire for justice and compassion. You have invited us to bear one another’s burdens. Therefore, we pray for those who suffer.
(silent & spoken prayers)
Lord, you give us life, and death, and eternal life. Those who have died are gathered around us like a cloud of witnesses, interceding for us with sighs too deep for words. Therefore we pray for the dead.
(silent & spoken prayers)
Behold, Lord, these people whom you have gathered and called to be your church, a living temple to you. We have offered ourselves as a holy sacrifice at your table. Now, Lord, send down your Holy Spirit upon these your people, that we may be, for each other and for your world, the living sacrament of your body and blood. Fill us with your life-giving Spirit, that we may be one body and one spirit in Christ, a living temple to the praise of your glory. Come Holy Spirit, Come!
Holy Spirit, you have descended among us.
We thank you that we are even now experiencing the restoration of all creation through the living stones of your holy temple. You are great, O Lord, and we praise you.
You bind up our wounds. You liberate us from bondage. You heal us in spirit, that we may be renewed as disciples of Christ and united in witnessing to his love to the ends of the earth. Pour down your Spirit upon us and send us forth as your people, restored in unity, with ears to hear and a voice to speak to all conditions, for the sake of your word to all peoples.
I invite you now to silently gather around the table. As you approach the table, take any stone and hold it in your hands, stepping aside so that others may also approach and take. We will stay gathered around the table.
Consider these stones, and listen to the letter to the Ephesians:
“So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple of the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.” (Eph 2:19-22)
Each of us has a place in that spiritual dwelling place, but none of us alone is the temple of God. We are joined together as building blocks, built upon the foundation of those who have gone before us, and relying on those who will come after us to continue the growth. We are each one stone, yet every stone is necessary and precious. Each stone requires the others in order not to fall. We are neither confused nor divided. We, the spiritual temple, rest upon Christ Jesus, the cornerstone. “See, I am laying in Zion a foundation stone, a tested stone, a precious cornerstone, a sure foundation” (Is 28:16)
Consider these stones, and listen to the Revelation of John:
“Hear, you who have ears to hear, what the Spirit says to the churches! To everyone who is victorious I will give some of the hidden manna; I will give each one also a white stone, and on the stone will be written a new name, known to none but the one that receives it.” (Rev. 2:17)
God has given us spiritual food, a foretaste of eternal life. We have now each received a white stone, a symbol of permanent protection from evil in John’s Revelation. On every stone is written a name, known only to the one who holds the stone. Look at the name on your stone. Pause now to pray silently for that person, whether known to you or a stranger.
Someone else is holding the stone with your name on it, and praying for you.
Carry this stone with you throughout the rest of this week, and continue in prayer for this person and for this community.
You are the living temple of the Holy Spirit, joined together by prayer into a strong tower, protected by prayer from all unholy spirits. You are no longer the people of Babel. You are the icon of the Pentecost. The Spirit’s descent offers to restore you to community and dispel confusion. With the restored hearing of the Pentecostal covenant, become now what God has called you to be.
May the Spirit who inflamed the Church upon the day of Pentecost,
fill you with the gifts of the Spirit,
maintain you in wholeness and unity,
and send you forth with a voice to praise him forever.
Go now and greet one another as brothers and sisters, children of the living God.
© 2003 Eden Grace
The work published on the website www.edengrace.org is the intellectual property of the Estate of Eden Grace, which retains full copyright. Nothing on the website may be reprinted in whole or in part without written permission.
Eden was a member of New England YM until her death in 2023. You can find the full talk with illustration and music of the “Come holy spirit” liturgical phrase on www.edengrace.org