"Greater Works than These," Pastor Fred
“Very truly, I tell you,” Jesus said to Philip, “the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these…”
These words are from the beginning of Jesus’ Farewell Discourse in John’s gospel, which is addressed to the disciples at the end of the Last Supper. Jesus is promising the gift of the Holy Spirit, which will be given to them, and to all his followers.
Jesus knows he is about to leave them. His Passion is at hand, but it is also just the beginning of something new. Through his death and resurrection, God’s promise of forgiveness and redemption will be renewed in Christ Jesus, enabling all the nations to receive this gift of life. The Chosen People have been carrying the Promise, ever since Abraham and Sarah first became the believing faithful parents of many children – as many as the sands of the sea, and the stars of the heavens. Through years of faith and faltering, courage and failure, God stuck by the children of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. And now Jesus, in the line of all these leaders, and anointed by God in his baptism, promises to pass on this gift of the Holy Spirit that will raise up new children around the world, in every nation.
“Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these…”
And so it came to pass on the 50th day, what we call Pentecost, at Shavu'ot, the Festival of Weeks, in Jerusalem, when the 11 Disciples and other women followers, were waiting, as Jesus had instructed them, 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.”
And what was that ability? They didn’t speak in tongues, at least not the glossalalia St Paul describes in his letters to new congregations, like the Corinthians, that were ecstatic in their speech, a babbling language of unrecognizable words, a spiritual language that only God and the possessed could understand. But on Pentecost, the ability given to the Disciples was to speak in every foreign language of all the pilgrims who were visiting Jerusalem, and bringing their first fruit offerings to the Temple.
And Luke makes a point of spelling out those nations which represent the most far flung peoples of the empire known to them at that time. The Spirit was announcing the amazing story of Pentecost in an ‘open broadcast’ of every language known to every people. Something like the careful planning at the U.N. to have translators available for the many languages of participants from around the world today, only without human preparations, but instead, God directed and Spirit inspired.
If we contrast this, with our First Reading, the story of the Tower of Babel from Genesis, on the threshold of Hebrew history, it can be illuminating. The unity of ‘one people and one language’ appears as a mirrored image, and threat, to the Resident of the heavens, that is, God. And the tower that the ‘one-people, one-language’ build, is reaching for that home of God. The Tower of Babel is a story of a unified people, but their purpose is to take over the oneness of God – to be God – even in their flawed fallen-ness.
Jesus promises to his followers that they will be able to do the things he did, as God’s anointed Son – and even greater things than he did. But his purpose is clearly that his followers, the faithful ones, who are believers in his mission, will live in communities of forgiveness and love, with an eye toward the redemption of all creation.
The Tower of Babel story is in some sense the opposite – a cautionary tale. That power for power’s sake, is not God pleasing. The brick building that they are in some phase of constructing – and, perhaps cost over-runs are a good thing in this case! – was the same style of construction as the Mesopotamian Ziggurat, those ancient massive structures, built as the place of the presence of the gods, though not as a place of worship.
And the ‘one people, one language’ builders of the Babel Tower, are reaching to the skies to assimilate, to grab hold of, the power of the gods for themselves – they are prideful and filled with their own glory, they are unbent and not worshipful!
So God, in order to save them from themselves, must scatter them, ‘and they leave off from building the city,’ it says. This is the last of the preface stories in Genesis, a foundational story and moral tale of how any people can abuse their freedom, and desire absolute power.
Kingdoms throughout history have attempted this, to greater or lesser effect. Babylonia and Rome, used one language to impose a dictatorial unity and tight-gripped conformity. More recently, the British and American empires have benefited by the world’s adaption of the English language.
Dictators impose on their own people – whether speaking Russian, Korean, or any other language – the worshipfulness of the one leader who is god-like, up above, and beyond reproach, much like the mischief and misguided mission of the Tower of Babel.
But if we might imagine ourselves sitting with the faithful disciples and followers of Jesus on the Day of Pentecost, waiting in the Upper Room in Jerusalem, perhaps shaking in our boots with them, wanting to go back home to a simpler life in Galilee, waiting without a clear vision since the death of our Lord, despite the 40 days of appearances to Peter and Mary, and the Eleven, to Cleopas and her friend, and to many other larger groups here and there – we are still hopeful. ‘Wait for the Advocate, the Helper, the Holy Spirit, to come to you, Jesus had told them. And they did!
Like a tornado and the sound of a freight train, with the fearful beauty and chaos of flames of fire, as if in the midst of a battlefield, the Holy Spirit blew in and ignited the believers, overwhelming their narrow-minded expectations, and empowering them as never before. “Very truly, I tell you,” Jesus said, “the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these…”
And Peter started, the first to be lit on fire! And the first thing that popped into his mind was the prophecy of 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 shall 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…
God has passed on the gift of the Holy Spirit, from Jesus to us. We are the chosen people of God. We are the believers who can share the good news, and build up the assembly, the church. We are empowered to call bull-oney on the purveyors of false news, who want to build towers to the heavens and make a name for themselves. By the gift of the Holy Spirit, we are empowered to shout it out – that, only the one true God is worthy to be worshipped and glorified. No other name on any tower will suffice.
The gift of the Spirit is that we have a dazzling array of languages, and cultures, and peoples, and that through us – Christ Jesus is alive as a unifier of this diversity. “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these…” We don’t need to build a tower – we need to build community.
Let us give thanks for the gift of the Holy Spirit, and receive it as the empowered children of God!