At the Tower of Babel, God permanently judged man's efforts to achieve any unity outside of and/or opposed to his government and covenant. All such efforts must end in chaos and confusion.
There have been innumerable efforts to unify mankind apart from the Gospel, from the bizarre to the amusing to the frightening: from the language intended to unite us all, Esperanto (how many people do you know who speak Esperanto?), to the United Nations (oy vey!).
But there is no earthly principle upon which the diverse peoples of this planet can unite. Without a common faith, without allegiance to a transcendent, invariant, universal ethical standard, we end up with that condition found in America today: polarization of and hostility between races, genders, classes, ages, advocates of perversion and traditionalists — the list goes on. Every new "rights" group is an indication of compounded fragmentation and decay.
At Pentecost, God sent from heaven the only divinely authorized, and therefore the only efficacious, principle of unity, and that "principle" is a Person: the Holy Spirit of God. As our Prophet, Priest and King was anointed with "the Spirit without measure," the blessed Spirit poured down from our Head enthroned in heaven, falling down upon his people on earth.
Their speaking in different languages about the same subject ("the wonderful works of God"— Ac. 2:11) marked the God-authored point of unity for a race previously bound to division and ethnocentric obsessions. If God could make "the two" one (Jew and Gentile — Eph. 2:14), he could certainly make the Gentiles one with another. Here, then, is what Christ had in mind when he told the disciples to set their sights high, to the uttermost parts of the earth. The curse would be reversed in him: not only the curse pronounced upon our federal head, Adam, but also the one inflicted upon our race at Babel.
The unity of Spirit in the bond of peace effected by the death, resurrection, ascension, and sending of the Spirit of Christ, is one of the leading themes of the New Testament. What a remarkable and powerful testimony to the truth of the Gospel: the middle wall of hostility has been removed in Christ!
Unfortunately, despite the admonition of St. Paul to "make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit" (Eph. 4), the church has too often lapsed into ethnocentricity. There is nothing intrinsically wrong, of course, with believers of a common culture and tongue uniting as church! But there is something wrong if we begin to think that our particular ethnic group or language is the one which will occupy the orchestra seats in heaven, with others lucky to get into the balcony.
At Urban Nations, God has graciously given us a reminder-in-our-faces of his universal design in sending His Son. We are privileged to bring the Gospel-currently, as I write to people who speak the following first-languages: Albanian, Arabic, Bengali, Chinese, Creole, French, Hebrew, Hindi, Polish, Russian, Spanish, Tamil, Turkish, Urdu and Vietnamese.
He's given us a "reminder in our faces," and another one in our ears. He has been pleased to grant that, out of the many peoples we minister to, some Russian and Spanish speakers have joined our local body, Messiah's Congregation.
At our midweek prayer meeting we read a Psalm and make a brief comment. Then each gathered saint prays in turn. When Ursula's turn comes, she prays in Spanish. Only a few others in the room understand the words, but the humility and bestowed grace are so evident that the "Amen" offered by all at the end of her prayer is a hearty and sincere one. And when Yelena prays in Russian, no one else in the room understands. Yet, again, when she concludes with "Amin" (funny how that little word stays very nearly the same in so many languages; see the beautiful comment on its meaning in the Heidelberg Catechism, Q&A 129), a jubilant chorus repeats it. We close our gathering by praying the Lord's Prayer together in English and singing the Gloria Patri. This is a weekly experience charged with a unique current, courtesy of the Triune God in whom our unity is real, profound, eternal.
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- Steve M. Schlissel
Steve Schlissel has served as pastor of Messiah's Congregation in Brooklyn, New York, since 1979. Born and raised in New York City, Schlissel became a Christian by reading the Bible. He and Jeanne homeschooled their five children and also helped raise several foster children (mostly Vietnamese). In 2003, they adopted Anna (who was born in Hong Kong in 1988, but is now a U.S. citizen). They have eight foster grandchildren and fourteen "natural" grandchildren.