Primary Lesson: Acts 2:1-21
Throughout the liturgical year, the church commemorates many and varied moments of grace. We remember creation come into being, Israel called to be God’s people, and the messages spoken by the prophets. We celebrate moments of epiphany as God’s presence is made known in miracle, story, and encounter. We remember Jesus born and baptized, and his suffering and death. We commemorate Jesus’ resurrection from the dead and his ascension to God’s right hand. And throughout the whole year we recall and celebrate the witness of countless matriarchs and patriarchs, prophets, apostles, and martyrs – the communion of saints from centuries past who form that great cloud of witness together with us. We commemorate, remember, and celebrate moments of grace, recalling them in the biblical narrative, reliving them in liturgical drama, and sharing them in personal story.
We remember and recall, commemorate and share because doing so helps us to experience and practice that same grace in our own lives.
Today is no different. Today is Pentecost! Today we remember the coming of the Spirit by fire, wind, and word on those first disciples huddled in the upper room in Jerusalem. Here we are again to celebrate the birth of the church! Pentecost (meaning “fiftieth”) is from the Greek name for the Jewish festival of Shavuot, or the festival of weeks, because it takes place seven weeks and one day after Passover. Shavuot originally marked the wheat harvest in the land of Israel, and was the culmination of the counting of the omer and the making of the grain offering. According to the ancient sages of Israel, the counting of the days and weeks from Passover was also understood to express anticipation and desire for the giving of the Torah. On Passover, the people of Israel were freed from their enslavement to Pharaoh – when death passed over the houses marked by the blood of the lamb. On Shavuot, the people of Israel were given the Torah becoming God’s own possession and a people committed to serving Yahweh. For us, on Easter, Jesus freed all humanity from the sting of death. On Pentecost, Jesus gifts his followers with the Spirit, commissioning them as witnesses to Jesus and servants of the gospel.
As Luke retells the story, one-hundred, twenty disciples (Acts 1:15) were gathered in Jerusalem on Shavuot, the fiftieth day after Jesus’s resurrection. And upon those faithful disciples the Spirit alighted, empowering them and giving birth to the church. It’s a tremendous story, amazing in its imagination, fabulous in its imagery, and riveting in its detail. There were tongues like fire and violent wind, accusations of drunkenness and mass baptism. It’s easy, I think, to sometimes get lost in the spectacle and miss the story though. But I’d like us to hear and remember a particular detail from the story that is, perhaps, often overlooked but one that I find searingly relevant for our time. Notice, and it happens twice, that the Spirit prompted the disciples to “speak in other languages” and allowed the crowd to hear “in the native language of each” (Acts 2:4, 6).
As a Christian people, we place great stock in language and word and story. After all, we are a people of the book. In the language of our creation myths, we recognize a God who births the very cosmos by speaking it out. At the beginning of the narrative of our re-creation, the author of the fourth gospel writes that “in the beginning was the Word.” On Sunday mornings, we use the drama of liturgy, the languages of creed, the story of scripture, and the power of prayer and song. In short, we believe that language and word and story have power. So then, if this is true (that story and language and word have power), what does the Holy Spirit’s activity on Pentecost signify? What does it mean that the Spirit inaugurated the church – gave it life and purpose and mission – in the way that she did? What can we learn from the fact that the Spirit led with translation?
Language is intricate and subtle, tied to the full weight of culture, history, ethno-psychology, and spirituality. Language is beautiful in its ability to connect and terrifying in its ability to divide. Attempting to speak the language of another can be a messy endeavor. Such attempts demand a lot from us, forcing us to become learners and supplicants. Speaking another person’s language is an act of radical hospitality, and exploration and a journey across the barriers of race, ethnicity, gender, religion, culture, or politics. Speaking another language is a brave and disorienting act that invites both ridicule and embrace.
And this risky act is precisely what the Holy Spirit invited Christ’s frightened disciples to do on that Pentecost. Essentially, the Spirit insisted that they stop huddling in their faux safety, that they throw open your doors and go out. For them, prompted by the Spirit, silence is no longer an option.
The first Pentecost story required surrender and humility. On the one hand, those who, “filled with the Holy Spirit,” spoke the gospel “in other languages” risked vulnerability in the face of difference. They stepped beyond their comfort zone, and they braved something new with no guarantee of welcome. In the end, no matter how awkward or inadequate they felt, they trusted that the words arisingin them – new and strange and scary words – were nevertheless essential words that were ordained for them in their time and place.
On the other hand, the listening crowd had to surrender cherished defenses and listen in wonder as the Galileans spoke in their native tongues. They had to opt for curiosity and openness instead of fear and derision, welcoming strangers with accents into their midst. Some of them sneered and denigrated the speakers because they just could not bear the challenge to their neat categories belonging and exclusion. So, they scattered at the first sign of difference, and they retreated into denial blaming “new wine” instead of crediting the Spirit.
But even in the atmosphere of suspicion that dominated Roman occupied Jerusalem, there were some who spoke and some who listened, and into those astonishing exchanges God breathed fresh life. Something happens when we speak each other’s languages. When we dare to step beyond our limits and perspectives and learn to be curious about each other’s stories, we discover that God is there! And we find that God is indeed far too nuanced for a single tongue or a single accent.
Pentecost is a story for our time. It seems that we live in a world where words have toxicity and stories have lost significance. Language itself threatens more to divide that to connect. But the troubles of our day are global and civilizational, and will be catastrophic if we cannot learn the art of speaking across the boundaries in the language of the other.
As I was putting this homiloy together, the news was filled with an intensifying violence across the Israeli-Palestinian divide. Children are dying and landscapes are going up in smoke because they refuse to hear each other’s stories and step out in boldness with the language of the other. The United States has, for four years, been in political chaos, highlighted by an incapacity to community across differences. And our willful decision to not listen to the stories of others, our failure to hear the words of others, our desire to shut out the language of the other has and will continue to have dire consequences, whether from the Covid pandemic, climate change, racial justice, or economic disparity. But it’s not just the political, economic, and societal that are on the line, our very spiritual lives hang in the balance. Have we lost faith in the possibility of genuine dialogue?
This is precisely why we need Pentecost! The rhetorical skills and religious acumen of the disciples didn’t matter on the first Pentecost. Instead, what mattered was that the disciples followed Jesus’s instruction to wait for the Holy Spirit to come with power. This, they did! And the Spirit did a new thing in them, and they allowed the Spirit to do a new thing in them. The Spirit transformed them and they allowed the Spirit to transform them by wind and fire, the breath and the tongue of God. Everything else flowed from that.
We need to gather as God’s people right now and ask the Holy Spirit to instruct us, shape us, remake us, and commission us. We need a fresh language of bridge-building and new words to rekindle joy. We need the wind and fire of God to transform us and wrestle us from our complacency. It’s time for us to speak new words and tell new stories, to create new relationships and kindle old love. Here’s the thing: No matter how passionately I disagree with your opinions and beliefs, I cannot disagree with your experience. Once I have learned to hear and speak your story in the words that matter most to you, then I have stakes I never had before. I can no longer thrive at your expense. I can no longer make you my Other. I can no longer abandon you. An optional response to our Sunday morning lessons, found in Enriching Our Worship, uses the words: “Hear what the Spirit is saying to the church.” Do we hear it? Can we dare to hear what the Spirit is saying? Do we dare to stop huddling in fear? Do we dare to speak the language of the other as the Spirit prompts us to do. The Spirit broke down barriers on that Pentecost by loosening the tongues of the disciples and by opening the ears of the crowd so that they were able to hear each other. God compelled the disciples to engage, to press in, to linger, listen, and speak.
The Spirit has come, and silence is no longer an option.