Sunday 9 June 2019
Today is the festival of Pentecost. It is named Pentecost because it happens on the fiftieth and final day of the Season of Easter. It was already a festival in the Jewish Calendar, occurring 50 days after the Passover. In the Jewish tradition, it is known as the Festival of Weeks, because it happened seven weeks after Passover, that is, a week of weeks. It is a harvest festival, celebrating the maturing of the first crops, and also a commemoration of Moses receiving the Law from God on Mt. Sinai.
Christians know Pentecost as the birthday of the church. It is one of those stories that we hear every year. Every year, 49 days after Easter, we read the same passage from Acts 2. The city of Jerusalem is filled with Jewish pilgrims from around the known world. The disciples, both men and women, are gathered there, as well. Suddenly, they have a profound experience of the Holy Spirit. They hear a strong wind in the sky, that grows and comes into the house where they are gathered. They see the flicker of flames in the air, until each flame settles and lands on the head of one of the disciples. They feel like they are being filled with this holy wind, this holy breath, this holy spirit. Suddenly, they are outside of the house, and somehow, through the power of this holy wind, they are speaking in all of the languages of the known world, from Iran to Arabia to Libya to Rome. If we were talking about the same area of land today, we might say that they were speaking Italian, Romani, Sardinian, Catalan, Serbian, Croatian, Slovenian, Albanian, Armenian, Greek, Bulgarian, Hungarian, Romanian, Georgian, Azeri, Turkish, Kurdish, Turkmeni, Assyrian, Persian, Farsi, Tati, Talishi, Gilaki, Mazandarani, Raji, Qaqshqa’i, Berber, Djerbi, Nafusi, Sokna, Awjila, Siwa, Coptic, Hebrew, Nubian, and at least 30 different dialects of Arabic. Everyone who is there, gathered for the festival, can hear the disciple speaking in their own native language.
Sometimes we say that the miracle of Pentecost is a miracle of speaking, and sometimes we say that it is a miracle of hearing. Is it a miracle that the disciples can speak different languages, or is it a miracle that the crowd can hear them in their own, native languages? Should we be imagining each disciple speaking in a particular language while all of the listeners struggle to find the disciple who is speaking the language they know? Or should we be imagining a sort of cacophonous sound coming from the disciples, but everyone in the crowd miraculously hears their own language being spoken? Our answer to this question will shape how we understand the significance of Pentecost.
I have tended to understand Pentecost as a miracle of hearing. It’s not so important that the disciples are given some kind of linguistic mastery, it’s important that everyone there can hear in their native language. They wouldn’t have needed to hear in their own languages in order to understand. Everyone gathered in Jerusalem would have spoken at least some Greek. That’s why Peter is able to talk to them all after the Pentecost experience; they can all speak the lingua franca of Greek.
The miracle, then, would have something to do with hospitality. People who hear in their own language can hear in the language of their heart. They do not have to strain to understand in a language that is not their own. They do not have to struggle to understand what is being said. They can have the message presented to them as if they were at home. It takes a people who are uncomfortable, far from home, and makes them comfortable.
I’ve preached that sermon to you before. God’s grace greets people with a radical hospitality. God tears down the barriers between people. God invites in those who were previously considered outsiders. And that is a good message.
This year, though, I read an interpretation of this story, from Willie Jennings, that presents quite a different message. Jennings insists that in the Pentecost story speaking is much more important than hearing. According to Jennings, the power of the Holy Spirit forces the disciples into a new action that they did not ask for or want. They prayed for power from the Holy Spirit. They were not asking for a gift of languages, but languages is what they got.
“The miracles are not merely in ears. They are also in mouths and in bodies. God, like a lead dancer, is taking hold of her partners, drawing them close and saying, ‘Step this way and now this direction.’ The gesture of speaking another language is born not of the desire of the disciples but of God, and it signifies all that is essential to learning a language. It bears repeating: this is not what the disciples imagined or hoped would manifest the power of the Holy Spirit. To learn a language requires submission to a people. Even if in the person of a single teacher, the learner must submit to that single voice, learning what the words mean as they are bound to events, songs, sayings, jokes, everyday practices, habits of mind and body, all within a land and the journey of a people. Anyone who has learned a language other than their native tongue knows how humbling learning can actually be. An adult in the slow and often arduous efforts of pronunciation maybe reduced to a child, and a child at home in that language may become the teacher of an adult. There comes a crucial moment in the learning of any language, if one wishes to reach fluency, that enunciation requirements and repetition must give way to sheer wanting. Some people learn a language out of gut-wrenching determination born of necessity. Most, however, who enter a lifetime of fluency, do so because at some point in time they learn to love it.
“They fall in love with the sounds. The language sounds beautiful to them. And if that love is complete, they fall in love with its original signifiers. They come to love the people—the food, the faces, the plans, the practices, the songs, the poetry, the happiness, the sadness, the ambiguity, the truth—and they love the place, that is, the circled earth those people call their land, their landscapes, their home. Speak a language, speak a people. God speaks people, fluently. And God, with all the urgency that is with the Holy Spirit, wants the disciples of his only begotten Son to speak people fluently too.” (Jennings, Acts, 29-30)
So, in just the way that we can talk about God’s grace making the hearers comfortable, we can also talk about the speakers being made uncomfortable. They have to speak in a language that is not their own. They have to become familiar with the idioms and stories of a foreign culture. They have to learn to submit themselves to forms and ideas that do not come naturally.
And that is also a gift of the holy spirit. It is God’s gift to nudge us away from that which is familiar. It is God’s gift to decenter us from a sense of mastery or privilege. It is God’s gift to break us open to new peoples, new ideas, new experiences.
It is a gift of God to welcome us in on our own terms, to speak to us in the language of our hearts. Each of us is welcomed, through the waters of baptism, just as we are. Each of us is incorporated into the Body of Christ on our own terms.
And yet, it is also a gift of God to push and stretch and change us. Each of us is transformed, through the waters of baptism, into a new creation. Each of us is called to learn and grow. Each of us is challenged to see from the point of view of another, to struggle through the discomfort of trying to speak to another on their own terms.
Jennings writes, “The same Spirit that was there from the beginning, hovering, brooding in the joy of creation of the universe and of each one of us, who knows us together and separately in our most intimate places, has announced the divine intention through the Son to reach into our lives and make each life a site of speaking glory. But this will require bodies that reach across massive and real boundaries, cultural, religious, and ethnic. It will require a commitment born of Israel’s faith, but reaching to depths of relating beyond what any devotion to Israel’s God had heretofore been recognized as requiring: devotion to peoples unknown and undesired. What God had always spoken to Israel now God speaks even more loudly in the voices of the many to the many: join them ! Now love of neighbor will take on pneumatological dimensions. It will be love that builds directly out of the resurrected body of Jesus. It will be love, as Karl Barth says, that goes into the far country. This is love that cannot be tamed, controlled, or planned, and once unleashed it will drive the disciples forward into the world and drive a question into their lives: Where is the Holy Spirit taking us and into whose lives?” (Jennings 32)
The Spirit of God, does not just translate words, it translates lives. Are we willing to be translated, to risk looking silly as we seek to speak in a language not our own, to be changed by the experience of the other? Because this is the gift of the holy spirit: granting us power that we did not ask for, sending us where we did not ask to go, among people we do not know, speaking words through us that we did not plan to speak, changing us in ways that we did not plan. This is gift of Holy Spirit. This is the miracle of Pentecost. It is not only that some are made comfortable as they are welcomed. It is also that some are made uncomfortable as they are called.
May we be transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit. May our lives be translated through our interactions with neighbors and strangers, that we might learn to love that which seems foreign and those who seem strange. May we be broken open by God that we might learn to speak people with a fluency not our own. May we not be content to remain comfortable among the things and people that we know well and call our own, but may we be encouraged to step outside of our familiar surroundings and be transformed by our experience of the great diversity of God’s people.
Jennings, Willie James. Acts. Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible. Edited by Amy Plantinga Pauw and William C. Placher. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2017.