Day of Pentecost, Year B
Acts 2:1-11; I Corinthians 12:4-13; John 14:8-17
Have you ever had the experience when you were visiting a foreign country where English is not the primary language? I speak enough German to be dangerous, as the saying goes. One time, some seminary classmates and I flew to Germany for a week, this was pre-9/11 and airfares were pretty cheap. Being seminarians, we decided to travel as cheaply as possible once there. I ensured my friends that I could safely translate our way during the visit. At the airport in Frankfurt, we debated if we should travel by train or rent a car. I decided to ask a few questions of the young man behind the car rental desk. After stumbling through a few questions about mileage and other rental fees, a look of frustration came over the young man’s face. Exasperated he said, “Would you like to try this in English?” I was both humbled and relieved.
Have you ever been in a similar situation – in a foreign, non-English context, and suddenly you hear someone speaking in English, or better yet, American, or better yet, with a Pittsburgh accent? In such a moment of hearing familiar words or a hometown accent, there is a feeling of connection that happens, and more often than not, we feel drawn toward this person, a complete stranger, because, “Hey, y’inz talk like me, n’at”
In the reading from the book of Acts this morning, we hear of an encounter that perhaps captures some of this sense of connection. Pious Jews from all over the Mediterranean world had gathered in Jerusalem for Pentecost. Pentecost was the time, 50 days after Passover, that Jews celebrated the harvest, a thanksgiving event, if you will. It was a time of pilgrimage.
The earliest Christians were still observant Jews, so they gathered in Jerusalem with everyone else, just 10 days after they witnessed Jesus ascend into heaven. The apostles and others who had gathered may have had the promise Jesus made to them well in mind – I will not leave you comfortless, I will send you an Advocate.
As is usually the case, most people who hear the story of the day of Pentecost get caught up in the special effects of the account – the sound like rushing wind, tongues of fire over the heads of those gathered. These are the details that people remember. But the point of the story is not the effects, but rather the effect it had on those gathered. Jews from all over the ancient Mediterranean world heard the story of God’s mighty deeds being spoken in their native languages.
Perhaps we can’t begin to relate how peculiar this was for those who experienced this cacophony of languages. In the past on this Sunday, I have recruited members of my parishes to read this lesson in multiple languages, Greek, French, Spanish, German, etc. I can easily find this text is almost any language with just a few clicks on the internet. There are VERY few countries now where you cannot find a copy of the Bible in their local language.
But it wasn’t so for the Jews gathered in Jerusalem that morning. God’s word was for the Jews and the Jews alone. Gentiles were kept on the outside. There had been serious resistance to those who wanted to translate the Hebrew Scriptures into anything else but Hebrew.
Suddenly, Jews and non-Jews alike were hearing the good news of God’s power and saving deeds in multiple languages. These simple Galileans (country folk of their day) were speaking fluent Mesopotamian and Phrygian and Arabic, at least these international visitors to Jerusalem were hearing their own languages. What was going on? Surely this isn’t how God operates. Things were getting out of control.
If you recall the rest of the story, there are others who witness this event and assume that the disciples are drunk. They had to find some excuse to explain their odd behavior. Surely this can’t be came the typical response of the cynics. These men are drunk or at least crazy. But God was doing a new thing, and no amount of human resistance could stop it. The fire of God’s Spirit was spreading. God’s word and God’s reign were spreading not just to Jews, but to Gentiles as well. It’s as if the walls of expectation were being knocked down, or simply jumped over.
Another way of looking at it is that the confusion of languages we hear described in the story of the Tower of Babel is being reversed. This recapitulation is symbolic of the nature of the church. The ancient story of Babel suggests that God confused the languages of the human race in order to prevent a unified revolt against God. But suddenly, with the coming of God’s reign in the person of Jesus, understanding has been restored. God’s good news is for everyone.
God was doing an unexpected thing – and this was not the end of the surprises. Phillip baptizes an Ethiopian Eunuch. Peter is commanded to eat unclean foods. Uncircumcised Gentiles are brought into the life of the church, a move that caused the early church to fragment. A schism caused by disagreement tore apart the body of Christ. How familiar! How quickly human fallibility and prejudice tripped the early Christians up!
There are those today who are shocked by what God is doing. God is still speaking. The fire is still spreading to unexpected places and people. While some dig their heels in saying, “Surely God would not speak to those kind of people,” God is still speaking in multiple languages and contexts. It is such a temptation to make God in our own image, forgetting the universal character of God’s power from the very beginning. This power knocks down walls, jumps boundaries and borders, and includes unlikely people.
Today is commonly referred to as the birthday of the Church. Happy Birthday, Church! And while we have fun celebrating the unusual events of the day of Pentecost, let us not forget what these events should be saying to us. I believe this experience recounted in the story in Acts is symbolic of the nature of the church and of the mission of the church. God was doing an unexpected thing – including everyone in the life and witness of the community of believers. This is our call. This is our destiny – to reconcile the peoples of the world with one another, and to reconcile the world with God in Christ.
If nothing else, Pentecost should draw our minds and hearts away from an inwardly focused group of self-satisfied believers toward our true calling to be a blessing to the world around us, not satisfied until the good news of God’s reign is spread to all the peoples of the earth. Peace with God. Peace with each other. This is the message of Pentecost. May we hear it anew today, and may we share it with those in our lives who need to hear the message of peace in their own language and their own context. Amen.