Acts 2:1-21 CEB
When Pentecost Day arrived, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound from heaven like the howling of a fierce wind filled the entire house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be individual flames of fire alighting on each one of them. They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as the Spirit enabled them to speak.
There were pious Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. When they heard this sound, a crowd gathered. They were mystified because everyone heard them speaking in their native languages. They were surprised and amazed, saying, “Look, aren’t all the people who are speaking Galileans, every one of them? How then can each of us hear them speaking in our native language? Parthians, Medes, and Elamites; as well as residents of Mesopotamia, Judea, and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the regions of Libya bordering Cyrene; and visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism), Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the mighty works of God in our own languages!” They were all surprised and bewildered. Some asked each other, “What does this mean?” Others jeered at them, saying, “They’re full of new wine!”
Peter stood with the other eleven apostles. He raised his voice and declared, “Judeans and everyone living in Jerusalem! Know this! Listen carefully to my words! These people aren’t drunk, as you suspect; after all, it’s only nine o’clock in the morning! Rather, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:
In the last days, God says,
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy.
Your young will see visions.
Your elders will dream dreams.
Even upon my servants, men and women,
I will pour out my Spirit in those days,
and they will prophesy.
I will cause wonders to occur in the heavens above
and signs on the earth below,
blood and fire and a cloud of smoke.
The sun will be changed into darkness,
and the moon will be changed into blood,
before the great and spectacular day of the Lord comes.
And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.
Pentecost, while one of my favorite liturgical holidays of the church calendar, sadly remains the most overlooked. I love the splash of red and fire that lights up our churches at this time of year! However, it ends up being this brief flash of warmth and Spirit before we settle into the relatively quiet summer season. Unfortunately, Pentecost falls close to Memorial Day, marking the start of the vacation season, so many are gone or simply busy at this time of the year, visiting family and taking in the sights. With summer coming, we can overlook this moment in the early church when it truly became the church. Before this, the church had been just a small sect of Judaism, hanging on by a thread in Jerusalem. By the end of Acts, it has spread to the very heart of the Roman empire, to the very alleys, homes, and palaces of Caesar’s city. To do that, it had to overcome a particular challenge that we in a very global world can easily relate to, connecting with people of different languages, cultures, countries of origin, and appearance. In today’s world, where so much is awash with difference, we often find ourselves longing for the familiar, for the safety of the language of home of belonging. Pentecost reminds us that the true language of home exists not in spite of all of these differences but through them. In God working through each and through all, we will find members of our family of God in all the nations under heaven gathered around the living Word that is Christ, pulled together and sent forth by the winds of the Spirit.
Before delving into Acts, I want to go to another story. This is an origin story of sorts, one from a time, we are told, when all the world spoke one language. These people decided to build a high tower, one tall enough to reach into the heavens and touch the very face of God. The Lord sees their work, and it troubles God’s heart. The Lord enters their midst and mixes their tongues, so that they can no longer understand each other and so they are scattered across the face of creation to become all peoples, in all their varied expressions. We have all heard this story of the Tower of Babel, with its moral against people being too rebellious and arrogant, but I wonder if we miss something more profound in this origin story. God had made people to be fruitful, to fill the far corners of the earth, but instead, they wanted to gather together in one place and build their city so they wouldn’t in their own words, “be dispersed over all the earth.” There was certainty in being together with folks so readily like themselves. That’s understandable as there is safety in being all together while being scattered into the unknown brings fear and change always comes with risk.
Get people together, and they will seek the simplest unity possible. They will gather with those that look and sound and act like them, especially in the face of the unknown and in spaces of uncertainty. We all seek connection. There was one summer a few years ago when I took a group of youth down to Cortez, CO for a mission trip. Shortly before we left, I found out that three of the youth going were here in the States from Taiwan, visiting family, and the family decided to send them on a mission trip! I am sorry to say that I do not speak Mandarin Chinese, and they only had a basic understanding of the English language. I will tell you that I hung on to every single word they did know like it was a nugget of gold. Now, I could have griped and complained about how they didn’t speak English, but we had such fun on that trip and we connected in so many deeper ways. Did you know, that you do not need English to have really competitive Uno matches? Did you know that you do not need English to help kids paint a house and play sports? At the end of the trip, these kids even gave me and the other adult leader notes in Chinese expressing their thanks. I still have those notes. The people at Babel missed the opportunity for true connection because they settled for the first and easiest connection they could find. Meanwhile, Pentecost in Acts gets the point, that true connection can only come from seeking the deeper relationship we share as children of God that can only be found when easy connections are a challenge. The relationships and people that stretch us and challenge us in ways we never expected cause us to have to look deeper, not for what is easy but for what is essential, the core of who we are to each other.
Let me put it another way, have you ever thought that you and someone else were on the same page, speaking in the same tongue, only to discover you were not speaking the same language? Before Caitlin and I got married, we read a great book by Dr. Gary Chapman, called The Five Love Languages. In the book, Dr. Chapman shares that we do not all share the same language of love, expressing and experiencing love in different ways in our relationships. We have different needs and different expectations, and when those are missed, they can be part of the cause of the breakdown of relationships of all kinds. At the end of the day, people in relationships did not even realize that they were speaking in different tongues.
Turning toward our scripture this morning, I wonder how the gathered people in Jerusalem experienced these Galileans suddenly speaking in tongues that made them feel like they belonged? Luke in Acts desperately tries to capture what happens for us. On that day, there is suddenly a sound “like the howling of a fierce wind” and the disciples saw what “seemed to be individual flames of fire.” People always come short in trying to capture in any language the workings of God. It was like the howling wind, but it was also more than simply wind. It was like fire, but unlike any flame ever experienced. In fact, the actual Greek paints the picture in even more confusing colors. In Greek, these individual flames could also be translated as tongues of fire. Kind of disturbing to see a tongue, usually reserved for your mouth, on fire and floating above everyone’s head! Most of these people from the far corners of the known world are surprised and amazed to hear the languages of home being spoken to them in this unfamiliar place. Going back to Dr. Chapman’s work, can you imagine the surprise of love hitting home for the first time in a long time? Can you imagine the surprise when someone you thought you knew speaks in a tongue foreign to them but in the language of love and home for you? To suddenly hear the love your parent, child, spouse, friend, co-worker, or another has been desperately trying to tell suddenly coming through so clearly. How much fear and anxiety and stress and friction must melt away when we can hear what another has been trying to say all along but just did not have the right words?
Pentecost is the answer to Babel. Pentecost shows that unity does not come through making all the people, all the languages, all the nations, and all things one. Think about it. Most of the world seeks these easy paths of unity to find that safety a community of people just like you brings. For instance, I saw an article just in the past year that commented that people are now moving to different parts of the country to be around people that are politically just like them, so that red areas are getting redder and blue areas are getting bluer. Our churches are no different, as Sunday has often been called the most segregated day of the week. There is a temptation to gather with those who look like us, sound like us, and think as we do. Rather than go into the world, we will build our city and our tower so we will not be scattered. At the same time, I am reminded this morning that God opposes that, going all the way back to Babel and even into Acts. God made us into a diversity of people with different experiences and expressions, so this must be an essential piece for the family of God in order to overcome the challenges that come with living in this world and across this globe. For the early church, It was a risk to step beyond the limits of Jerusalem to enter the wider world. If these early followers had stayed safe, stayed where it was comfortable, there would be no church. It would have died when Jerusalem was destroyed a few decades later.
There is a challenge facing the church today. Do we want to be a community? Do we want to be a body of Christ? We cannot be a place of easy comfort and safety then, seeking the easy connection of finding people who look and sound just like us. That is the temptation of Babel, the arrogance of saying that we know better than God. Pentecost did not have the Spirit of God descend upon everyone else so they could all understand one common tongue, instead, the Spirit descended on the church so that the church could speak through different languages to talk of the home found in God through Christ. The Spirit descended upon us so that we could be a community that reflects the rich diversity that God desires and creates. There is that temptation to seek what we know and stay where it is safe and comfortable in familiar places with familiar people, but there is the challenge of the Spirit to go and venture into that babel sound to listen for and speak “the mighty works of God.” To find what is essential, to rediscover what is at the core of our faith and speak it and live it is our task. This will cause people of all the nations under heaven to stop, to stare, and wonder in amazement that someone so foreign to them could speak in the language of home. Amen.
Pastor Paul Grossman