Pentecost – May 23, 2021
Acts 2:1-21 and John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15
It’s Pentecost! This day is considered the birthday of the church, the remembrance of the day marked by wind and flames and the filling of the Holy Spirit which brought with it speaking in different languages. Some speaking a language they had never spoken before, others hearing in a language they never understood before.
That Spirit of God—the Holy Spirit—has always been around. From the beginning of time, the Father begat the Son and the Spirit is the life that exists between them. The Spirit had hovered over creation as God spoke it into existence. When Israel mourned and lamented in exile, the Spirit breathed new life into them like a wind animating a valley of dry bones. When two pregnant kinswomen met, the Holy Spirit filled Elizabeth and she prophesied, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.”
So, at Pentecost it was not the Spirit itself that was new. It was the Spirit being poured out in a new way. The Spirit came as wind and as fire, giving the disciples the ability to speak in other languages in such a fashion that Jewish believers from all over the world—who had come to Jerusalem because Pentecost is a Jewish festival—heard them speaking in their own languages.
Pastor Debi Thomas shares: If you are bilingual, then you know that there is nothing easy about substituting one language for another. Languages are intricate and messy. They carry the full weight of their respective cultures, histories, psychologies, and spiritualities. To attempt one language instead of another is to make oneself a learner, a servant, a supplicant. It is an act of exploration and of hospitality. To speak across barriers of race, ethnicity, gender, religion, culture, or politics is to challenge stereotypes and risk ridicule. It is a brave and disorienting act. Its a risky act.
But this is what the Holy Spirit required of Christ’s frightened disciples on the birthday of the church. Essentially, she told them: Stop huddling in what you call safety. Throw open your windows and doors. Feel the pressure of my hand against your backs, pour yourselves into the streets you’ve come to fear, and speak! Understand that silence is no longer an option because you are on fire.
The first Pentecost story required surrender and humility on both sides. Those who spoke had to brave languages beyond their comfort zones. They had to risk vulnerability in the face of difference, and do so with no guarantee of welcome. They had to trust that no matter how awkward, inadequate, or silly they felt, the words bubbling up inside of them — new words, strange words, scary words — were nevertheless essential words — words precisely ordained for the time and place they occupied.
Meanwhile, the crowd who listened had to take risks as well. They had to suspend disbelief, drop their cherished defenses, and opt for curiosity and wonder instead of fear and contempt. They had to widen their circles, and welcome strangers with accents into their midst.
Of course, not all of them managed it — we heard that some sneered because they couldn’t bear to be bewildered, to have their neat categories of belonging and exclusion challenged. Instead, like their ancestors at Babel, who scattered at the first sign of difference, they retreated into denial: “Nothing new is happening here. This isn’t God. These are fools who’ve had too much to drink.” But even in that atmosphere of suspicion and cynicism, some people spoke, and some people listened, and into those astonishing exchanges, God breathed fresh life.
The bottom line is, something happens when we speak each other’s languages. We experience the limits of our own words and perspectives. We learn curiosity. We discover that God’s “great deeds” are far too nuanced for a single tongue, a single fluency.
Of course, I’m stating the obvious when I say: Pentecost is a story for our time. We live in a world where words have become toxic, where the languages of our cherished “isms” threaten to divide and destroy us. The troubles of our day are global, civilizational, catastrophic. If we don’t learn the art of speaking across the borders that separate us, we will burn ourselves down to ash.
We are in a state of political and cultural gridlock so fierce, we seem to have no capacity to communicate across our differences. The consequences, whether they have to do with the Covid pandemic, climate change, racial justice, or economic disparity, are too numerous to count. For many of us, the temptation to retreat into our enclaves is especially strong right now. We can’t see outside of our social media bubbles. We’ve lost faith in the possibility of genuine dialogue. Our faith may be faltering.
But this is precisely why we need Pentecost. What mattered on that first birthday of the church was not the rhetorical skills and the religious acumen of the disciples. What mattered is that they followed Jesus’s instruction to pray without ceasing, and wait for the Holy Spirit to come with power and do a new thing — both in them and through them. What mattered was that the disciples — bumbling and clueless as they so often were — obeyed the prompting of the Spirit and allowed themselves to be transformed by the wind, the fire, the breath, and the tongues of God. Everything else followed from that.
There is no way to overstate how much 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 fresh languages of bridge-building. We need new words to rekindle love. We need the wind and fire of God to challenge our complacencies, reset our priorities, ease our anxieties, and move us out.
It is no small thing that the Holy Spirit loosened tongues to break down barriers on the birthday of the church. In the face of impossible difference, God compelled God’s people to engage. From Day One, the call was to press in, linger, listen, and speak.
Because here’s the thing: no matter how passionately I may 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.
Pentecost arrives to remind us that ashes do not have the final word, and that fire does not come only to consume. It comes also to bless, to call, to inspire, to give to us what we could never begin to imagine on our own.
The fire of Pentecost scalds us toward speech, and this is a blessing and a miracle. This is not, however, where the greatest miracle lies. The miracle of Pentecost, as seminary professor Dr. Bill Mallard said one day, is not a miracle of speaking. It is a miracle of hearing, and of understanding.
How will we allow the Spirit to scorch us, not only toward the word we need to speak, but also toward the word we need to hear? How will we open ourselves to the Spirit that comes to set us ablaze with vision?
I leave you with a blessing written by Jan Richardson:
What the Fire Gives
A Blessing for Pentecost Day
You had thought that fire
only took for itself,
leaving merely ash
you had believed,
if not permanent,
would be long enough,
to be nearly
So when you felt
the scorch on your lips,
the searing in your heart,
you could not
at first believe
that flame could be
that when it came to you—
you, in your sackcloth
it did not come
to take still more
What surprised you most
were not the syllables
that spilled from
though that was miracle
to have words
what had been numb,
to find your tongue
aflame with a language
you did not know
no, what came
as greatest gift
was to be so heard
in the place
of your deepest
to be so seen
within the blazing,
to be met
with such completeness
by what the fire gives.