Pentecost, Year C, June 9, 2019
Acts 2:1-21, Psalm 104:24-34, 35b, Romans 8:14-17, John 14:8-17
Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Chinook and Naselle Lutheran Churches, WA
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.
One of the cool things I’ve seen done at Pentecost is to have the Acts reading read by people in different languages. After all, that’s what the story is about: the Holy Spirit gave the disciples the ability to speak in tongues, which here means the ability to speak new languages they’d never learned. A bunch of hicks from Galilee, who spoke Aramaic and a smattering of Hebrew and barely enough Greek to ask for directions suddenly found themselves speaking not only fluent Greek, but also Latin, Farsi, Arabic, Luri, Akkadian, Luwian, Hittite, Berber, and possibly a few other languages as well. Because they spoke all of these languages, they were able to spread the Good News of Jesus by telling all these different people about him and what his life, death, and resurrection meant for all of creation. It was a great miracle that brought many people to Jesus. And, so, we commemorate and re-enact it by reading the story in many different languages, whatever languages people in the congregation speak, often multiple readers in multiple languages at the same time. I’ve heard this passage read in Greek, Arabic, Norwegian, Swedish, German, French, Spanish, Asante, Swahili, and others, whatever language they could find someone to speak.
They don’t even have to speak the language well! Sometimes you can get someone fluent in a particular language, but a lot of the time it’s somebody who hasn’t spoken that language since college, or since their grandparents died. As long as they can read aloud in that language, they’re good, even if they don’t remember the language well enough to understand what they are reading. Nor do they have to be understood by the congregation: I’ve most often seen this done in congregations where most of the members spoke only English, or maybe had a little bit of another language but not enough to understand the reading. Even when a large portion of the congregation is fluent enough in a particular language to understand the reading in that language, there are often multiple languages being read, so that nobody can understand any of them. It was always fun, and memorable, and cool. And it can be a good way of lifting up the gifts and heritages of many people in the congregation. And it’s a reminder that no matter what language you speak or where you are from, the Gospel is the same for everyone and we are all brothers and sisters in Christ no matter where we’re from, what language we speak, or what culture we’re from.
Those are all good messages, but unfortunately they miss the point of the story. See, the story is not about the languages themselves, the story is about communication. In order to tell people about the love of God in Christ Jesus, you have to speak their language. You have to communicate. You have to be able to tell the story and its meaning in ways that people can understand. And it’s not enough to just get the bare bones of the story across; you have to be able to tell the story in a way that they can connect to it. This is not about people stumbling through a language they barely know; this is about being fluent enough to really connect with people. This is not a story about lifting up a few languages from the sidelines and giving ourselves a pat on the back for how diverse we are. This is a story about God’s people learning to communicate with those who are different from them, and being sent out into the world to do so.
After Jesus’ resurrection, his followers were doing basically the same thing they’d done between his death and resurrection: staying within their own group, often indoors, where it was safe and everybody knew and loved Jesus. They stayed with places and people they were familiar with, comfortable with. People like them, people who didn’t need the whole story explained to them, people who understood what they’d been through. They went back to fishing. They stayed in the upper room. Despite Jesus telling them repeatedly to go out into the world and spread the Good News, they stayed where they were and shared the Good News with people who already knew and appreciated it. It was safer, and it was easier. If it had been up to them, they would have stayed right where they were, and their group would never have grown, and eventually they would have died off. Maybe they would have succeeded in passing it on to their kids, and it would have become one more minor sect of Judaism. Who knows.
But God didn’t leave it up to them. God sent the Holy Spirit to them roaring like a freight train, and he literally set them on fire for Jesus. And God gave them the ability to speak to all of the people in the crowd outside their doors. God drove them outside their comfort zone and gave them everything they needed to tell their story—God’s story—in whatever way their audience could hear it best. And because they were speaking the languages people knew, because they were not just speaking but communicating, other people heard the Good News and turned to Jesus. That miracle—evangelists knowing the language of the people they’re trying to reach without having to study—has never been repeated. But it was the foundation of the Christian church as more than just a handful of Palestinian Jews.
This story asks us two questions: who are the people right outside our doors that we should be reaching out to, but aren’t? And second, what do we need to learn to be able to communicate with them? Like those first Christians, we are awfully comfortable inside our own walls, talking with the people who already know and love the Good News of the Gospel. We are very comfortable talking with the people who already speak our language. We are very comfortable talking with the people we already know, the people who are like us, the people that we understand and who understand us. But God did not give us the Holy Spirit just so we could stay comfortably inside our doors talking with people who already believe. God sent us the Holy Spirit so that we could go out into the world, so that God would be with us always, everywhere, so that we can have courage and participate in God’s work in the world. God called us to love all people, not just the people like us; and it’s hard to love people you don’t know and never spend any time with.
As we reach out and build new relationships with the people outside our doors, a new problem crops up: communication. Unlike at the first Pentecost, most of them know at least the bare bones of Jesus’ story, but they’ve never seen how that story connects with their own lives. We may speak the same language, but we use it differently. Words like sin, salvation, redemption, justification, grace, righteousness—all those nice churchy words that mean so much to us, are not part of their vocabulary. To a lot of non-churchgoers today, the word “sin” doesn’t mean much besides “a word that self-righteous jerks use to bash people they don’t like.” But sin hasn’t disappeared just because the word isn’t used by the general public. If you translate the concept of sin into words they’re more familiar with—brokenness, selfishness, violence, being twisted—people get what you’re talking about, even if they’ve never been to church in their lives. Because they’ve seen all those things, and the damage they do. The Holy Spirit led the first followers of Jesus to speak other languages so that they could spread the Good News; it’s calling us to find new ways to communicate with people in our community who share our language but have never connected with the Good News of Jesus Christ. May we, like the people at that first Pentecost, follow the Spirit’s call.