6.12.11 sermon notes
Acts 2:1-21 Pentecost
We don’t know what to do with the Holy Spirit – at least we Presbyterians don’t always know what to do. Look at the liturgical calendar – out of 52 Sundays, the Spirit only gets this one all to herself! The Spirit is by far the hardest to describe, the most unpredictable member of the Trinity for sure.
Presbyterians are affectionately (and not so affectionately) referred to as the “frozen chosen”. Is it any wonder we are a little unclear about how to handle the fiery wind of the Spirit? But there is much for us to reclaim about the Spirit, and this text from Acts is a wonderful place to start.
The Pentecost story take place early in Acts, when the fledgling Christian Church was pretty small – most estimates are that those who “were all together in one place” in this story probably numbered only 120 or so people – made up of the original disciples who had been with Jesus and some of the women and men who had begun to join the movement during Jesus’ life and after his resurrection. Men and women, young and old, rich and poor – gathered together in this place. And something amazing happens there: The Holy Spirit joins the party. And despite the social and cultural barriers that would usual distinguish between these people, everyone there receives the gift of speaking in other languages. As one preacher notes, “the Holy Spirit does not have a tendency to discriminate based on our human standards” (Aymer, Feasting on the Word).
Then the text tells us that “there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem.” Often, this group gets described as pilgrims, religious tourists passing through for the Jewish festival of Pentecost. But that’s not what the text says – they were people from other nations, living in Jerusalem. They were immigrants. They probably would have learned Greek, since that was the language the Roman military and of commerce at that time in the city. But they would have likely continued to speak their native languages in their homes, with their communities of fellow immigrants. So how amazing must this have been for them to hear people who weren’t from their community speaking their language – speaking of the glories of God!
This story makes clear that the good news is a whole lot easier to share when someone can understand what you are saying. But I worry that 2000 years later, we have too easily slipped back into the comfort of speaking one language and expecting others who come into our communities to learn our language. We have forgotten that the Spirit does not discriminate, and that all kinds of people are included in this thing we call church. And to be hospitable, shouldn’t we be speaking as many languages as possible? Now, I am not just talking about English verses other languages here, although that can be helpful too. I am talking about the languages of our lives and our experiences: the language of our worship, the language of our denomination. We assume everyone knows why we do what we do in worship. We assume that everyone who comes into this sanctuary knows how to read. We assume that the way we think and talk about God makes sense to others. And let me just say that I am just as guilty of this as anyone else. And I am not sure that we will ever do this perfectly. But we need to be mindful of the language we speak and who we may be excluding when we are not willing to learn and speak theirs.
So if, as one scholar says, Pentecost marks the day when “Christianity became a religion with a divine sanction to multilingualism and to translation”, how are we doing in that area?
-How well do we speak the language of the poor in our community?
-How well do we speak the language of people who did not grow up in the Presbyterian church, or any church at all?
-How well do we speak the language of immigrants in our midst?
-How well do we speak the language of children?
-How well do we speak the language of those who feel excluded by the church?
Who is not able to hear the good news of Jesus Christ that we have to offer, because we are not willing to trust that God can help us speak their language? Whose gifts are we missing out on, because we are not providing a way for them to be shared in our community?
I am so grateful to Kevin Brown for mentioning Kathleen Norris’ book Amazing Grace at our Bible study last week. I began looking through it and remembered that she had a chapter on Pentecost. A Presbyterian by tradition, she recounts her experience of visiting a Pentecostal worship service with a friend. I want to close with her account and reflections on this service, because it offers a beautiful picture of the body of Christ:
Admitting that there were some issues of theology that made her uncomfortable, Norris writes: “But during that service…”*
*Kathleen Norris – Amazing Grace, p. 348-9