Amazed and Perplexed
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You’d really have to not be paying attention if you haven’t noticed by now that today is Pentecost.
Pentecost simply means: “fiftieth day.”
In Jesus day, this was the day marking fifty days after Passover, the festival of Shavuot - the day when the very beginning of the spring harvest was celebrated, when the first fruit of the growing season were offered to God.
In another layer of new beginnings and first fruit, Christians mark this day as the fiftieth day after Easter - the day when the Holy Spirit rushed in with surprising ferocity and sent everyone out from behind the closed doors they’d been spending so much time being afraid behind. So hear now God’s words for you this morning in Luke’s telling of the Pentecost story from the book of Acts 2:1-21:
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2 And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3 Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
5 Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6 And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. 7 Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 9 Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11 Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” 12 All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” 13 But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”
14 But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. 15 Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. 16 No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:
17 ‘In the last days it will be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams.
18 Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
and they shall prophesy.
19 And I will show portents in the heaven above
and signs on the earth below,
blood, and fire, and smoky mist.
20 The sun shall be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood,
before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.
21 Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’
This past Monday, like many of the Mondays before, we welcomed 100 people through our doors who are seeking asylum in our country. Each person empty handed except for the harrowing stories they carry and the small children who need their attention.
When they walk through our doors, our church becomes the first place in a long time where they feel safe - and that is a powerful thing to be part of. Last Monday we had an unusually high number of small squirmy children, and one of our volunteers was determined to read a book to them, despite the small obstacle of not speaking the same language. Delighted to find a simple children’s book in both English and Spanish, Emily sat down with a little boy who was very enthusiastic about this idea that had been mimed to him. About halfway through the story we realized that he only understood Portuguese. Emily continued in English and butchered Spanish to our little Portuguese speaker and everyone had a fabulous time.
Throughout the evening, despite the three different languages we were all dancing around, on a human level we all understood each other in this common experience of love and compassion. Every week it feels like a Pentecost moment in this sense.
And yet, every week we do struggle with language when it comes down to the logistics. From the confused looks on children’s faces when I don’t understand the simple question they’re asking me, to requests for translators proficient in medical terms, to the moment when I realize that my very sad attempt at Spanish was wasted on a Portuguese speaker who looks amused.
I’ve become proficient in charades to communicate things like “time for dinner!” “does your baby need a fresh diaper?” and “wait here while I find someone to translate!”
Sometimes the chaos of the night reminds me more of the story of the Tower of Babel rather than Pentecost.
You know how the story goes: The descendants of Noah have been commanded to go out into all the earth to be fruitful and multiply, but when we reach Genesis 11, instead of scattering and multiplying, in an act of perhaps both pride and fear, they decide to build a city with a tall tower. A tower meant to symbolically reach the heavens. A city meant to keep them together and safe from being scattered across the face of the earth.
Even though the tower they’re building is so tall, God still has to come down to see what humans are up to, and God is not pleased with their pride and misplaced motivations. Instead of finishing their tower, they are scattered abroad and given different languages in place of the one common one they had spoken during their prideful building campaign.
Many commentators connect this story to Pentecost, and in fact, today the lectionary offers it to us as the suggested reading from the Hebrew Scriptures. On one level it’s an obvious fit – the clear communication of Pentecost as a resolution to the confusion of languages at Babel.
While both of these stories are interesting and important to read together, there’s a danger in simply describing the unifying of Pentecost as a resolution to the division of Babel. To read it this way is to suggest that diversity is a curse and that uniformity is our ideal. And while unity is a major theme in Scripture, uniformity certainly is not. Notice here, at Pentecost the Holy Spirit did not reinstate one common language, but spoke through the diversity of languages present that day in Jerusalem. The diversity of God’s people is a gift and not an obstacle!
Luke tries to describe the strange scene that day, saying that divided tongues of fire came to rest over everyone’s head. If that doesn’t sound weird to you then you’re not paying attention… divided tongues of fire?? Nobody is quite sure what he means by divided tongues, but I have to wonder if it has something to do with the variety of languages being spoken.
The fire part of this Pentecost symbol perhaps makes more sense. All of us here understand how unsettling it would be to see fire resting over everyone’s head. No wonder the reaction from the crowd is astonishment, bewilderment, and perplexity!
The late, beloved, writer Rachel Held Evans wrote a reflection on the symbolism of fire at Pentecost, and it’s too good not to share this to you now, she writes:
The Spirit is like fire, deceptively polite in its dance atop the wax and wick of our church candles, but wild and mercurial as a storm when unleashed. Fire holds no single shape, no single form. It can roar through a forest or fulminate in a cannon. It can glow in hot coals or flit about in embers. But it cannot be held. The living know it indirectly—through heat, through light, through tendrils of smoke snaking through the sky, through the scent of burning wood, through the itch of ash in the eye. Fire consumes. It creates in its destroying and destroys in its creating. The furnace that smelts the ore drives off slag, and the flame that refines the metal purifies the gold. The fire that torches a centuries-old tree can crack open her cones and spill out their seeds. When God led the people through the wilderness, the Spirit blazed in a fire that rested over the tabernacle each night. And when God made the church, the Spirit blazed in little fires that rested over the people’s heads. “Quench not the Spirit,” the apostle wrote. It is as necessary and as dangerous as fire, so stay alert; pay attention. (from “Searching for Sunday”)
Like Rachel describes, fire creates and fire destroys. Fire can be dangerous and deserves our attention. Fire cannot be held. And in all these ways, fire is like language. Language is powerful.
More was happening that first Pentecost Sunday than people merely speaking different languages. This wasn’t just the Holy Spirit’s cool party trick. More was happening – it was amazing and dangerous, and it filled the crowds with wonder and trepidation.
Sometimes when people talk about this passage they note that there were pilgrims in Jerusalem for the festival and that’s why there were so many languages present. But if you read carefully, the text actually says “there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem” - turns out, these were immigrants. Not pilgrims. And as immigrants subject to the power of the Roman Empire, they would have been required to have at least some proficiency in Greek. Like the authorities in Babel, the Roman rulers knew that a forced common language was essential to maintaining control.
But on Pentecost, the Holy Spirit spoke the good news not in the language of empire, but in everyone’s mother tongue – in the language of their heart, the language that had shaped their souls, the language they had known at birth from the lips of their mother - this language now speaking good news of a new kind of birth.
On Pentecost, nobody controlled the message that day except the Holy Spirit. Not the empire. Not even the original disciples. As God promised through the prophet Isaiah:
so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and succeed in the thing for which I sent it. (Isaiah 55:11)
Fire cannot be held. Neither can God’s Word. This should fill all of us here with the same astonishment as the crowds gathered in Jerusalem.
It’s at the same moment, both terrifying and liberating.
The good news in everyone’s mother tongue – perhaps that’s too familiar of a concept for us today to realize how dangerous this has been through history.
At the dawn of the Reformation in Europe, more than a few people gave their lives to the venture of translating Scripture into the vernacular. To do so challenged the authority of the church in Rome - because to control the language is to control the message.
While today’s church is different, and we highly value this kind of translation, we are still humans and we really like order and control. As a Presbyterian institution, we like to plan and vote and bring things to committee. Don’t get me wrong – I think these things are important. But the Pentecost story pushes us to wonder at how the Spirit can move in new, unexpected directions and take us all by surprise and in ways that call into question old ways of doing this work. Pentecost asks us: In what new way might the Holy Spirit speak the good news in different mother tongues? In different decades? In different generations? In different corners of the earth? Where will the wild, uncontrollable wind of the Spirit take the church in the future?
In a Pentecost blogpost last week by writer Katherine Hawkerself – she notes that:
“In a sweet bit of irony, there is no story more anti-institutional than the one that is read to celebrate the birth of the institutional church”
It’s a story full of life and breath, bewilderment and joy. It’s a story that might challenge our human instinct to cling to the familiar. But today, may we have ears to hear, hearts to understand, minds curious enough to wonder, and courage enough to follow as the Spirit breathes and sends us both bewildered and joyful into an unknown future. May it be so, this Pentecost and always. Amen.