The Day of Pentecost

The Very Reverend Steve Lipscomb, Dean
Acts 2;1-11; John 14:7-17, [25-27]

It is the custom at some churches on the Day of Pentecost (just as we have done this morning) to arrange for a simultaneous or consecutive reading of the gospel or one of the other of today’s scripture lessons in multiple languages. The idea, the symbolism, of course, is to remind everyone of that first Day of Pentecost, when people “from every nation under heaven” heard the disciples proclaim the Good News “in the native language of each,” as today’s reading from Acts states. The only problem with the idea is that the net effect is sometimes more one of Babel than of Pentecost.

You remember the Tower of Babel from the Book of Genesis: the story of humankind’s pride in trying to reach the heavens on its own power and of God’s response or punishment which left the entire world tongue-tied. Ever since then understanding and cooperation have been hard to come by.

Our world is still tongue-tied. What can be misunderstood will be misunderstood. But Babel, the parable of our first clash of cultures and failure to communicate, is more than a mythic explanation of the differences among nations and languages. It is an apt description of the human condition itself. We often don’t understand one another even when we speak the same language. We all remain stymied by our fundamental inability to accept the differences among us in how we live and what we believe.

But is it really God who has scattered us, who has made us aliens in our own land and sometimes in our own minds? Is it really the Lord who has confused our speech and turned us deaf to each other? Or is Babel perhaps the allegory of how humanity forgot the grammar of grace and the vocabulary of God? At Babel, the people in their pride built a tower to reach God and the heavens, and the Lord confused and scattered them. “This is only the beginning of what they will do,” predicted God in judgment of human sin and conceit. Sadly, the people little understood how unnecessary it all was. As one preacher has pointed out, God is always more willing to come down and join us here on earth than we are able to reach the heavens by our own enterprise and effort.

At Pentecost, the Spirit of God comes down upon the disciples, resting on each of them and thereby bringing them—and us—together once again. The disciples get a crash course in the language of God. It should be fair to say that after Pentecost the days of Babel are over. The great differences among us, in communication and dialogue, culture and background, wealth and poverty, are scattered in “the rush of a violent wind.” As Acts tells us, the differences are burned away by tongues of fire. It doesn’t matter whether we are Parthians and Medes of old, or Americans, Europeans, and Iraqis of today.

Well, that is what is supposed to have happened at Pentecost. So, how come we still fail to understand each other? Why doesn’t everyone speak the same language? Or at least understand the world in the same way? Is the promise of Pentecost stronger or weaker than judgment of Babel? Good questions.

What happened at Pentecost is important to who we are as followers of Christ, but the power and reality of Pentecost is universal. The disciples addressed not just believers but the peoples of the whole known world, who spoke in a multitude of languages. But what the disciples said made sense to all of them. What they spoke was no doubt the language of peace as they had learned it from our Lord himself. “Peace be with you,” he said to the disciples in today’s Gospel account. These are words that can be understood by everyone.

Perhaps the greatest marvel of Pentecost is that the peoples gathered at Jerusalem heard the disciples at all amid the din of the city and the bustle of their own lives. But hear them they did, each of them comprehending the message of the Gospel not only in Hebrew and Greek, the common languages of that time and place, but in the language of the human heart. Now as then, all nations and peoples yearn to hear words of forgiveness and peace. But we do not live in a world that likes to listen. Too often we hear what we want to hear and simply call it the voice of God.

So if our lives and our world are more full of babble than Bible, perhaps it’s because we aren’t taking the time to listen. We haven’t learned the language of the Spirit. We pay lip service with a few words of God-talk here and there and perhaps say our prayers together as a family or at church on Sunday. But it’s not the language of our everyday discourse, is it?

You know, all language about God is only an approximation to the reality of God. & We talked about this in our Confirmation class just a couple of weeks ago. There is no way that human language (or the human mind) can fully comprehend the divine mystery. No one owns the truth. No one owns God. But the more we listen—to that still, small, voice—the closer we come to God. And the closer we come, the more there is to hear and understand of “God’s deeds of power” and great love for us. And then, just when we think we may finally have this God business all figured out, God surprises us yet again and challenges us to delve deeper: to love those we cannot possibly love and to forgive the unforgivable.

Paul tells us in his First Letter to the Corinthians, “There are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit. And there are varieties of service, but the same Lord. And there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone.” The Spirit, though one, is never contained. It is wild and at work in each of us, always fresh and always new, waiting and willing and ready to be translated into the language of our own lives. But it is only to the extent that we make an effort to accept the other, no matter how different or foreign, that we come to understand the language of God. Only then is Babel turned to Pentecost.

As the Spirit used the mouths of the disciples on Pentecost to reshape and redirect the lives of those who listened to their words, so the Spirit on this Pentecost will reshape and mold us if we will but listen. After all, God speaks to us in the one abiding word that ends fear and brings lasting peace—the Word- Made-Flesh, Jesus Christ our Lord.

And today we call upon that same Word and Spirit as we receive two new disciples, John Patrick and Lily Ann into this community of faith.
Open your eyes and ears, O faithful people. Watch the Holy Spirit descend upon them and us. Listen for the rush of a mighty wind. Feel the tongues of fire as it warms our hearts. Know the power and the love of God; and celebrate this Day of Pentecost. In the Name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.