Acts 2:1-21; Psalm 104:24-34; 1 Corinthians 12:3b-13; John 20:19-23
Pr. Scott Kramer
When the day of Pentecost had come, the apostles were all together in one place…All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
When I visit China, or if I simply visit a local Chinese restaurant, when I say a few words of Chinese the person I’m speaking to smiles, and surprised, might say, “Oh, you speak Chinese!” Well, I do speak Chinese…a few words, anyway. Baby talk. But, it’s enough to establish a connection. Language has great power to build bridges!
It’s hard for those of us who were born in this country to relate. When we meet someone here from another culture, we take for granted that they will know at least some English. We expect people to meet us where we are.
The Day of Pentecost is sometimes called the “birthday of the Church,” and the coming of the Holy Spirit sends a very different message. It’s not about expecting others to meet us where we are: It’s about meeting others where they are!
At Pentecost we remember, first and foremost, that God meets us where we are! The Holy Spirit descends not as something alien and unfamiliar but in ordinary forms we recognize: as fire, water, wind, dove. Each time the Holy Spirit makes an appearance it’s a powerful mystery, but always it’s in down-to-earth forms that we recognize.
God meets us where we are. And, not simply for our own benefit, but…as an example of how we are to be in relation to others. When Jesus appears among his disciples following his resurrection, John tells us in this morning’s gospel, he says to them, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” To be “sent” by definition is to meet others where they are!
At Pentecost, we’re told, the apostles began to speak in other languages. But notice that the miracle in this story is not so much a miracle of speech as a miracle of hearing. In v.6, listen again to what’s going on: And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.
On one level the apostles were suddenly, inexplicably, speaking foreign languages. But apparently, it wasn’t a matter of one apostle speaking Greek, and another Hebrew and another Arabic, etc. At a deeper spiritual level, it seems that all the apostles were speaking a language that was understood by everybody!
What’s going on here? Somehow at the birth of the Church there is a common language spoken and understood by everyone. What is that universal language? English? Spanish? Chinese? Hindi? These would cover most of the world’s peoples today!
No, the native language of every human being is love. This is the God-given language that each of us is given before we’re even born. What we do with that language depends a lot on our early experience in the world. If the people we encounter—parents, teachers, etc.–also speak that language and encourage that language then we ourselves will likely become proficient and maybe even fluent in the language of love!
When I say “language of love” I’m not talking romance here. And I’m not talking about mere words because love is only words unless it’s put into action!
The experts tell us that every child is born with the ability to make any sound. All that babbling that babies do is just them experimenting, trying out all those different sounds. As each of us grows, of course, we keep only the sounds that are useful for our local language and forget the rest. This is one reason children tend to learn languages more easily than adults. Certain sounds in Chinese are still hard for me to make, even after almost 30 years!
Love is the God-given native language, embedded in the hearts of all people—sometimes buried miles deep, but it’s there! What we do with that love-language depends a lot upon the circumstances of our lives, but also the choices we make along the way. If we practice that love language and are taught or encouraged to use that language through deeds of love and surround ourselves with loving people love grows and flourishes. If that doesn’t happen, love tends to wither and die.
I think about this a lot, sometimes especially when I’m reading a newspaper. When, for example, I listen to the words and priorities of our new president I wonder, “What happened to this man, this child of God who like the rest of us was born with the language of love but who daily offers evidence that he has almost completely forgotten that language over the course of his 70 years?”
Or, when reading about crimes and cruelties that people commit against one another: The recent tragedy in Portland, for example, where a man threatens Muslim girls on board a light rail train and then stabs and kills two courageous men who confront him? Here is an angry, violent, hateful person who is also a child of God, like the rest of us born with the language of love but who somehow seems to have completely forgotten that language over the course of his 35 years.
In both of these examples, what is it? Bad parenting, bad choices, drugs, chemical imbalance, mental illness—there are many reasons people drift away from our inborn, God-given language of love.
But the language of love is universal, available as God’s free gift to all people. Our Pentecost story today emphasizes just how universal. It’s represented in the broad range of nations and cultures of the time. But there’s a detail in this story that reveals even more. Two nations appear in the list that are of special interest: Phrygia and Pamphylia—two of those names that Sunday morning readers dread trying to pronounce!
But these two are of special interest because on that first day of Pentecost—that first “birthday of the Church”—Phrygia and Pamphylia didn’t exist! They had at one time long before: Phrygia was a nation that was at its peak 500 years before the first Pentecost, and afterwards disappeared, long before that first Pentecost. Pamphylia was at its peak 1200 years before the first Pentecost, and also disappeared long before that first Pentecost!
So think of that! On that first Pentecost were represented peoples not just of that present time but of all times and all places, acknowledged and included in the broad embrace of God’s love.
Dear friends in Christ, two thousand years later we at Lakeridge Lutheran gather at worship each week as a small but powerful echo of that first Pentecost. We are, as our reading from Acts affirms in the words of the prophet Joel, a glimpse of a time in which “your young men shall see visions and your old men shall dream dreams…both men and women…” We, the people of this congregation, are black and brown and white and yellow. We are male and female. We are gay and straight. We are old and young. We speak English and Chinese and Japanese and German and Norwegian, and, as we remember especially today, Micronesian Chuukese!
But most importantly, regardless of what spoken or written language any of us use, we gather each week to remember and to practice our common native language, our God-given language of love. Learning a language is hard, but by the power of the Holy Spirit we develop over time an increasing capacity to mimic the all-encompassing love of God. Baptism, which we celebrate today, is the primary sign and reminder of that love language!
Sunday morning is the classroom in which we practice our native tongue so that we can go out, not expecting others to meet us where we are. Instead, we are sent out to meet others where they are, reaching friends and family and neighbors and strangers using a language they will recognize: our common, God-given, native language of love!