"Divided Tongues...Whatever They Are" – Acts 2:1-21
Occasionally I have prayed that the Biblical story of the giving of the tongues at Pentecost would take place in my own life – typically when I have been sitting at a desk with a language exam in front of me. I would pray and pray that the Holy Spirit would descend from heaven and fill me with the ability to translate a paragraph or conjugate the list of verbs. Often at such times I would feel the presence of the Spirit, but far from enabling me to speak a new language, it always bore the same annoying message: “You should have studied more!”
In my life I have studied five foreign languages: Spanish, French, Chinese, Ancient Greek, and Biblical Hebrew. Lest you think I’m saying that in order to impress you, let me clarify. I’m not saying I know five languages; and I certainly don’t remember enough of even one of them to consider myself bi-lingual.
Some of my best friends are bi-lingual. One spring break in college I accompanied four such friends on a trip to Mexico. Not the resort areas of Mexico, but a trek through the heart of Mexico – staying with local people, exploring off the beaten path. I was the only one who didn’t speak fluent Spanish. There is nothing quite as unnerving as being in a large group and being the only one who doesn’t understand what is being said. It was humbling and disconcerting. Whether it was just the five of us, or when we were with a group of locals, every time the group laughed I automatically assumed they were laughing at me.
We’ve probably all felt this way at one time or another. When we don’t understand what is going on or what is being said, we feel powerless. When we feel powerless we become defensive and stand-offish; everyone becomes a threat. And when we view and treat others as a threat, we give others cause to say things about us in that language we don’t understand. It is a vicious cycle built upon the irrational fear of the other: the other person, the other idea, the other perspective.
It is this context of fear and the inability to comprehend that the story of the apostles at Pentecost begins. In the last few days they have witnessed the betrayal and execution of their teacher. The betrayer, once their brother, died a brutal death. Their teacher, once dead, was alive, but had once again left them. They had little understanding of what was happening to them. They were terrified of the violent world outside their door. So, the apostles stayed huddled together in the relative safety of their home.
Into this scene, a loud noise, like the sound of a rushing wind, filled the house. Divided tongues (I don’t know what divided tongues are, but the writer says it was something like a flame) came to rest on them and they began to speak other languages. They began to speak in a way that made sense to the people outside their doors.
This story plays off of a similar story from the Old Testament about people speaking other languages – the Tower of Babel. In that story, the people of the earth used their one common language to conspire to build a monument to their own greatness and ascend to a level where they would become their own Gods. As punishment, God tore down the tower, scattered the people, and made them speak in various languages.
The Pentecost story picks up where Babel left off. The people are scattered across every nation under heaven; each nation and culture speaking their own language. God sends the Holy Spirit to enable the disciples to speak to and listen to people from every race, religion, and nationality. There is no call for a common language, but rather a call for common understanding:
The Holy Spirit fills the disciples with the common understanding that God’s promises are inclusive. This common understanding is so crystal clear that even Peter gets it (this is the same Peter who elsewhere in the gospels is always the one who says and does things that prove he hasn't quite grasped what Jesus is trying to teach him). Endowed with this new common understanding, Peter finally understands the message the prophet Joel brought from God centuries before when he said, “I will pour out my Spirit on all people..sons and daughters…young men…old men…even slaves…everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”
Each of us, at one time or another, realizes we are afraid of the world outside of the walls we have built around our lives. We don’t understand the languages being spoken around us. We don’t understand the younger generations; we don’t understand the older generations; we no longer understand our generation.
Into such scenes, we pray for a loud noise, like the sound of a rushing wind, to fill our homes and our church. We pray for divided tongues (whatever they are) to come and rest on us – to give us the ability to speak to and comprehend the languages, customs and ideas of people who are different from us. We pray that the Spirit would enable us, as disciples of Jesus, to speak in a way that makes sense to the people outside our doors.
Into our homes and into our church we pray for a new experience of Pentecost.
We desire an experience of the Holy Spirit that will remind us that we are God’s beloved creation and as such we are so much greater than our insecurities, fear, and pain. We desire an experience of the Holy Spirit that will send us out as God’s beautiful hands and feet in the world – revealing joy where there was pain, and hope where there was loss.
This is a curious and tumultuous time in the life of the worldwide church. There are voices on either side of church walls instigating hatred and fear towards the other. There is great apathy on the part of Christians who mistakenly think their faith is simply a ticket to heaven, as opposed to a way of life.
The solutions to the problems facing the church will not be solved by advocating intolerance, arrogance, isolation and disillusion. Rather, we cling onto hope in the face of despair; peace in the presence of hatred; and unity in spite of our division.
The Holy Spirit is the mighty wind that will blows the church into new and unexpected places of ministry. No one here knows where the Spirit will take us. Being a disciple of Jesus in this windstorm will bring the church, and you along with it, to unexpected places, and unexpected grace. It may only be in retrospect, and with inspired interpretation, that one day we can look back and recognize the Spirit’s driving wind rather than simply a frighteningly chaotic storm.
May the noise of the Spirit instruct you in the ways of peace. May the wind of the Spirit propel you along pathways filled with new people speaking unfamiliar languages. May the fire of the Spirit burn away your fears and insecurities and free you to live as the beautiful creature God made you to be. Amen.