Text: Acts 2:1-13
I wonder how many languages we have represented here – that we can speak or at least partially understand. We speak English, Spanish, Japanese, some Chinese, German, sing language… What others?…. Some of you speak fluently in the language of music, its notations, its layers of meaning, its references to itself and beyond itself, each instrument speaking its own dialect. Some of you are attuned to the language of mathematics, the language of psychology, of physiology, the language of politics, of design, the language of computer programming – a foreign language indeed. There is the language of children which parents learn to understand, perceiving within a moment the messages after a day at school which say, “It was a hard day,” or “today was awesome.” There is the language each couple has developed between themselves to express their affection, and their frustrations. There’s the unique language between siblings and friends, laced with inside jokes and obscure references to favorite movie quotes. Who here knows the language of the chickadee, chattering away with their companion calls, their signaling of danger, and talking about lunch. Who can understand the milkweed, speaking, “Here I am” to the monarch butterfly looking for a place to lay its eggs. Who can walk into a forest and hear the language of the trees, telling the story of the place, revealing the gifts and the limitations of the soil in which they are rooted, pronouncing themselves into a canopy of language.
Acts chapter two records the coming of the Holy Spirit during the feast of Pentecost. The feast happened 50 days after the Passover celebration, which, for the group gathered in that upper room, equated to the same amount of time since their master had been killed as a common criminal at the hands of the Roman state, with the approval of their own religious authorities. Since that time Jesus had appeared, in resurrected form, to many of them, but one of these appearances involved Jesus ascending into the clouds and out of sight – which signaled that he was now gone, and would not be available again in that form to his friends and followers.
This group was faced with the almost unimaginable: a world without Jesus. A world without the presence of this one who had so altered their lives, overturned their priorities, shaken everything they thought they knew, and offered something so risky and so beautiful they couldn’t help but follow. Jesus had died. Jesus had risen. But Jesus was gone.
And then, this Pentecost gathering when about 120 of them were all in the same place, and suddenly there came a sound like the rush of violent wind, which filled the whole house where they were staying. And something like a tongue, a flame of fire, rested on each one of them, and they were filled up with Holy Spirit, and they started speaking in other languages.
What does it look like, what does it sound like, when the Holy Spirit shows up? What happens? According to Acts chapter 2, what happens when the Holy Spirit shows up, is that everyone participates in another language.
The apostle Paul addresses a phenomenon called the gift of tongues in his first letter to the Corinthian believers. As it was practiced in that community, speaking in tongues involved a member standing up at a gathering and speaking in a spiritual language that no one else, not even the speaker, understood. As Paul instructed them, when this happened, the group should wait to see if someone else was inspired to interpret what it might mean. And if no one was given that inspiration, the original speaker should be silent, and worship proceed forward in an orderly way. As we can imagine, this might get tricky, possibly bordering on spiritual anarchy, and it was one of the many issues Paul felt the need to carefully address with the Corinthians. Modern day charismatic and Pentecostal groups have revived this practice of speaking in tongues, sometimes having the same kinds of challenges as those early Corinthians. Some of you trace your own spiritual lineage through these movements.
The phenomenon being described in Acts 2 is different than the one for the Corinthians. According to Acts, this small group was speaking in actual known languages, that were understood by those who happened to witness this spectacle. Because it was a festival, Jews and converts from all over the world were gathered in Jerusalem, from hard to pronounce places like Phrygia and Pamphilia, and more familiar places like Egypt and Libya and Rome. Europe, Africa, and Asia all converged in this one city, and, as Acts describes, everyone heard this group from the rural hills of Galilee speaking in their own language. “Amazed and astonished, they asked, ‘Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?’” “What does this mean?” they later ask.
If you’ve ever studied a foreign language, you know it takes a whole lot more that a burst of wind and flash of flame to speak and understand. This is hard work. Some of you are dedicating, or already dedicated, a good portion of your young adulthood to the rigorous language school that goes by those three letters P. H. D. – thoroughly immersing yourself inside the intricacies and nuances of your subject matter. For those of us who have not learned your particular language, this can feel like you are speaking more in the tongues of the Corinthians than the tongues of Acts. Is there an interpreter in the house? But you know the rewards of plumbing the depths of that language, and the wisdom and insight it can unlock. Even though you may forget it some days, your pursuit of this language is motivated by love. And perhaps, in good time, you will contribute your own word.
In a different vein, in our intimate relationships, author Gary Chapman encourages us to do the work of learning the particular love language of our partner. This too is hard work. He speaks of five love languages, each of us tending to feel most loved when our partner speaks our primary and secondary languages to us. There is the language of giving gifts, the language of quality time spent together, the language of affirmation and praise, the language of service to and with one another, and the language of physical touch. Which of these languages most communicates love to you?
What happens when the Holy Spirit shows up? A miracle. We participate in a new language, we participate in giving and receiving love.
If you’ve ever been surrounded by speakers of a language other than your own, you’ve had the gift of needing to ponder how these seemingly arbitrary and strange sounds could ever have any meaning at all. How is it that the passage of breath through tongue and teeth can form a wave pattern in the air that vibrates inside our head and becomes an expression of meaning? Words that can teach or argue or make us laugh. What becomes strange is not this foreign language, but the idea of any language, including our own, being capable of having any meaning at all.
The 19th century Scottish author and minister George MacDonald, whose essays and fantasy stories had a major influence on CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien, once wrote “The miracles of Jesus were the ordinary works of his Father, wrought small and swift that we might take them in.”
Like the miracle at the wedding in Cana when Jesus turned water into wine, something the Creator does every day through the rains that come down and are taken up into the roots of the grape vine, combined with sugars photosynthesized in the leaves, picked and crushed and given time for bacteria to do the work of fermentation. Come back a while later and whalla – water into wine – a miracle.
The gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost brings about the miracle of speaking other languages, and hearing words spoken to you in your native language. An ordinary Divine work, wrought small and swift, so we might take it in.
The biblical tradition has such a high view of language that both Old and New Testaments portray language not as a creation of humanity, but of humanity as a creation of language. Actually all of creation as a creation of language. How is the world created in Genesis? How is the primordial chaos overcome and given shape? It is through the Divine word. Language precedes creation, and each language of our making is a mere shard of the Divine word, a dim window into something much more profound. John’s gospel begins by proclaiming “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” All things came into being through the word.
What happens when the Holy Spirit shows up? “How is it, that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?” ask the perplexed witnesses at Pentecost. “What does this mean?”
There’s a group of us who have been studying the Gospel of Mark during the Sunday school hour, a chapter a week. Last week we looked at chapter 15, which includes the death of Jesus. We noted how Mark uses this seemingly meaningless event – the unjust suffering and death of an innocent man – as the centerpiece for the creation of an entirely new structure of meaning. According to Mark’s imagery and symbols, drawing from the language of his day, Jesus’ death is the apocalyptic moment of history, when all the powers that seem to be in charge are shaken, and come crumbling apart, and something else is revealed. The entire meaning structure of reality had been forged by the Roman Empire – where you give your allegiance, what it means to live at peace, what kind of power runs the world – an entire language that structured the consciousness, and the unconscious, of people under its sway. But in killing Jesus, this way of making meaning in the world is exposed as a fraud – not a giver of peace, but a perpetuator of injustice. Not a thing worthy of allegiance, but something to be resisted. In the cross event, the whole thing crumbles, the lights go dark, the ground shakes, and the curtain is torn open. Even though Christ appears to be just one more victim devoured by the beast, he becomes the creator of a whole new structure of meaning, a new language, a new way of making sense of how to live and what it means to be human. The Word speaks, and, a miracle, a new creation is enabled to flow out of this chaotic and horrendous scene.
It’s in the wake of this event, 50 days following, at Pentecost, that the Holy Spirit is poured out. The Holy Spirit is not a thing, like one more object or character in the room. The Holy Spirit is that which illuminates all other things, all languages, in light of this new meaning structure. Holy Spirit speaks the native language of anyone willing to listen. It’s a language not of euphemisms and half-truths, and manipulation, and dominance and conformity to a singular power structure, but a language always pointing back to the centerpiece of love, which is the interpretive key of all languages and all relationships. It’s a language native to all of us, even if we’ve forgotten it, like a distant memory of a homeland we left long ago.
To live within love is to live under the canopy of this language, and to live filled with the Holy Spirit.
St Augustine is famous for saying, “Love, and do whatever you will.” In other words, if you live within love, then everything, anything, can become an expression of that love, and give glory to the ultimate source of love. You will find it in any language you choose to speak, in any vocation you pursue, in any relationship in which you engage.
And you will discover that there is no need to fit your life into the dominant language, because the Spirit will speak to you in your native language, and you are becoming a part of the new creation which flows fresh from the Word.