Scripture: Acts 2:1-21
Since I was little, I’ve loved learning languages. I love learning the ones that are relatively easy for a native English speaker, like Spanish; I like learning the hard-for-a-native-English-speaker ones, like Korean; I like learning the less-actively-useful-on-a-daily-basis ones, like ancient Hebrew. I know there are many of you here who speak second and third languages with a fluency I will never achieve in any of them, but even so, I have always loved the process of learning. I would mostly call this a hobby, but honestly I’ve also come to see it as almost a spiritual discipline in its own right. It’s not just about memorizing vocabulary or where the verb goes in a sentence. Rather, it’s about learning to see the world from a new perspective.
I had a seminary professor who was Indian and whose first language was Tamil who told us once that in English, if we want to describe someone who is kind and generous and hospitable, we say they are warm-hearted. But in Tamil you would say that person was cool-hearted. After all, south India is pretty hot already – it is something cool that is inviting, that offers you respite. I loved this example of how we don’t just use different words, but actually categorize things differently, things as basic as warm and cold.
I’m also very aware of the barriers to truly being able to see the world through the lens of a new language. For a time I was helping translate a friend’s old family letters from German. I studied German for years in school, and at one time I was reasonably good at it. As I read those letters, mostly, I understood the words, and if not they were easy to look up. But even so I was constantly aware that I could never really be sure that I understood the meaning behind the words, the tone and intention the author had given them. I could never really enter that perspective completely.
I like the story of Pentecost because it’s about speaking new languages. I have often wished for a kind of Pentecost moment where a switch was flipped and I was just able to instantaneously speak fluently to someone in another language.
Of course, I know that Pentecost is not fundamentally a story about language proficiency. It is a story of all those things that separate our lives and experiences and worldviews from one another, and how the church has room for all of us.
When the day of Pentecost arrives, we read in Acts 2, the disciples are all together in one place. Jesus has at this point died, risen, appeared to the disciples over a period of several weeks, and then ascended back into heaven with the promise that more is to come. The disciples are prayerfully waiting in Jerusalem for their baptism by the Holy Spirit before heading out on their mission to proclaim the good news of Jesus and resurrection and God’s love.
The disciples who were gathered in that place were an ethnically homogenous group of Jews from Galilee. However, the crowd of Jews that was gathered in Jerusalem that day came from all over the known world – from all over the Ancient Near East, Asia Minor, northern Africa, Rome. And, of course, they came with their own languages: Aramaic and Persian and Egyptian and Latin and Greek. They were all Jews – dispersed near and far by ancient political events – and all were gathered for the festival of Pentecost to celebrate both the spring harvest and the giving of the Ten Commandments. But even so, there were certainly deep differences among those people of many places and many tongues in how they experienced and understood the world.
Here’s what I think is cool: when the Holy Spirit arrives that day, in a rush of wind and tongues of fire, she doesn’t make everyone suddenly start speaking the same language. Instead, the disciples each begin to speak someone else’s language. Pentecost is not a story of homogenization or assimilation, but of how God breaks down those barriers that so often work to keep us apart. And so the disciples proclaim the good news of love and mercy and grace and resurrection – not in their own way or their own words, but so the people gathered around them can understand.
But again, Pentecost is not just a story about languages. I have said this before and I will say it again: one of my deepest beliefs is that the entire Gospel is a story of God breaking down the barriers we set up to divide ourselves from each other.
From the beginning, Jesus’ ministry is one of breaking down walls. He calls as disciples both tax-collectors who sold out to the Roman Empire and zealots who had vowed to resist. He touches and heals people whose illness made them untouchable. He interacts with women, as people, in ways that might cause the town gossips to talk, and he while he sees his mission as chiefly to the Jewish people, he answers the prayers of Romans and Canaanites alike. He sits down to dinner with people who have been told they are unwelcome in polite society. He preaches love for our enemies and forgiveness, that hard work of breaking down the personal barriers we set up between ourselves and those who have hurt or wronged us. Finally, he breaks down the barrier between life and death itself.
We might go back even farther and rightly say that this work of barrier-breaking doesn’t start with Jesus, but is how God has been working in history all along: commanding God’s people to welcome immigrants, incorporating foreigners like Rahab and Ruth into God’s story, sending prophets like Jonah into enemy territory to give them a second chance.
On Pentecost, as the baby church receives the gift of the Holy Spirit, this work of God simply takes on its next shape. It doesn’t stop with languages: as Peter speaks to the crowds gathered on the street below, he calls this the fulfillment of prophecy: “On those days I will pour my Spirit out on all flesh,” God said once through the prophet Joel: young and old, male and female, rich and poor, slave and free. The Holy Spirit does not discriminate. One by one, she breaks down our walls.
And when the people of this new church head out in mission, that is the work they will do as well.
They will preach God’s word first right there in Jerusalem, and in the rest of Judea and even the religiously suspect nearby land of Samaria, and then to the ends of the earth. They will proclaim the story of Jesus to a eunuch, a sexually marginalized person, from Ethiopia. They will accept as one of them the worst Christian-hater they know. They will reach Jewish communities in Greek-speaking places. Eventually they will decide to let Gentiles, non-Jews, in as well, because they see the work that God is already doing among the people they once considered outside the fold.
The barriers that the Holy Spirit is tearing down are barriers of language, but they are also barriers of culture, gender, status, religious background and social propriety. She is tearing down walls put up by society, walls put up by individual prejudice and bigotry, even walls put up by religious tradition.
The story of God and the story of the church is a story of those walls, one by one, coming down.
Now let me confess something to you.
That part of this sermon, all of those words I just said to you, came easy. They came easy because it is a beautiful story and a beautiful idea that God is bigger than our differences, that the Holy Spirit transcends them, that our job as the church to keep breaking down those barriers and tearing down those walls. And when I say it’s a beautiful story I don’t say that dismiss it as if it is just a fantasy, because like I said, I believe in the core of my being that it is true.
This part of the sermon, the part that is coming, is the part that I put off for too long and stayed up too late writing, because I didn’t know how to put it in words or how to make it sound hopeful. Because the truth is I despair of the divisions that I see and feel all around us. And the truth is I hate appeals to unity that try to simply paper over those divisions, because they are about real things, things Jesus maybe even cares about. And the truth is, I suppose, that there are certain walls I’d rather keep up. And I’m not always sure what to do with all that.
It’s no secret to anyone who lives in the United States that there are walls dividing us. We live in red states or blue states; we watch different news and can’t even agree on what is true or false, and we demonize each other constantly.
This fact itself is often lamented, and yet our differences are over important things – not just the languages we speak, but, more often, what our values and priorities are; how we believe we can best keep ourselves safe; how we treat certain groups of people. Do I really believe the Holy Spirit can transcend these differences? And do I really believe that all differences should even be transcended? What would Pentecost look like in the US today?
Well, to be fair, the work of the Holy Spirit has never been to bring us together as a country. Her work is to bring us together as the church.
But don’t even get me started on the church – the global church, that is. The church might be in a worse state than the country. Many of those same political divisions are alive and well in the Body of Christ, and to those we can add some serious theological differences as well. We can’t seem to agree on what we believe or what it all means or what exactly it is we’re doing here. And sometimes I admit it’s easy to get the angriest at fellow Christians who I think have gotten it all wrong! We want to dissociate ourselves from each other: “I’m not that kind of Christian.”
Even and especially in our own denomination, the United Methodist Church, these days, this seems to be the case, and maybe because it’s so close to home, this is the divisive-ness that wounds me most of all. You know I’ve stood up here from time to time and updated you on our continued denominational fight over same-sex marriage and the ordination of LGBT people, which we will be spending several million dollars on next February when we have a special General Conference to vote on whether we can find a way forward through our disagreements without splitting. It’s fashionable in the midst of all of this to make appeals to unity, and yet it seems like no matter how you slice it, unity for some means exclusion for others. I fear we will end up unified around the wrong things, and again, I despair, and sometimes, honestly, it makes me want to give up on the church altogether.
I struggled all week with the fact that when I read the Pentecost story, all I hear is a story of unity. And I’m burnt out on unity. I didn’t want to preach on unity. Oh, sure, I can preach on speaking different languages – but, in the end, that’s not what really divides us, is it?
But it’s not my story, so I guess this is where I bring all of my doubts and reservations and struggles and wounds and let God’s story speak in spite of myself.
I really do believe that the Holy Spirit’s work is to break down the walls that keep us from each other. It’s a beautiful story and a beautiful idea until she comes for one of the walls that I’m struggling to hold up.
And yet, I have to say this, too: I have seen the Holy Spirit doing this work in the church.
I remember a trip I once took to Tangier Island, in the Chesapeake Bay with a group of other church-related young adults. We were on a trip called an ecological pilgrimage, planting seagrass and learning about overfishing in the Bay and attempts to restore it to health. On Tangier we talked to fishermen and crabbers whose livelihood and heritage both were threatened by restrictions on overfishing, who thought they were an example of government overreach. That Wednesday night we went to church on the island, and, as our group leader pointed out, the church was maybe the only place where people with different perspectives on this issue and others ever found themselves in the same place.
I don’t always like that fact, but there is something beautiful in that, too. And the most difficult, unlikely, beautiful thing is that the Holy Spirit doesn’t paper over our differences. She doesn’t make us all speak the same language. She just makes us the church, together.
I think of a man I once knew from a church I interned in. At first, he was someone I did not like. Though we were both native English-speakers, he often spoke in certain religious language that did not come naturally to me. We disagreed on many things. I felt he said the wrong things, even offensive things, in the way he sometimes talked about the poor in our community, in the assumptions he seemed to make about them. If there was a wall I put up between myself and this person, certainly it was a Jesus-approved wall, a wall put up in defense of the most vulnerable people in our community.
But then I realized that this man also sought those same poor people out and made an effort to befriend them. He brought them meals. He listened to them and prayed with them. He invited some of them into his home. In other words – while it so often seemed like we were talking past each other, speaking different languages, there he was living out the teachings of Jesus more authentically, probably, than I ever had.
And a wall came down.
This is not a sermon about how our differences don’t matter. This is not a sermon about unity as our highest goal. This is a sermon about Pentecost, and how the Holy Spirit continues her work of breaking down the barriers that divide us, sometimes joyfully and sometimes against our will, and how that has been the case from the beginning of God’s story.
And if, like me, you sometimes struggle with what that means and how that looks, then I guess let’s struggle with it together.
Because Pentecost is the beginning of the church’s mission, and this is our work now, too.
Are you ready to break down some walls?