God's Open House

Sunday, May 20, 2018

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I want to take a look at Pentecost from a different perspective than I usually do. Most of the time, as a person of the church I start inside the place where the disciples are gathered. I think of Pentecost from the perspective of the church, from the people who are inside, who experienced the Holy Spirit as tongues of fire and flame. But I want to think for a second about the people on the outside: the crowd that shows up partway through the story.

Luke tells us that there were devout Jews from all over the world in Jerusalem at this time. He then gives us this long list of nations, the Parthians, Medes, Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, and Cappadocians and parts of Libya belonging to the Cyrene, who are all in Jerusalem.

A lot of these people were from very far away. Some would have travelled for months to get to Jerusalem. Maybe it was a once in a lifetime trip. If you’ve ever been a stranger in a strange land you understand some of what it’s like to be a diaspora Jew in Jerusalem. Everything these travellers wanted to do or say was translated. In the marketplace they needed Greek, in the Temple Aramaic and Hebrew, at the gates Latin. Every conversation is a guess about which unfamiliar tongue they would need to try next. They’d have to get their money changed, because no devout Jew in Jerusalem would take coins with images on them. When you spend all struggling to make yourself understood it’s frustrating. It’s exhausting. It wears you out.

Have you ever felt like that? Have you ever felt like no one was speaking your language? Like no one understood what you were trying to say. Everything you did was lost in translation, and people aren’t really hearing you? Have you ever, for reasons real or imagined, been unable to speak your own language?

My church in Texas was up in the Hill Country, an area that had huge waves of German and Czech immigrants in the late 19th century, and so in my congregation I had people who grew up speaking German and Czech. I remember talking to one of them about German church. She was very sweet, in her 80s, and she grew up a German Lutheran. Once a month they got to have church in German. And she loved it, it was so beautiful, so special, to have church in German. But then things changed. World War II started. Speaking German in public got a lot more uncomfortable, and they couldn’t have German church anymore. She couldn’t speak her language anymore.

Have you ever been feeling like that and suddenly bump into someone who did speak your language? Isn’t it incredible, to suddenly be understood? When I first met my friend Reuben, we had just moved to San Antonio. Hannah was at med school all day, I didn’t have a job yet, and I didn’t know a soul. At church he offered to go out to breakfast sometime. We could talk theology, he said, and give our wives’ ears a rest. “Yeah, why not?” I thought. Not too long into our first conversation, I realized that this guy spoke my language: he was Presbyterian, and he loved college football, theology, and breakfast food. We spent every Thursday eating breakfast nachos and talking football and Jesus until I moved up here. It’s amazing how good it feels when you’re finally understood.

Can you imagine, then, what it was like to experience Pentecost within that crowd? To be going about your day, stumbling over languages and dialects and words half-remembered, and suddenly someone is speaking your language? Like coming home from a trip and standing at baggage claim and suddenly hearing a family member call your name. It feels like home.

What an incredible thing that must have been for the people in the crowd on Pentecost. To suddenly hear someone speaking their language. And then to look around at the people around them and see the same ecstatic grin on their faces and realize that they too were being spoken to in their own tongue. This was how they experienced the love of God in Jesus Christ for the first time – not in miraculous, otherworldly tongues of flame, but in someone speaking their language.

When I was in China I remember talking to someone about how happy he was to meet someone who was learning Chinese. He said, when I was young we all had to learn Russian, because the Russians were our main ally and how we communicated with the outside world. Then things changed and we all started trying to learn English so that we could understand and be understood. “It feels good,” he said, “that finally someone is trying to learn our language.”

At Pentecost it is the church, filled with the power of the Holy Spirit, who has learned to speak everyone’s language. It’s this big origin story for the church. Like any good origin story, it sets the tone for the franchise. Pentecost is the defining moment for the church. And the church is defined as a people who are set on fire with the Holy Spirit, where each person proclaims the message of God in a different language, and where each person receives the word of God in their own language.

Pentecost is a continuation of what begins in the incarnation, the coming of Jesus Christ to earth. God is slowly breaking down every barrier between God and us. In coming to earth as Jesus Christ God bridges the distance, in sending the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, God erases misunderstanding and speaks our language, through Christ’s death and resurrection God removes the last barrier, our own sinful, fearful resistance to God’s love.

This isn’t just about English or Spanish or Japanese, but the language of who we are and what we are. It’s about finally being understood for who we are. There are a million different languages. Some people’s language is emotional, some people’s language is physical. Some people speak ancient, some people speak modern. Some people speak simply, some people speak technically, some people speak hockey, some people speak yarn. Some people are fluent in church-speak, some people are fluent in engineer-speak. It doesn’t matter which languages you know and don’t know because what matters is that God is fluent in all of them.

The important thing is that God speaks your language. God will speak to you in a way that you can understand and hear and respond. You don’t have to speak in Scripture verses for your prayers to be answered. You don’t have to have a graduate degree to hear God’s word in Scripture. You don’t have to scan the stars to see what God is doing in your world. God is like an old friend who understands you in a way that no one else can. In a world where no one seems to understand, God does, and God sends the Spirit to ensure that you will heart the message of our faith: that God’s incredible love can redeem anyone and anything, and God is not letting anything get in the way.

The moment of Pentecost proclaims that though there may be many ways to communicate with each other, God is fluent in all of them. If we’re going to be God’s church, we should be too.