When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. 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? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”
But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: ‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’ Acts 2:1-21
My weekday mornings mostly start the same. A cup of coffee. A bowl of oatmeal. NPR on the radio. And an email from one of the Brothers of the Society of St. John the Evangelist.
The messages, known collectively as Brother Give Us A Word, often serve as my meditation for the day ahead. Now some days, the message doesn’t sink in. Some days, the message gets lost very quickly in the flotsam and jetsam of my life. But once in a while, a message hits home and stays with me.
Here’s one of them–the message for April 19, written by Brother James Koester:
“In the Gospels the disciples are portrayed as dimwitted, argumentative and clueless. But in Acts they are bold and courageous even in the face of hostility. Something had clearly happened. … When commanded not to speak, they spoke. When commanded not to heal, they healed. When commanded not to proclaim, they proclaimed even more.”
In that short email, Brother James perfectly sums up the mystery of Pentecost: how did the Holy Spirit transform the disciples from a rag-tag bunch of misfits into leaders who started a spiritual revolution that continues to this day?
Something, indeed, had clearly happened.
To understand quite how profound that transformation was, we have to go back into the Gospels and remind ourselves just how completely unsuited the disciples were for the task at hand. At least four of them, and possibly even half of the twelve, were fishermen: rustic, rough, uneducated, unsophisticated. By some Gospel accounts, they weren’t even good fishermen. Both Luke and John tell stories of them going out onto the Sea of Galilee and catching … nothing! Then Jesus tells them to cast their nets on the other side of the boat and they pull in a catch that fills their nets to overflowing.
We may also recall the Gospel story of these experienced sailors being frightened out of faith when they are caught in a storm. Rather than using all of their seafaring skills and experience to steer their boat to safety, they panic and prepare to drown. Once again, it is up to Jesus to save the day and calm the wind and the water.
Yet, at Pentecost, some mysterious process occurred that enabled these ill-prepared fishermen to set an incredible task in motion. Almost immediately, they begin to lay the foundations of Christianity. They begin to convert new believers in their hundreds, then in their thousands. Along the way, Peter performs several miracles. Later, joined by Paul and many others, they travel, as tradition has it, “to the ends of the earth,” to Turkey, to Ethiopia, to Greece and Italy and even as far as India. And all except John went on to give up his own life for his belief in Christ.
Something had clearly happened. But how was it accomplished?
Well, we are told that the disciples had been “filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages” so that listeners from all different nations could understand them.
Let’s stop and think about this for a moment. The Holy Spirit, who could have called the best theologians, or academics, or leaders from any walk of life, who could have provided them with financial resources and access to unlimited knowledge or power beyond imagination, chose to turn the world upside down by giving a bunch of inept fishermen the power of speaking in tongues.
It’s a gift that seems a little like giving a kid a pair of socks on Christmas morning–useful, for sure, but underwhelming. Hardly inspiring. Or cool.
But it was exactly the gift that they needed.
Many years ago, I traveled to Paris with my parents on a short vacation. One day while we were out sightseeing, we took several wrong turns off the beaten path and found ourselves hopelessly lost in the back streets where no tourist ever goes. We had forgotten to bring a map, and this was many years before smartphones and GPS technology. So we had no idea where we were.
Immediately, my Dad look around and spotted a Parisian gentleman about his own age. He went up to him, and in perfect French–which I had never before heard him speak–said “Excusez-moi monsieur. Je suis un vieux soldat qui se sent perdu. Pouvez-vous m’aider et ma famille trouvent notre voie?” (Excuse me sir. I am an old soldier who is lost. Can you help me and my family find our way?)
The gentleman paused for a brief second, then stretched out his arms and hugged my Dad like he was a long-lost friend. Immediately, they struck up a conversation in French that lasted almost half an hour. There was laughter, tears and, finally, directions to a main street that would put us back on our way.
My mother was dumbfounded. She hadn’t heard Dad speak French in almost forty years. Yet there he was, making a profound and deeply emotional connection with a stranger from a different culture, a connection that started with a heartfelt attempt to find a common language in which to converse.
And that, I believe, is what the Holy Spirit gave to those present in that Upper Room that day. It is a gift we are all given even if, unlike my Dad, we are not blessed with a facility to speak in another person’s native tongue. It is the gift to connect, to use our ability to communicate and find common ground.
That is the “something that happened.” It is the something that, I believe, is at the heart of our faith and one of the cornerstones of the Christian church laid by the disciples in the months and years after that first Pentecost.
More and more as I prepare these sermons, I feel like those first disciples: ill-equipped, unworthy, overwhelmed by all of the things that I don’t know. Somehow, though, as words appear on my computer screen, I feel that something is happening. Whether these words I write and speak will ever hit their mark, I have no idea. But that may not be the point. Maybe the point is that, for a few moments, the Holy Spirit has connected us through these words, just as those poor, unprepared fishermen used their gift of language to connect with people of all races and faiths in their own time and–amazingly, miraculously, wonderfully–to connect with us today.