Speaking in All Tongues: A Homily for Pentecost Sunday
Preached at All Saints, Collingwood, on Sunday, 28 May, 2023. Readings for this Sunday: Readings – Acts 2:1-21; Psalm 104 24-35b; 1 Corinthians 12:3b-13; John 20:19-23
“And how is it that … each us … in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power” (Acts 2.7-11)
For the first apostles, the ability to speak a foreign language was the gift of the Holy Spirit. For those of us who aren’t similarly gifted, it takes hard work to learn another language, which is why an old commercial that Berlitz, the language school company, ran in Germany was so funny.
A young, very nervous man in uniform is on his first shift monitoring a radio. Immediately it starts crackling and an urgent voice says “Mayday, mayday, can you hear us, we’re sinking, we’re sinking”.
The young man says with a heavy accent: “Hello … this is the German Coast Guard.” The voice comes back, even more urgent: “We’re sinking, we’re sinking!”
“What … are you sinking about?”
The commercial is funny to those of us who grew up speaking English, which thanks to history and economics is the language that the rest of the world wants to learn. Most English speakers don’t feel much pressure to learn another language, but if you’re an immigrant or you’re forced to work in another language, you take the learning very seriously.
When I served in the Canadian Forces, I was always impressed by the young Quebecois service men and women you’d occasionally find on bases in western Canada who quickly learned to speak English quite passably, because they needed to. In contrast, some of those Anglos who took mandatory French classes only for promotion weren’t all that serious about learning.
So consider the situation of these first disciples in Jerusalem on the Feast of Pentecost. Many of them were hicks, humble fishermen from backwoods Galilee, and they people around them knew it because they spoke Aramaic with a rustic accent (see Matthew 26:73 and Mark 14:70). They were the last people you’d pick to speak to a crowd gathered from across the known world. But, they had three things in their favour: they had been given a message, they had a promise, and they had been given a plan.
The message was the gospel, the good news that Jesus Christ died for the world and rose from the dead, proving that he was the Messiah, the Son of God, so that as Peter says, all that call on him may be saved (Acts 2:21).
The promise was made by Jesus, that just as he had been their companion on earth, now the Holy Spirit would be their companion (Jn 14.15), travelling with them out into the world, that the Spirit would giving them words of truth to share (Jn 17.8), and that the Spirit would protect them in their travels (Jn 17.11).
The plan was given to them by Jesus at the end of Luke’s gospel, that starting in Jerusalem, they would go out into the entire world with a message of “repentance and forgiveness of sins .. to be proclaimed in [Jesus’] name to all nations” (Lk 1.47).
So what happens in the Pentecost story is the arrival of the Spirit promised by Jesus, settling on the disciples and giving them the ability to start God’s plan into motion. It all may seem random and chaotic to those who happen to hear the disciples speaking — we are told that the crowd is “amazed”, “bewildered”, “astonished”, and “astonished” – (indeed, it is chaotic, for Jesus told Nicodemus that the Spirit blows at will) but the story also shows how deeply purposeful God is.
Peter senses this purpose when he quotes the prophet Joel, who had described a day when God “will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh” (Acts 2.17, Jl 2:28-29) and now this day has arrived! But Peter could have pointed to other verses of the Hebrew Scriptures, such as the prophet Isaiah, “out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem”, so that “all nations shall stream to [the Lord’s house] (Is 2.2-4). The Pentecost story thus has its roots deep in Jewish prophecy.
And what the prophets were saying, put simply, is this, God has a plan because God wants to be known. By everyone. Known by every nation, for the list of peoples here, which always challenge those unfortunate enough to read the first lesson on Pentecost Sunday, is a highly rhetorical passage that basically means – everywhere, the whole wide world. And while those gathered at Jerusalem are Jews, for the Jewish race had been scattered by conquest centuries ago when the First Temple fell, the word will spread to others.
The word will go to synagogues across the Roman Empire, and from them, often via fierce debates, the word will spread out into Greek and Roman communities, so that by Acts 10, the first gentiles will be baptized and a Jewish Jesus movement will begin to evolve into the Christian church. Israel will become a blessing to the world.
Furthermore, the word won’t go to governors and nobles, though they will hear of it. The word will go to markets and houses and dwellings where rich and poor will gather, men and women, slaves and free. Again this was foreseen by the prophets, for Joel had talked about “sons and daughters” prophesying, the Spirit coming to all ages and classes. Across an Empire where only a lucky few were considered truly human, the word will come to everyone, as we might expect of a God who so loved the world that he gave his only son so that all may be saved.
Two thousand years later, it is tempting to us to look at this story and see it as the birthday of the church, which might make us nostalgic or at least might make us think that the Holy Spirit was a thing of history. In fact, it’s anything but. The Spirit is not trapped by history, it’s alive and moving still.
Just think of the remarkable spread of the bible across the world’s languages today, I read recently that the Christian genius for translation has been a boon for the Artificial Intelligence industry. AI needs datasets so that the systems can learn to process words, grammar, and syntax, and one AI team has used 1,100 different translations of the New Testament as a machine language learning model. I’m not sure if the end result will produce AI preachers that will put seminaries out of business, but it is wonderful to think of how far the Spirit carried the Word out of Jerusalem and into all the world, as Jesus said it did.
Besides the persistence and purposefulness of God’s plan, I think we can also note the grace and generosity of God’s plan. No race or nation was meant to be deprived of the gospel. No one group or class would be given elite or preferred status in the kingdom of God.
Joel’s prophecy that the Spirit would come to all, regardless of class or gender or age, shows God’s abiding commitment to diversity. The parable of the Sower and the Seed (which became the logo of the Canadian Bible Society) comes to mind as an image for God’s generosity.
I think it’s important to keep God’s generous and wide-ranging purposes in mind when we hear voices preaching Christian nationalism, the idea that one race or people is preferred by God and exceptional compared to others. Quite the contrary. Our good news is for all.
So like the first apostles, we’ve been given a message, the good news of Jesus Christ. We’ve been given the Spirit, which gives us hope, peace, and the promise of Christ among us. The Spirit also gives us gifts of creativity to spread the word in new ways – using technology as well as good old human relationships And we’re part of God’s plan, for despite our fears of decline, our church still has a role to play in making the kingdom of God visible to those around us.
As May winds down, the wardens and I are grateful to all of you who have filled out the survey we’ve distributed. If you haven’t yet filled it out, there’s still time. Your comments will help us determine how All Saints will play its Pentecost role in spreading God’s message of good news to those around us. On Saturday, 2 June, we’ll be inviting you to a session where we will summarize the results of the survey and ask you to help us put them into perspective. That will help us go on to think through all our messaging, our website, the stories we tell and the way we seek to be relevant to the community around is.
Pentecost happens when a church lets the Holy Sprit move through it and renew it. Pentecost happens when a church trusts the Spirit to lead us, and Pentecost happens when the church grows and attracts new people with a message of hope that they can understand. So while we’re still an Anglican church, we want All Saints to be a Pentecostal church.