Though I often share with people that I grew up in the Methodist Church, what that story fails to capture is my earliest experiences in church. You see, before my father became a United Methodist minister, he, my mother, and I worshiped at a Pentecostal church. So my first memories of church are quite different from my current experiences in church. I remember the pastor putting his hand on a person’s forehead and the person crumbling to the ground, presumably slain in the spirit or healed of a malady. I remember sitting in the pew once with a friend of my parents’ when the woman leaned over to me and whispered, “I’ll be right back.” She then proceeded to run up and down the aisle, her hands waving in the air. I do not remember anyone speaking in tongues, but I would not be surprised if that happened.
I have always found the fact that Episcopalians like Pentecost so much fascinating because we are about as far from Pentecostal as any church could get. I have yet to find an Episcopal Church that encourages running up and down aisles, speaking in tongues, and being slain in the spirit. That does not mean we do not move. In fact, we stand, kneel, sit, cross ourselves, bow, and sometimes even genuflect. You might find a few of us lift our hands in praise, but most of us keep our hands tightly to our sides. You might find a few of us who will say an unprompted “Amen!” aloud, but they will likely get a few glares. We are likely to, rather proudly, wear red on Pentecost. But that is the extent of most Episcopalians “Pentecostalism.” We like things much more ordered, predictable, and civilized. In other words, if we are really being honest, Episcopalians are not all that big on Pentecost.
Our aversion to Pentecostal experiences are not all that unfounded. All one has to do is look at the first Pentecost that we read about in Acts today. The day the Holy Spirit comes down from heaven is a pretty disorderly, unpredictable, uncivilized day. Wind whips through people’s hair, fire bursts into flames on people’s heads, and a cacophony of noise ensues that both makes no sense at all, and yet makes perfect sense to each person there. Although that chaos may sound very similar to anyone with small children in the house, that chaos is not exactly what we have come to expect as civil Episcopalians.
But if we are to get our heads around Pentecost, we have to understand what was really happening on this feast of Pentecost. The feast of Pentecost was known to most Jews as the feast of Weeks, or Shavuot. Shavuot is the third of the three great festivals of Judaism. Shavuot was a joyful celebration, in which the first fruits of the harvest were offered to God.[i] But Shavuot was not simply an agricultural festival. Shavuot, or Pentecost, was fifty days after the Passover. At Passover, the Jews celebrated the saving of the Israelites from the death that came upon the firstborn of the Egyptians. Fifty days after that dramatic event, the Israelites arrived at Mt. Sinai to receive the law from Moses. And so, in addition to thanking God for the first fruits of the harvest, praying that the rest of the harvest might be equally bountiful, Pentecost was also “about God giving to [God’s] redeemed people the way of life by which they must now carry out [God’s] purposes.”[ii]
The parallels in and of themselves are uncanny. At the Passover, the people of God are saved as death passed over their homes. In Christ, the people of God are saved once again as Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us. At Shavuot, the people of God are given the new way of life, specifically through the vehicle of Torah, or the Ten Commandments. At Pentecost this day, we are reminded of the New Commandment given through Jesus that we love the Lord our God and love our neighbors as ourselves.[iii]
So if this day is all about us being given the way of life that we must now live, what do we learn in this chaotic, uncivilized day? Most remarkably, we see people speaking in tongues they do not know, and yet, all understanding in their native tongues. That does not mean that all the languages suddenly became one – like making English the official language of Christianity. Instead, “Pentecost gives power to the band of Jesus followers to speak the languages of the world, to tell the gospel in every language. The early church [is] to bear witness to the ends of the earth in the languages of the people of the world.”[iv]
I have been thinking a lot about speaking other people’s languages this past week. Having just moved from Long Island to Williamsburg, I have been keenly aware of language differences over the last month. Of course, some of our differences in language are more about dialect than anything else – our vowels sound different, or r’s are sometimes dropped. But a more poignant difference in our language is around culture. On Long Island, communication is usually concise and incisive. That may sound rather appealing, but the first time someone tells you how they really feel about you, and the way that they feel is pretty negative, the language can feel like a slap in the face. Of course, that is not to say Southerners have the market on ideal communication. I remember many a time growing up when someone said, “Bless your heart,” and their words had nothing to do with a blessing.
As I have been ruminating on those differences this week, I wondered whether those differences go beyond region and perhaps are at the root of many of our challenges today. I have wondered if part of our country’s problem in communicating with one another is rooted in the fact that we are not speaking the same language. Of course, most of us can speak English in this country, but even though we speak the same language, we do not speak from the same cultural reality. There are experiences that I have as a woman that my male brothers will never fully understand. There are experiences that my African-American brothers and sisters experience that I will never fully understand. There are experiences that our young adults are having through technology that us older folks will never fully understand. In some ways, I wonder if in America, we have become more like the people of Babel than the people of Pentecost.
Luckily, we are not beyond God’s power to make our Babel-like ways right. There are all sorts of tangible ways we can work toward understanding others’ languages. We have a pretty incredible collection of young adults in this parish. Being a part of community means that we can reach out to our young people to hear their stories and trials – just as they can learn about our own stories and trials. Being a part of community means that we can join any number of the outreach ministries of Hickory Neck and learn quite quickly what language and cultural context poverty creates. Being a part of a community means that we can read authors whose cultural contexts are completely different from ours and learn more clearly why movements like “Black Lives Matter,” might have arisen in the first place.
That is the true invitation of Pentecost: to step boldly into the chaos of differing languages, knowing that the Holy Spirit will bring about true understanding. Of course, stepping into that cacophony is scary. As N.T. Wright says, stepping into the cacophony means getting “out there in the wind, letting it sweep through your life, your heart, your imagination, your powers of speech, and transform you from a listless or lifeless believer into someone whose heart is on fire with the love of God.”[v] That kind of transformation may not sound like what you were hoping by wearing red today. But that kind of transformation offers the promise not of calming the cacophony of language all around us, but helping us hear in the midst of the chaos. God, whose very existence in the form of the Trinity is three distinct persons, yet one, invites us to live as a community differentiated in persons, but untied in love.[vi] That Pentecostal community will be loud, messy, and hard. But that community will be life-giving, renewing, and beautiful. Our invitation today is to step into the wind of the Spirit. Amen.
[i] Margaret P. Aymer, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, Vol. 3 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 15.
[ii] N.T. Wright, Acts for Everyone, Part 1, Chapters 1-12 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 21.
[iii] Aymer, 17.
[iv] Aymer, 17.
[v] Wright, 22.
[vi] Michael Jinkins, “Pastoral Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, Vol. 3 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 18.