Rev. Dan Haugh
PLEASE READ: Genesis 11:1-9 and Acts 2:1-21
Many of you, if you are like me, understand far too well the frustration of language barriers. Basic conversations and simple tasks are often rendered impossible if a common language is not shared. Have you ever been at a restaurant here in Paris amidst a drone or “babel” of language, only then from one far-away table you hear clear, intelligible and understandable words of.....English! The rest of the evening all you then manage to hear is your own language and sometimes an instant connection is birthed between you and formerly complete strangers. Language can be a barrier but also source of kinship and instant intimacy when understood. While living here in France I do make attempts, but admit I feel like Mark Twain at times, who quoted “In Paris they simply stared when I spoke to them in French; I never did succeed in making those idiots understand their own language.”
Our second lesson today describes a remarkable scene occurring after Jesus’s ascension, promise of continued presence and prayers for unity. The word Pentecost literally means “fiftieth” and was celebrated on the fiftieth day after Passover. Originally it was the festival of the first-fruits of the grain harvest but by the time of the first century it was considered the anniversary of the giving of the law at Mount Sinai. Jews from all over would make pilgrimage and never was there a more international crowd in Jerusalem than at the time of Pentecost.
Luke portrays, in dramatic and poetic way, whereas Pentecost was for Judaism the day of the giving of the law, for Christians it is the day of the coming of the Holy Spirit, the indwelling of God’s law upon the hearts and lives of God’s people. The law, or old covenant was man’s attempt to reach God and the new covenant is God reaching to man through grace.
The audience were Jews from all nations living in Jerusalem who had probably returned from the Diaspora lands to resettled back home. It is worth noting that the main audience were Jewish and would have understood either Aramaic or Greek yet God chooses deliberately to empower the disciples to proclaim his glory in the native languages of the travelers. The word “tongues” in this story should be understood as languages signifying clarity of speech and immediate understanding. These were languages common at the time and each person’s ear instantly picked up to their vernacular. More than just a linguistic connection was made.
What exactly happened at Pentecost we do not know. Luke himself was not an eye witness. But we do know that the disciples experienced the power of the Holy Spirit as never before. For the first time in their lives, this motley mob was hearing the word of God in a way that made sense to them and spoke directly into their lives.
The power of the Holy Spirit had given these disciples a message that could reach every heart. That is the beauty of the gospel. It is for every nation, every language, every tribe. The same message can be heard differently by different people for as both Scripture passages demonstrate, God celebrates, and at times orchestrates the diversity of his people. The Holy Spirit continues to empower disciples to declare the gospel in ways that can reach all people regardless of boundaries or barriers.
Neither the ministry of Jesus or the mission of the Church would have been possible apart from the Holy Spirit. The Spirit ushered in a new model of divine redemption for life in the new covenant, now incorporating both individual and corporate redemption. God’s spirit separated and fell upon each believer, thus fulfilling prophecy and Jesus’ promise of a new, intimate and individual relationship with God. This new revelation is lived out in community as empowered followers of Christ.
Today we celebrate the Confirmation of our young people. This is an affirmation of what has already taken place in their lives. Confirmation acknowledges the extension of God’s grace received upon baptism. On the one hand, this is an individual and willful response to the gospel; a declarative statement of personal commitment to Christ. At the same time, we as the church publicly confirm their faith and declare our intentions to help them live as disciples of Jesus and members of one body; one global, diverse and united Church.
Occasionally people ask me whether ACP is a Pentecostal church. What I have come to love so much about this congregation is that every Sunday is Pentecost. We are a diverse congregation located in a very international city. We represent a rainbow of colors and a rich tapestry of languages, backgrounds, traditions, cultures, and nations journeying every week to worship God here.
To be truly Pentecostal is to hear and receive the Holy Spirit with anticipation and openness. It also means being empowered to proclaim the gospel of God’s grace to others in appropriate and contextual ways. While the specific gift of speaking in tongues or in another language is wonderful, the metric for being filled with Spirit is love.
As the apostle Paul writes in Galatians, we are called to “live by the Spirit”. When this happens the works of the flesh, which include quarrels, strife, factions, enmity, anger no longer are part of who we are as individuals or a community. Those are barriers that prevent people from hearing and believing the gospel. I confess at times I am afraid to yield to the Holy Spirit’s working in my life. Sometimes it is pride and my desire to make a name for myself or accomplish goals apart from God. Other times, I am not willing to allow the Spirit to break down barriers I have constructed. They might not be language barriers, but rather cultural or ones steeped in religious tradition.
What would it look like for us to hear the Holy Spirit today? Are we desiring the Pentecostal first-fruits of the new covenant, which Paul defines beginning with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Are we a church that seeks to bring God’s love to all nations, wherever we are located?
This month thirteen young adults from ACP spent a week in Braga, Portugal volunteering for Habitat for Humanity. I had the privilege of seeing a committed and diverse team travel to a foreign country and work towards a common goal in spite of cultural difference, religious distinctions, and language barriers. One quickly learns that a “thumbs up” goes a long way towards increasing morale while a frown and shaking of the head is a clear indicator that something was not done correctly.
Though at times, language did prove to be a barrier, we experienced the universal language of love. One of the houses we worked on was for the Cruz family who lived in a rural mountainous area outside of Braga. Through our translator the family shared they had been trying to build an home with the government’s help for over 10 years and that recently, because of a new policy, their aid ceased. The Cruz family was left with a partially-built home and no money to finish. Just when things could not get worse, two months ago tragically their 22-year daughter died during the night. Tears filled our eyes as the story was told to us and without having to say anything, team members embraced the Cruz family and prayed for them. By the end of the prayer, no translation was necessary because everyone, including the Cruz family was praying and the presence of Christ was felt. For as Mark Twain also said, “Kindness is the language which even the deaf can hear and the blind can see.”
We live in a broken world in which the peace and harmony God created has become the confusion and discord of the world man has created. Pentecost reminds us that when we open ourselves to God’s will and working, the truly miraculous can happen; God’s divine love for humanity becomes ours and the diversity of many voices are heard and affirmed and the gospel in articulated, communicated and contextualized in a way that speaks to peoples’s heart. All of this is done by the power of the Holy Spirit and for the glory of God, to make a name for God in all of the world.