Over a hundred years ago, Dr. L.L. Zamenhof — a Polish linguist — set out to construct a universal language. Dr. Zamenhof observed the grave differences throughout the world and felt the need to cross boundaries and borders, to understand one another, to heal divisions, to communicate throughout the world “with persons of any nationality,” he wrote in 1887. His response was to develop a universal language called “Esperanto,” which means “the language of hope.”
It’s fittingly named, because that is the hope of many — that our differences will disappear, that our particularities can be transcended if not erased, that all can consolidate or universalize. Sometimes this uniformity is even held as a religious ideal. We Christians, for instance, sometimes express hope for a time when our differences will cease, when we are all but indistinguishable. “In Christ, we’re all the same,” some might say, to which we might ask this morning, “Then why do you need the Spirit?”
The miracle of Pentecost is not that people become the same, but that they are received into the fullness of the Spirit’s life amidst all of their differences. It’s not that they all begin to speak the same language, but that as Acts describes, “all of those heard them speaking in their own native tongue.”
This is how the church began, amidst the diversity of all of those fearfully and wonderfully and distinctly made. This is our origin story. “The birthday of the church,” Pentecost is sometimes called. But first it was a Jewish festival — “Pentecost,” from a Greek word meaning “fiftieth,” was a festival 50 days after Passover, celebrating the spring harvest and the revelation of the law at Mt. Sinai.
That Pentecost day in Jerusalem is also 50 days after the world-shattering events of Jesus’ arrest, trial, death and resurrection. In the final moments of Luke and first moments of Acts, those disciples who lived through it all are trying to decide who they are and what they should do on the other side of it all. Jesus has ascended from them, but not before telling them to stay where they are, “in the city.” He has promised to send the gift of the Spirit, enabling them to do works even greater than he did. So they are waiting. For some seven weeks they’ve been in the same waiting room — the upper room that had become a hiding place from the world that had crucified their leader and surely imposed threats on them. The walls of that room had become familiar, closing in their range of view and limiting their perspective on what could yet be. They sat in intermittent silence, I imagine, occasionally repeating the same fears, same words, same patterned language.
Until, on that Pentecost day, the gift that Jesus promised arrives: a mighty wind, tongues of flame, sweeping down the streets of Jerusalem and leading the disciples do a remarkable thing — something they would have never done under their own power: they leave the room. They stream out from their safe and secure place of hiding and self-preservation, and they rush into the streets with the Spirit, where they begin to tell the story of Jesus loudly and boldly for all to hear.
It’s the kind of ill-advised, reckless move that the Spirit is always provoking in Christ’s followers. Alan Jones, the longtime Dean of the Episcopal Cathedral in San Francisco says that we know the Spirit is present when we find ourselves in one of three open places: in the unpredictable, in the place of risk, and in those areas over which we have no control. (1) And out in the streets of Jerusalem, the disciples find themselves in all three of those places all at once — the unpredictable, the risky, the uncontrolled — spaces that most of us would just assume avoid.
It reminds me of a favorite story, shared by longtime Presbyterian minister, John Buchanan, who describes a Sunday morning in a church not so different than ours, which is to say, a church with some element of order and structure and form. As the sermon began and the preacher made a point, a woman sitting in the back of the sanctuary said out loud, “Amen, brother.” People turned around in their pews and looked at her curiously. They didn’t recognize her, and assumed she must be new, maybe from out of town. When the preacher made a second point, she said, louder this time, “Yes! Preach it!” prompting more glances and nervous shifting in the pews. When the preacher came towards the close of the sermon, the woman stood up, raised her hands in the air, and yelled, “Praise God. Thank you, Jesus.” An usher approached. “Ma’am, is everything okay?” he asked. “Why yes,” she answered. “I’ve just got the Spirit.” “Well,” he sniffed, “you certainly didn’t get it here.” (2)
I suppose many of us prefer the restrained, safe, and typical. We avoid the places unpredictable, risky, or beyond our grasp and control — places like those Jerusalem streets, where the disciples were telling the Jesus story out in the open, amidst a growing crowd and notice, amidst swelling difference. They were not simply sharing the gospel in the Aramaic they all spoke, but in the languages of all the people who had come to Jerusalem from all over the world that festival day: Parthians, Medes, residents of Cappadocia, Asia, Egypt, Libya, Rome, Arabia.
How do we respond to such diversity and difference today?
Saturday marks 17 years since Jenny and I were married (a clue to those of you who are new that I’m older than I look). While we met in college, we were from the same hometown of Lakeland, FL — but from different circles, different churches and different schools. So the invitations went out widely, “Dr. Daniel and Carol Warner request the honor of your presence at the marriage of their daughter, Jennifer Gwen to Alan Proctor Sherouse” and we had quite the crowd, with hundreds filling the sanctuary and the reception hall. I scan that room in my mindseye still, reviewing the mental snapshots that I encourage any couple to take on their wedding day. But it hit me some years ago, that of all of those gathered there – our friends, family, teachers, mentors, church friends, those who had influenced us and stood up next to us at this most significant moment of covenant — almost to a person everyone looked like me. Similar background, similar socio-economic status, same race, similar physical ability, relatively similar lives of comfort and privilege.
How do we respond to difference?
I think we have to admit how often we insulate ourselves from it. So many of us construct our lives in such a way as to operate around it — for some of us can work, play, care for our families, fulfill our daily checklists, we can even worship in a way where we never encounter the diversity of God’s creation and of human community.
If not insulating from difference, sometimes we attempt to erase it. We act as though the ideal is to look beyond difference. “I don’t even see difference,” we might say, as some of us operate with an ideal of color-blindness, or an idea that we should mind our own business not bring our particular identities and the fullness of who we are out into the open. Yes, some of us would seek an erasure of difference.
But more than anything else, I think we flee such difference. We avoid it. We find our safe upper rooms, our tidy echo chambers where we don’t have to talk about it. Even church can become such a place. Maybe it won’t surprise you that trends and Pew Research polling shows that among people who go to church, a growing number would just assume worship with people who think like them, and look like them, and vote like them. (3)
That all makes sense within the limits of human imagination and within the capacity of human communication. But if you’re going to do that, then you don’t need the rabbi who constantly crossed boundaries with the love of God. If you’re going to live like that, then you don’t need the God who raised Jesus from all the limits of death. If you want to structure your life that way, then you don’t need the Spirit that sent Christ’s followers out into the streets of Jerusalem amidst the festival crowd.
If we are in any room full of people that look like us, think like us, or speak like us, well, then, we might be in a room full of wonderful people. We might be in a room full of ethical people. We might be in a room full of people following in the way of Jesus in every way they know how. But we have to admit that we are not in a room that looks like the fullness of the kingdom of God, and we are not in a room assembled by the Spirit that descended on people of all nations and languages that Pentecost day.
Of all forms, the Spirit comes in language. It’s the first gift of Pentecost — the first miracle of the early church: language. My friend, Dr. Eric Baretto is a New Testament scholar at Princeton Seminary and is himself multilingual, and he points out that language is more than words, but rooted in a wider culture and way of thinking and living. More than grammar, vocabulary, syntax, languages carry respective cultures, histories, psychologies, and spiritualities. To speak a particular language is to orient oneself in a particular way — to see differently, hear differently, process reality differently. (4) And the miracle here, in Jerusalem at Pentecost, is that people don’t have to give any of that up to hear the good news of God’s love. They don’t have to give up their identities. They don’t have to release their languages to learn a new universalizing one. It’s not the erasure of difference that day. Instead, everyone is welcome. Everyone is hearing the gospel in their own idiom.
After all, in Jesus’ day as in ours, multiple languages were spoken, especially in a cultural center like Jerusalem. Among those gathered in the crowd there would have been plenty of people who spoke multiple languages, or were at least conversant in more than one. So while it’s true that the gift of languages allowed the message to reach some who would have otherwise been unable to hear it, many likely would have been able to hear it in a second or third common language. The real miracle, then, is not so much that the disciples were able to speak in a language people could understand, but rather as Acts 2:8 describes, that the “devout Jews from every nation under heaven” were able to hear in their “own native language” (Acts 2:8). Said another way, the miracle of Pentecost is not so much a miracle of understanding what’s spokenas it is of hearing your own language.
That’s what caught people. That’s what made the crowd swell. That’s what rushes into our hearts still today. It’s not so much understanding the message of God’s love, but realizing the truth that God speaks your language.
Dr. Amy Lindeman Allen, biblical scholar, tells the story of when she was a seminary student and worked as a chaplain at a large hospital in Dallas, Texas. Many of the people who came into the hospital were Spanish speakers, so as a part of orientation she was given a set of index cards with simple Spanish phrases and prayers so she could communicate with the largely Latinx population.
One day, not long after she had begun this position, she was called to the room of a frantic elderly woman. The nurses were trying to calm her down, but she was clearly agitated and angry, chiding them in Spanish. “What can you do, Chaplain?” they asked.
Allen was twenty-one years old. She knew only the Spanish that was written on her little index card, and she knew even less about how to calm down frantic patients in a hospital. So she did the only thing she could think to do — she pulled out the index card and began to read: “Padre nuestro…” — in English “Our Father…” — and she started reading the Lord’s prayer in that woman’s language. Her pronunciation was lacking. But the woman stopped. Where she had been frantic, she was now calm. Where she had been chiding, she was now smiling peacefully. She bowed her head, and whispering, joined in the prayer. (5)
Because somewhere, amidst the chaos of the moment and the difference between the chaplain and patient, this woman heard the words of Jesus in her own language, and she felt known.
It’s the miracle of Pentecost. The miracle of the Spirit that across all our differences, finds us, reconstitutes us, regathers us into community. Peter Gomes, the longtime minister of Memorial Church at Harvard, knew much about difference and diversity as Harvard University Chaplain and as a black American. He once remarked on the power of Pentecost and “hearing in one’s own language, one’s own accent,” saying “Pentecost did not reduce or diminish the diversity of the crowd: they did not become less than they were; they became more that they had been, because they became one with all who heard and understood that God is alive and active in this world” (6)
Sometimes Pentecost is seen as a reversal of that story of the Tower of Babel, where humanity tries to construct a tower to reach God, and God responds by scattering them into varying languages. But Pentecost does not reverse this. It blesses it. It affirms all of those languages and it regathers all of those people, because it’s not the story of humanity ascending to God, but instead it’s the story of how God through the Spirit descends again to us. So often the gospel is preached as though you have to change, you have to climb, you have to clean up your life, you have to be better, or know more, or do differently, or learn new standards for God to be with you. But instead Pentecost tells us God is already here. And God speaks your language.
Of course, then as now, some can’t hear it or won’t hear it. “Nothing is going on here,” they say, “just typical public drunkenness in this festival week.” They’d have us believe, “There’s nothing surprising happening. No one be alarmed. Go back to what’s typical and routine.”
So they retreat to their upper rooms of sameness where you don’t need the Spirit of the God that raised Jesus from the dead.
They go back to a space where they insulate or preserve the love of God for a select group, where you don’t need the Spirit that descended at Jesus’ baptism and empowered him to pass that love around to all of those on the shore of the Jordan, and then in all the wide spaces beyond.
They go back to seeking uniformity, or denying difference, or avoiding diversity, where you don’t need the Spirit that stirred the waters of creation to ensure that all are fearfully and wonderfully and distinctly and individually made.
Yes some do absolutely nothing with the gift.
But then, some go out from there. Having heard the words of Peter, they start to see visions and dream dreams. They stream out from the streets of Jerusalem into a wide world proclaiming a bold and inclusive message in every tongue they can speak. They follow the movements of the Spirit and find that the gifts keep coming, and that Pentecost keeps happening over and over again. And, in most every language, we have a name for those people: they’re called “the Church.” The Church of Jesus Christ, led by the Spirit, and sent out by the God who speaks to each of us in our own language. And let it be us this Pentecost day.
- “Pentecost: Pursued by the Spirit” Episcopal Life(June 1992).
- “Listen” at Fourth Presbyterian Church (June 3, 2001)
- “When Politicians Determine Your Religious Beliefs” New York Times(July 11, 2018)
- “Acts 2:1-21: Think Differently About Difference” ON Scripture (May 23, 2012)
- “The Politics of Language: Acts 2:1-21” The Politics of Scripture(May 9, 2016)
- Sermons: Biblical Wisdom for Daily Living, p. 102