Acts 2:1-12: Speaking the World’s Language

Day of Pentecost, June 9, 2019

The first time I traveled to a place where I didn’t speak the language and it really mattered was January, 2008. Now, I had been to Denmark many years earlier. But there it didn’t really matter: everyone in Denmark speaks English—and several other languages—so I was never in a position where I needed to understand Danish, or needed to have my English understood. But my first night in Guatemala was another story altogether. I don’t sleep well when I travel, and I don’t sleep well if Chris is not beside me, so on my first night in Guatemala, I was hit with a double dose of insomnia. Finally at about 4:00 am, I quit fighting it, crawled out of bed, got dressed, and made my way to the hotel lobby and dining room. I walked in the door, just as an armed guard was rounding the corner and found myself face-to-face with some kind of powerful-looking assault weapon. I froze, the guard froze, and I said, “I’m a guest here! I can’t sleep!” I don’t think he said anything. But somehow, whether by words, or tone, or body language, or facial expression, I made myself understood, he lowered his weapon, and that was good enough for me!

Some say the miracle of Pentecost was a miracle of speaking. Some say it was a miracle of hearing. The story can be read either way. On the one hand, it says, the disciples “began to speak in other tongues.” But then it also says that some in the crowd “[heard], each of [them] in [their] own native language.” Others, however, heard only gibberish and assumed that “they [were] filled with new wine.” We will never know exactly what happened at Pentecost—a miracle of speaking or a miracle of hearing—but somehow the disciples were able to communicate the mighty works of God to people who didn’t speak their language. What we do know is that they didn’t do it on their own. They did it through the power of the Holy Spirit.

The Holy Spirit is the gift that Jesus promised his disciples before he died. He says to his disciples, “I will not leave you desolate . . . I will pray the Father and he will give you another Counselor, to be with you forever.” And the effect that the Spirit of Truth, the Counselor, will have on the disciples on that day is manifold:

  • They will realize that Jesus and the Father are in them and they are in him. They and Jesus and the Father are united forever and cannot be separated. God is not a distant and disengaged God, but a close and intimate God, as close and intimate as our very breath.
  • If they love Jesus, they will be loved by Jesus and the Father, and Jesus will show himself to them. As John will later put it in a letter to the church, “No [one] has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and [God’s] love is perfected in us” (1 John 4:12).
  • “God abides in us.” That word, abide, is one of my favorite words in both Greek—meno—and in English. It means Jesus and the Father will make themselves at home in the disciples. Jesus doesn’t just come around to visit every now and then. We don’t just get glimpses from time to time, but Jesus and the Father move into the neighborhood, settle down, and make themselves at home in the disciples, in me, and in you.
  • The Spirit, when Jesus sends it, will teach the disciples and remind them of everything Jesus said to them while he was alive and living among them.
  • The Spirit of Truth will be a Spirit of Peace. “Peace I leave with you;” Jesus says, “my peace I give to you; not as the world gives.” The world gives grudgingly, sparingly, and selfishly. When the world gives, it lets you know that it is keeping score. It lets you know that you’re getting the bare minimum. It lets you know that if there were not something in it for itself, you would get nothing. But Christ gives joyfully, abundantly, and selflessly. Christ gives everything in a spirit of generosity and love: a “good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over” (Luke 6:38)

Wholeness, love, abidance, wisdom, peace: these are the gifts we receive when we receive the Spirit of Truth, the Counselor, the Holy Spirit that Jesus promises. On the day of Pentecost we celebrate Jesus’ fulfillment of that promise: the gift of the Holy Spirit to the disciples who were gathered after Jesus ascended to the Father. On that day of Pentecost these gifts did not come just to the disciples, they came through them. They came in a way that everyone around them understood. To put our faith in the Holy Spirit of God is to trust that the Holy Spirit uses the words we speak to communicate the mighty works of God to a world that is desperate for wholeness, love, abidance, wisdom, and peace. How this happens—whether it is a miracle of speech or a miracle of hearing—we can’t know. But we do know that we are called to share the mighty works of God—works of wholeness, love, abidance, wisdom, and peace—to a world that is hungry for these gifts.

What do you think of when you think of the mighty works of God? The great flood and the miracle of an ark that can hold pairs of every species on earth? The parting of the Red Sea and the escape from Egypt? The defeat of the Amalekites when Moses raised his staff? The day the sun stood still so that Joshua could defeat the Amorites? The day Elijah humiliated 450 priests of Baal? Jesus calming the sea, feeding the 5000, healing the blind, the lame, the lepers, the demon-possessed? The Bible is full of stories like these of the mighty works of God. I don’t think, though, that we are necessarily called to find a way to tell these stories that will win the world for Jesus.

You know, the story of Pentecost in Acts doesn’t actually tell us what the disciples said when they spoke the mighty works of God in a language the world understood. Maybe they told some of these stories. But maybe they told stories that were simpler, closer to home. The word that is translated “mighty works” is used only twice in the NT: once here in the story of Pentecost and once in the story of Mary:

46 And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, 47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48 for he has regarded the low estate of his handmaiden. For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed; 49 for he who is mighty has done [mighty works] for me, and holy is his name.

Mary had a baby, and this, she said, was a mighty work of God. The Holy Spirit of God was implanted in her, and this was a mighty work of God. And Jesus’ promise to us is that that

I will pray the Father, and he will give you another Counselor, to be with you forever, 17 even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him; you know him, for he dwells with you, and will be in you. 18 I will not leave you desolate; I will come to you.

And for millennia afterwards, [God] who is mighty has done mighty works for those who claim this promise. What are the mighty works God has done for you? And how can you speak them in a language the world understands? We can only ever answer this question for ourselves. Paul says that each of us must “work out [our] own salvation with fear and trembling.” I take this to mean that we each must recognize the mighty work of God in our own lives and reflect that grace back out into the world. Where have you found wholeness, love, abidance, wisdom, and peace, and how can you reflect that back into the world?

  • Has someone helped you regain a sense of integrity and wholeness? Helped you forgive yourself? Helped you reframe a story that causes you pain or shame and understand that story from a perspective of grace?
  • Has someone shown you unconditional love?
  • Has someone—a friend, a spouse, a relative—stuck by you through thick and thin no matter what?
  • Has someone been a source of great wisdom in your life or helped you see the wisdom of your own life?
  • Has someone helped you reconcile yourself to a friend, a family member, or even your own self?

I have had people in my life give me all of these things at one time or another: my clinical pastoral education supervisor, John Edgerton, my Aunt Dean, my husband, my friend Carla, my Dharma teacher, my therapist, my friend Melanie, my pastor Jody Welker. I could go on and on, but these are some of the folks who have shown me what grace and salvation look like. And I hope that I’ve been able to reflect that back into the world through my own acts of forgiveness, understanding, unconditional love, abidance, wisdom, and reconciliation. Acts like these are a language that everyone understands. Our call, like the call of the first disciples, is to send them out into the world, and trust that the Holy Spirit will transform them into moments of grace.

To the God of all grace, who calls you to share God’s eternal glory in union with Christ, be the power forever! Amen.