Sermons That Work

It Is the Custom…, Day of Pentecost (A) – 2005

May 15, 2005

Each one heard them speaking in the native language of each… Acts 2:6

It is the custom at some churches on the Day of Pentecost to arrange for a simultaneous reading of one or the other of today’s Scripture lessons in multiple languages. Depending upon the linguistic gifts of members of the parish community, for example, someone of Hispanic heritage might read the text aloud in Spanish. Others may join in with their high school French or German, while a recent immigrant from a far-off land speaks in his or her native tongue, and so on. The idea of course is to remind everyone of the Day of Pentecost, when people “from every nation under heaven” heard the disciples proclaim the Good News “in the native language of each,” as today’s reading from Acts puts it. The only problem with the idea is that the net effect is sometimes more one of Babel than of Pentecost.

You remember the Tower of Babel from the Book of Genesis: the story of humankind’s pride in trying to reach the heavens on its own power and of God’s response or punishment which left the entire world tongue-tied. Ever since then understanding and cooperation have been hard to come by.

Our world is still tongue-tied. What can be misunderstood will be misunderstood. But Babel, the parable of our first clash of cultures and failure to communicate, is more than a mythic explanation of the differences among nations and languages. It is an apt description of the human condition itself. We often do not understand one another even when we speak the same language. We all remain stymied by our fundamental inability to accept the differences among us in how we live and what we believe.

But is it really God who has scattered us, who has made us aliens in our own land and sometimes in our own minds? Is it really the Lord who has confused our speech and turned us deaf to each other? Or is Babel perhaps the allegory of how humanity forgot the grammar of grace and the vocabulary of God? At Babel, the people in their pride built a tower to reach God and the heavens, and the Lord scattered them. “This is only the beginning of what they will do,” predicted God in judgment of human sin and conceit. Sadly, the people little understood how unnecessary it all was. As one scholar has pointed out, God is always more willing to come down and join us here on earth than we are able to reach the heavens by our own enterprise and effort.

At Pentecost, the Spirit of God comes down upon the disciples, resting on each of them and thereby bringing them—and us—together once again. The disciples get a crash course in the language of God. It is fair to say that after Pentecost the days of Babel are over. The great differences among us, in communication and dialogue, culture and background, wealth and poverty, are scattered in “the rush of a violent wind.” As Acts tells us, the differences are burned away by tongues of fire. It does not matter now whether we are Parthians and Medes of old, or Americans, Europeans, and Iraqis of today.

Well, that is what is supposed to have happened at Pentecost. So, how come we still fail to understand each other? Why does not everyone speak the same language? Or at least understand the world in the same way? Is the promise of Pentecost hollow and without meaning? Good questions.

What happened at Pentecost is important to who we are as followers of Christ, but the reality of Pentecost is universal. The disciples addressed not just believers but the peoples of the whole known world, and they spoke in a multitude of languages. But what they said made sense. What they spoke was no doubt the language of peace as they had learned it from our Lord himself. “Peace be with you,” he said to the disciples, as we read in today’s Gospel account. These are words that can be understood by everyone.

Perhaps the greatest marvel of Pentecost is that the peoples gathered at Jerusalem heard the disciples at all amid the din of the city and the bustle of their own lives. But hear them they did, each of them comprehending the message of the Gospel not only in Hebrew and Greek, the common languages of that time and place, but in the language of the human heart. Now as then, all nations and peoples yearn to hear words of forgiveness and peace. But we do not live in a world that likes to listen. Too often we hear what we want to hear and simply call it the voice of God.

So if our lives and our world are more full of babble than Bible, perhaps it is because we are not taking the time to listen. We have not learned the language of the Spirit. We pay lip service with a few words of God-talk here and there and perhaps say our prayers together as a family or at church on Sunday. But it is not the vernacular of our everyday discourse.

All language about God is only an approximation to the reality of God, for human language cannot fully comprehend the divine mystery. No one owns the truth. No one owns God. But the more we listen, the closer we come to God. And the closer we come, the more there is to hear and understand of “God’s deeds of power” and great love for us. And then, just when we think we may finally have this God business all figured out, God surprises us yet again and challenges us to delve deeper: to love those we cannot possibly love and to forgive the unforgivable.
Paul tells us in our reading today from his First Letter to the Corinthians, “There are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit. And there are varieties of service, but the same Lord. And there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone.” The Spirit, though one, is never bottled or canned. It is at work in each of us, always fresh and always new, waiting to be translated into the language of our own lives. It is only to the extent that we make an effort to accept the other, no matter how different or foreign, that we come to understand the language of God. Only then is Babel turned to Pentecost.

As the Spirit used the discourse of the disciples on Pentecost to reshape and redirect the lives of those who listened to their words, so the Spirit on this Pentecost will reshape and mold us if we but listen. After all, God speaks to us in the one abiding word that ends fear and brings lasting peace—the Word- Made-Flesh, Jesus Christ our Lord.


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Christopher Sikkema


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