This Is How It Starts

This Is How It Starts

Acts 2:1-13

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans?

And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs — in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”

This week, a friend left me a voicemail. My iPhone tried to give me a quick transcript of
what she said, flattening her lovely voice into plain text with its technology. I scanned words that read: “Hi Gram, I hope the forced meeting was terrifying.” Wait, what? That can’t be right, unless I have aged significantly or she has become much darker over the years. And both might be true. Then, I listened to her voice message. “Hi Friend, I hope the task force meeting was clarifying.” That made a lot more sense.
And it made think two things: First, our technology connects us and at the same time, it
drastically confuses us. And second, those words – terrifying and clarifying – are often two sides of the same coin.

This is how it started for the church, on the corner of terrifying and clarifying. A sound
like the rush of violent wind. Divided tongues as of fire rested on the disciples. The Holy Spirit gave them other languages to speak. Not the angelic chatter that is sometimes mentioned in other Bible stories but actual other languages that the crowded world around them understood. It was a moment of incomprehensible comprehension. You could take one look at these folks and know they were Galileans, but somehow people from the backwater part of Libya said, “These people are speaking my language.”
Today if you remember nothing else, remember that the Holy Spirit is what moves us
from terrifying to clarifying. It moves us from what we don’t think we’ll ever understand to
something we uniquely and deeply understand.
I remember in my young 20s being in a crowded Pentecostal Presbyterian church in
Guatemala. Yes, there are such things as Pentecostal Presbyterians in Guatemala. One day,
during the worship service, a woman fell exuberantly on the ground, where she stayed for a few minutes, muttering and weeping as her form of worship. As a cerebral Presbyterian who only raises my hands in worship in a set of pre-practiced movements like a spiritual referee (benediction hand, prayer hand), I was utterly confused by this. I was worried. I started checking the bulletin for the prompt for this kind of thing.
I am comforted that in the Book of Acts, 2:12 there were folks then too asking “What
does this mean?” Maybe they were perplexed and thumbing through the bulletin back then too.
After the service, I asked the pastor about her. Was she ok?
And the quieter question rising up in me that I didn’t ask was, “Am I ok … if the Spirit
doesn’t move in me that way?” He said, “for her, this is how it starts. Maybe it’s different for
you. But I’m sure you’ll recognize where it leads.”

Sure enough, the same woman who had fallen out during the service was not in the back
with a cool washcloth on her head. She was in the church hall doling out steaming tamales to the crowd, to those who could chip in for expenses but especially to those who could not. It was the same act of service she did every Sunday, and I recognized work like that instantly. How a spark of mystical union with God leads a person to communicate that love and grace in any way they can. How a time of intense need makes the heart into a kind of kindling. And suddenly an ineffable love finds the person and shocks them with a beauty that transcends words. From then on, they are on fire to share with others.
I think that is how Pentecost works. The Spirit may start as something incomprehensible,
foreign, overwhelming, and other…a strange fire way over our heads… but it doesn’t stay that way. It insists on being recognizable, on getting below all that divides people, from our customs, to our countries, to our cultures, into the terrain of what we all know. What we all love. What we all need. It insists on being our breath, our meaning, our togetherness, our daily bread, or in some cases, daily tamales.
Throughout Scripture, there is a recognition that words are important but they only go so
far. Romans 8 says when we don’t know how to pray, the spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.
You probably know this, but many devout Jews will not speak the name of God. They
will hyphenate it, G-D. They will replace it with a more accessible name like Adonai, meaning Lord, or hashem, which in Hebrew means the name. They will call it the tetragrammaton, which is a very long word that means a word with four letters, YHWH, the abbreviation of God’s name.
In a moment of honest curiosity many years ago, I asked my friend David Schwartz, an orthodox Jew, “Are you terrified of God, because the vibe I am getting is like God is Voldemort, he who shall not be named.” David laughed. “No, Becs, it’s just the reminder that our words aren’t big enough.” I’ve never forgotten that. The Spirit gets to places our words cannot.
One thing I think people often misunderstand about the Holy Spirit is that its flames are
always vessels of deep understanding, not destruction. The flames of the Spirit lead to startling translation. The Spirit never uses words as wounding weapons of war. Its flames mean everyone is able to understand in their own language. It’s not a kind of code just for Christian insiders. The breath of the Holy Spirit is what insists that everyone should be able to breathe. Everyone has worth. That includes Parthians, Medes, Elamites. Phyrigians and Pamphylians. And if those names don’t mean anything to us now, perhaps that serves as a reminder to us that 2000 years from now, people may look with similar confusion on all the insurmountable labels we give ourselves today.
Pastor Chris Currie writes, “From the beginning breaths of the Holy Spirit, the church of
Jesus Christ is not a cultural church or a church of one nationality or race or class or interest group, but a missionary church, an alien church, a church that does not submit to the lordship of one particular culture or race or national or regional religious cult, but one to the lordship of Jesus Christ.”
Pentecost is often considered the birthday of the church. Some congregations have cake
with red frosting that stays on children’s clothes for months. Some congregations get streamers and balloons and remember their founders. But this year, I want to hear our old fireproof words again. I want to hear words that ignite us when we are languishing even as they calm our souls, words that are still the blood coursing through the veins of the Body of Christ, words that still sink below the terrifying conflagrations of our world into the clarifying purpose of God.

So, I will end with words from the opening pages of the Book of Order of the
Presbyterian Church.

The Church is to be a community of faith, entrusting itself to God alone, even at the risk
of losing its life.

The Church is to be a community of hope, rejoicing in the sure and certain knowledge
that, in Christ, God is making a new creation. This new creation is a new beginning for
human life and for all things.

The Church is to be a community of love, where sin is forgiven, reconciliation is
accomplished, and the dividing walls of hostility are torn down.

The Church is to be a community of witness, pointing beyond itself through word and
work to the good news of God’s transforming grace in Christ Jesus its Lord.

Amen. That word means, “So be it! May it be so!” So can you join me in saying
May It Be So!
May It Be So!