A Pentecost Sermon: The Languages of Our Lives

This is the sermon I gave last Sunday on Pentecost at Hamline –Church. We used these readings from the lectionary.

I love the Sunday of Pentecost. This Sunday is a Sunday of celebration and rejoicing–the great feast of the Holy Spirit. The traditional readings for this Sunday are some of my favorites, also.

There is this momentous event in which the holy spirit, in the form of fire, made the disciples speak in tongues.

There is this beautiful and brave quotation from the prophet Joel about how God pours the spirit on all people.

There is the story that Heather told today from the Prophet Ezekiel, about the valley of the dry bones.

We dress the church all in Red and we celebrate and rejoice, ushering in summer and church picnics on the lawn, and a season of going out into the world, inspired by Christ.

The story of Pentecost was passed down to us through the Book of Acts.

Acts is a remarkable book in the New Testament, in that it is the only book that tells us about the life and travels of the apostles after the ministry of Jesus Christ on earth.

You see, unlike the other Gospel writers, the author of the Gospel of Luke wrote two books:

  • one about the life and ministry of Jesus Christ (the Gospel of Luke)
  • and the other about the formation of the Christian community (The Book of Acts).

For Luke, the Good News of Jesus was more than just the life and times of Jesus. For Luke, the Good News was also the new community that Jesus formed, a community that lived into a world where God walked alongside us, became our friend, and showed us that what is dead can become new and take on new life.

For this gospel writer, the story didn’t end at the Resurrection, or the Ascension, or even here at Pentecost. The story would continue forever, because the Holy Spirit was at work through every generation.

And this story of Pentecost is pivotal to Luke’s Point.

Before Pentecost was a Christian holiday, it was a Jewish holiday. The greek word means fifty days, and it was celebrated fifty days after the passover. Now, Jewish people call this holiday Shavu’ot, and this year we are lucky enough to celebrate these holidays on the same day.

So many people had gathered in Jerusalem, from all over the Roman world, to participate in a festival. The disciples and a number of women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, have gathered together in their homebase, the upper room where they stay in Jerusalem.

And Suddenly God bursts into the upper room like a wind, ignites the disciples tongues with fire, and pours out the holy spirit upon every woman, man and child like a great deluge of water. They rush out of the upper room, filled with the Holy Spirit, and they begin preaching and proclaiming the good news in every language imaginable.

People think that they are drunk. But Peter tells the crowd, they are not drunk, because obviously no one would be drunk at nine o’clock in the morning. And he reminds the crowd of their own scriptures, a prophecy from Joel:

`In the last days it will be,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams.
Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
and they shall prophesy.

This is the defining moment in Luke’s narrative of who we are as Christians: this “Day of Pentecost” is what changes the disciples from students into the living body of Christ. This is the fulfillment of Jesus’s purpose: to show us how God can be among us–to empower us to be God’s hands and feet.

At it’s core, this story tells us who we are.

So what, exactly, does that mean for us as Christians here and now, in the 21st Century?

Does this mean that we need to go out and speak in tongues, declare that these are the last days and that the moon is fixing to turn to blood? Are we called to speak to bones and tell them to rise, to run around in the streets like we’re drunk talking about Jesus?

These stories have been passed down from a foreign place and a foreign time. They are about foreign people, and these foreign people are our spiritual ancestors.

The early Christians spoke about God’s new presence here on earth as if it signaled the end of the world. And in many ways, they truly believed that this was the case. For them, God’s acts of love through Jesus meant that it was time for God to be fully reunited with Creation. So, they talked about the apocalypse a lot.

And, if you think about it, so do we. We, too, are surrounded by news of apocalypse every day. Political apocalypse–legislative deadlock, economic apocalypse–too big to fail, environmental apocalypse–climate change, social apocalypse–facebook. We are surrounded by the apocalyptic literature of our own day. What we see in the Bible is the apocalyptic literature of the day of the disciples.

In many ways, humans have been obsessed with the end times since the beginning of our existence. Perhaps that is part of who we are: unable to see change as anything except the end of everything.

Prophets, by allowing the holy spirit to speak through them, counteract apocalypse by speaking about new life in the midst of ever-present death and change. A prophet sees not only the end but also a new beginning, and calls the people to account to rally around that new beginning.

The feast of Pentecost shows us that all of us can become prophets, that the holy spirit rushes through us like a roaring, mighty wind, and makes us speak the good news in the world.

All these average joes, these students, turn into teachers, into conduits for God’s amazing work. This is that turning point for Luke: the transition from God’s life on earth in Jesus to God’s life on earth through us.

And, we too are called to prophesy, to speak God’s word in new ways, but it doesn’t have to look the same way that it did two thousand years ago.

I want you to imagine, for a second, how many different ‘languages’ you speak in a day.

We communicate in our families in our native tongue. Perhaps we have a language we speak with our families of origin. But, what if we went deeper–for those of us who play instruments, we read and speak though the language of musical notation. We speak in a language that uses ‘codas’ and ‘A flats’ and bars. At work, we have a language of productivity and programs, a language of tasks and numbers.

Perhaps our work has a political climate that requires us to speak or act in certain ways.

Most of us interact with computers and cell phones regularly, and those too have their own distinctive forms of communication.

What is the language of fatherhood, motherhood? What is the language of being a child? What language do we speak when we drive?

All of us ‘code switch’ between countless mirco-languages that we speak day in and day out, to fit our different roles in life.

Worship, too, has its own language. Our church language uses words like Doxology–Parament, narthex, pew, prayer, Good News, Jesus, God. But this, is not the only language that speaks God’s word.

But what would it mean, if, suddenly, we were able to speak God’s word in all the languages of our daily life? What if we were able to communicate the good news of the resurrection, the unending love of God, in more languages than just ‘church’?

Hamline Church puts on a fascinating, joyful, and exciting worship service. We have beautiful music of all kinds here, and a gorgeous building with windows that tell the stories of God’s great deeds of power. Another language of God’s word–artwork.

And, Hamline Church does God’s work in many ways that are beyond this worship service. During the week, we speak God’s word without saying Jesus, without saying Pentecost or Narthex or Doxology.

On Friday, some 30 volunteers were here, working on building of our community bread oven. And as they mixed and poured concrete, as they put tin foil into the structure, as they measured and congregated and pushed wheelbarrows around–they were speaking God’s word in another language. They spoke the good news by showing up for no pay, and by doing hard and careful work, the product of which is ultimately a communal resource of food for our neighborhood, a way for us to live out God’s bounty in the community.

Just yesterday, Hamline University celebrated their graduation. And is the tradition, they hosted an interfaith baccalaureate service here at Hamline Church. Our church was full of joyful families and friends, and the word of God was spoken here through the many languages of many faiths. From our lectern, God spoke in English, Hebrew, Arabic, and Japanese, through scriptures from the Christian, Muslim, Jewish, and Buddhist traditions.

Today, volunteers will set up coffee and treats for us downstairs, as they do tirelessly every week. They too speak god’s word, through these simple actions of consistent hospitality.

I could give you countless other examples of this congregation, speaking God’s word of resurrection in the many languages of our community. But I don’t think I would need to, because I’m sure you’re thinking of them right now. So I ask, that you hold these things in prayer. And, I ask that you hold each individual compartment of your own life in prayer, and consider the specialized language that you speak there. How can God’s word be spoken there?

This Sunday, we are a people called by the prophetic spirit of Pentecost.

We may not rush from this place speaking Karen or Somali or Vietnamese, but we too have the power to embody Pentecost to prophesy in the name of the Holy Spirit. God has given us the power, through the holy spirit, to integrate the good news into everything. To speak, in the native languages of each compartmentalized piece of our lives, a story of love, integrity, and reverence for a God who makes all things new.

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