Whenever we travel to a foreign country, especially one far away from our own, we expect to find people different from us. It can be an exciting and an intimidating experience at the one and the same time, as many of you no doubt can relate.
I was prompted to reflect on this experience only just recently. Most of you know that I was away the last two weeks of May. I spent the first week in Geneva, Switzerland, which in fact is the birthplace of Presbyterianism. Today it is an international hub. Geneva is home to the European headquarters of the United Nations and its member agencies, including the World Health Organization, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Trade Organization, among others. It is a city of embassies and diplomatic missions representing countries from around the world. In fact, people from more than 120 countries are present in Geneva at any one time. It is interesting to go to the train station in the city square to “people watch.” One will see people of all ethnicities and hear multiple languages spoken.
Perhaps this offers a parallel to how the worshippers experienced Pentecost in Jerusalem. Also known as the Feast of Weeks, Pentecost was one of three annual pilgrimage festivals, for which Jews had to assemble at the temple in Jerusalem. As one of the harvest festivals, Pentecost served as a shared occasion for God’s people to celebrate God’s provision.
Luke describes for us the scene. He highlights the sheer variety of the peoples who have gathered there. It’s no exaggeration for him to say that there are devout Jews and visitors in Jerusalem from every nation under heaven. They come from places across the Middle East and the Mediterranean world, from the Persian Gulf to the farthest parts of North Africa.
Let us immerse ourselves in this scene for a few moments—at least long enough to ask how it feels to be in the presence of those who are very different from us. Do they fascinate us? Or do they make us feel uncomfortable, or even threatened? Or maybe they arouse in us all these contradictory feelings at the same time.
Recently, I saw a video in which a white woman was waiting in line at the checkout in a grocery store. In front of her stood two Puerto Rican women speaking Spanish to one another. Suddenly, without warning, the white woman lashed out at the two, telling them angrily that they should be deported. When they responded to her outburst, she said: “Go back to your own country.”
This disturbing scene replays itself far too often among us today. Indeed, there have been far worse scenes, not least of which was the racially motivated shooting in a Buffalo supermarket last month.
But this does not set us apart from the generations that have preceded ours. Discriminating against others is entrenched in human nature, a nature that’s been corrupted by sin. We make distinctions on the basis of arbitrary markers, like the color of our skin, the kind of clothes we wear, the size and age of our bodies. Relying on these markers, we decide who to accept and who to reject, who to acknowledge and who to ignore, who to admit and who to turn away, or even kill. We assume that that’s just how it is.
And yet here are all these peoples gathered together at the temple in Jerusalem. Consider all the peoples named—the Parthians, the Medes, the Elamites and all the rest. They are white, black, brown, and every shade between. They are very different from one another and yet together there to worship the one God.
If we contemplate the scene for a few more moments, we may come to doubt that our differences are greater than our similarities. It’s worth noting that it’s less our successes, our achievements, that bring us together and bind us to each other. Rather, it’s the burdens, the sorrows, and the tragedies that do. Who among us does not feel a deep sense of solidarity with the grieving parents at Uvalde, after the unthinkable happened to them? Who among us does not feel a sense of kinship with the suffering people of Ukraine?
It’s in the crises of life that we feel close to one another, that we find ourselves together. It’s in those places that we all feel the effects of a fallen world, where we are both victims and victimizers, a world where we all go astray, driven from the path by a thousand mistakes and follies.
And then there’s the one fact that includes everything else. We all must die. This is a fact in which we are united from pole to pole–all of us, whether we are Parthians or Medes or Elamites or Americans. In face of death, we all stand together like children in a great circle, with hands joined together.
In the late Middle Ages, after the outbreak of the plague, traveling troupes of actors went to villages throughout Europe to perform the dance of death. In the middle stood an actor dressed up to represent death. Around him stood the other actors representing all ages and stations of life. To each he spoke a language like the Pentecost language, a language in which each understood his own “tongue.” And all understood him and obeyed him—the peasant, the merchant, the soldier, the beggar, the king, the mother, and the elderly. All were compelled to say: “Yes, this is true. We all have to hear and obey death.”
Certainly, it is true. Death is a universal human experience, excluding no one. No matter who we are, how different we are from one another, the dance of death unites us all. When we acknowledge our vulnerabilities, our mortality, our differences seem to pale in significance.
Or at least they should. The stubborn fact is that they do not. Our differences are still a cause of division among us.
How do we know then that that’s not just how it is, that it’s not God’s will that we should reject, drive out and kill those who are different from us?
Luke tells us that “divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among the apostles, 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” (Acts 2:2-3).
Again, how do we know? Because God loves them and intends for them to hear and receive the good news about the salvation that he has effected in Jesus Christ, just as he intends this for us. To prove this, he goes so far as to address them in their own language.
While he was still living, my dad set up a fund out of which he wanted to support missionaries. One of the biggest beneficiaries of this fund is a missionary couple who works for Wycliffe Bible Translators. In Wycliffe’s mission statement, it reads: “No one should have to learn another language to understand God’s word.” Missionaries who serve with Wycliffe say that it’s essential that people have the Bible in their “heart language.” This is the language that a child learns at birth and speaks in the home while growing up. It is the language that he thinks in and understands best. An earlier generation used the phrase “mother tongue” to refer to the same idea. It’s the language that we learned at our mother’s knee.
The people draw closer and closer. More and more begin to join them. They look at each other in wonder and amazement, because they hear the message of salvation addressed to them in their heart language. Those no doubt farther from the source of the sound, for whom the voices are still inarticulate, conclude only that the men speaking are drunk.
There is a lesson here for us. What if we find the preaching of the church to be inarticulate, a mere cacophony of sound? What if all we hear from the pulpit is meaningless babel, as if spoken by a drunk man? What can we do to remedy this problem? We can draw closer to the source. On the Day of Pentecost we learn that the source of true apostolic preaching is the Holy Spirit. We can ask God to fill us with the Holy Spirit. God wants to make himself understood. It is for this very reason that God gives us his Holy Spirit.
This in fact is what our Gospel lesson impresses on us. Jesus is teaching the disciples about the Holy Spirit, to whom he refers at the Spirit of truth. He is preparing them for his departure, his return to the Father, but he wants to assure them that he does not leave them alone. The Spirit will come to them and live within them. He will teach them everything, and remind them of all that Jesus has said to them.
This promise of Jesus to them is fulfilled on the Day of Pentecost. How else can we explain the confident speech of the disciples here at the temple today?
It is Peter who stands out as their representative. He has to interpret the phenomenon to the people assembled. Incidentally, we should note here that the Holy Spirit gives discernment. We may not know how to read a situation and therefore not know what is the most fitting thing to say or do within it. But the Holy Spirit helps us, just as he helped Peter here.
Peter is not sharp with them. He does not criticize them for failing to understand the meaning of this great event in salvation history. Instead, he patiently interprets to them what is happening in language they can understand.
What they can understand is their Scriptures. They are Jews after all, versed in the books of what we call the Old Testament. Peter quotes words from one of them, the book of Joel. And those words give us insight into how comprehensive God’s plan is. We spoke earlier of the markers that we use to discriminate against others. But the event that Peter sees inaugurated here on the Day of Pentecost abolishes those markers. The old are not excluded because of their age. The women are not excluded because of their sex. The wage slaves are not excluded because of their inferior socio-economic status. Not some but all of God’s people will be recipient of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit does not discriminate; God is no respecter of persons. He bestows gifts for witness and service on those we are inclined to ignore and reject.
The people who are gathered together at the temple are there to worship the one God. But the greater basis of their unity comes to light on that Day of Pentecost. “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” Peter’s message, which begins here and continues through the chapter, reveals that name. That name is Jesus Christ. “There is no other name under heaven by which we must be saved” as Peter will later insist in his address to the Jewish authorities in Acts 4.
We as the church today are entrusted with this same message. To us is revealed that same name. We cannot lose sight of it. If we do, we risk betraying our essence and turning into something else that the world does not need. In the Gospel lesson last Sunday, Jesus prayed these words: “I pray also for those who will believe in me through the apostles’ message, that all of them may be one, just as you, Father, are in me and I am in you…. May they be brought to complete unity….”
Unity cannot be divorced from the event of Pentecost. It is a gift of the Holy Spirit. It is unity with God in Christ, but also unity with others, to whom is addressed the same message of salvation as to us. God wants to make us understand that those we ignore and reject are heirs together with us of the promise of life. Let us then open ourselves up to the transforming power of the Holy Spirit, who does not divide us, but rather brings us together around Jesus Christ. Amen.