My sister used to be my toughest critic. But I think in recent weeks my mother has surpassed her in that role. After she listens to my preaching on Facebook Live, she gives me her reaction. Sometimes she tells me: “You should have clarified this point,” or “you should have taken it in this direction,” or even “it just didn’t speak to me.”
This happens far too often. And it happens not only between pastor and people, but also between brother and sister, parent and child, friend and friend. Trying and failing to make oneself understood is as old as human civilization. There is a familiar story found in Genesis 11. The peoples of the earth came together in the land of Shinar. There they wanted to build a tower that reached heaven. They wanted to make a name for themselves, to be one people, and not to be scattered over the face of all the earth. Then God came down to see the tower they were building. He disapproved of their plan, and confused their language. No longer able to understand one another, they abandoned their project and scattered over the face of the earth. God called the place Babel, which means confusion of sounds or voices.
We want to make sense to one another, to make ourselves understood, especially to our loved ones. And we know the frustration when we fail. God wants to make himself understood. At no other time in the church year is this theme made more explicit than today, which is the Day of Pentecost. In the Old Testament, Pentecost was an annual harvest festival called the Feast of Weeks. But it later came to commemorate the giving of the Law at Mount Sinai. It is at Mount Sinai that God sought to make himself understood to the people of Israel. “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” The event was accompanied by a violent wind and smoke, because the Lord had descended upon the mountain in fire.
In our first lesson, Luke, the author of the Acts of the Apostles, recounts a Pentecost festival. Because it was one of the three pilgrimage festivals, all the Jewish people had to go up to Jerusalem to observe it, bringing their gifts and offerings. Luke highlights for us the sheer variety of the peoples who have gathered there. It’s no exaggeration for him to say that there are devout Jews in the city 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.
The disciples are also there. We will recall that before he ascended into heaven, Jesus instructed his disciples to remain in Jerusalem to wait for the promise of the Father. Today that promise is fulfilled. On this day of Pentecost, the Spirit of God descends in a display of power. There is a violent wind that must have shaken the place where they were staying. And there are tongues of fire that settle among them.
But this is no mere spectacle of power. Our God is not a mute God. He is a speaking God. He desires to make himself understood to human beings. Just as the fire and wind at Mount Sinai preceded the speaking of God, so also here. The tongues of fire that rest on each of the disciples enable each of them to speak in languages not his own. This is also a fulfillment of a promise. “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem…” Only they are not promulgating the law, but rather declaring the gospel of Jesus Christ, delivered over to death for our sins, raised to life for our justification.
The people hear sounds coming from the place where the disciples were staying. Curious, they draw closer. More and more begin to join them. They look at each other in wonder and amazement. Is this language? It is language, only not one, but several languages. “Each one heard them speaking in the native language of each” (2:6). What did they hear? God’s deeds of power. 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.
Maybe we should pause here to ask: Is there not a lesson somewhere in here for us? Perhaps we find the preaching of the church to be inarticulate, a mere cacophony of voices, or even “hot air.” Perhaps it is still or once again Babel to us. What can we do to remedy this problem? We can draw closer to the source. On 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 we learn from our gospel lesson. Jesus is teaching the disciples about the Holy Spirit, to whom he refers as the Advocate. The word comes from the law courts. The Holy Spirit is the defense attorney who represents Jesus. He is the Spirit of truth who vindicates Jesus and pleads his cause against those who have hated him and his Father in this world.
As the Spirit of truth, he is also the teacher of the disciples. In this role the Spirit will depend on Jesus and listen to Jesus, just as Jesus depends on the Father and listens to the Father. That explains how he can take the things that are of Jesus, and make them known to the disciples. That explains how he can continue the teaching that Jesus had begun. He will guide them into the fulness of truth, which is Jesus himself. In this way the Spirit will glorify Jesus. As Jesus glorified the Father by making known the things of the Father, so the Spirit will glorify Jesus by making known the things of Jesus.
John Calvin gives a good explanation of this connection between the Spirit and Jesus. He asks: who is Jesus for us apart from the Spirit? The story of a Galilean itinerant teacher, his band of followers, his confrontation with the authorities, his execution, his continuing influence after his death. These would be nothing but mere facts of history, far removed from us, and of little or no relevance to us, apart from the Holy Spirit. But the Holy Spirit brings to us what is separated from us by space and time. The Holy Spirit makes known what his story means for us and for the whole world today. We have been saying that God wants to make himself understood. And it is for this reason that he pours out the Holy Spirit.
Returning to our narrative, we see Peter standing out from the group. He turns to address those who hear only Babel and therefore assume that the disciples are drunk. Note that he is not sharp with them. He doesn’t find fault with them because they did not hear articulate speech that made sense to them. Instead, he patiently interprets to them what is happening in language they can understand.
Parenthetically, Peter is modeling here what ought to take place in all our churches today. I know a pastor who concludes his Sunday evening services, which in his church emphasize teaching, by asking his congregation if they have any questions or comments about the message. Faithful pastors know that God wants to make himself understood to the people of God, and so they do whatever they can to clarify his word to those who listen to their preaching.
Let us make one more observation about the Spirit. Citing the prophet Joel, Peter tells us that God’s intent is to pour out his Spirit on all flesh. Flesh here is a figure of speech for the human race. Note none is excluded. Old and young, men and women, slave and free—they are all recipients of the gift of the Holy Spirit. From this we learn that the event of Pentecost is meant to bring people together, to unite them.
After the destruction of the First World War, the churches came together to think through how to overcome their divisions, which they believed contributed to the hostilities among the nations. Tragically, the divisions among peoples are more often than not reproduced in the churches. But the churches formed a movement called Life and Work. It went under the banner: “doctrine divides, service unites.” But the languages that the Apostles spoke on that day did not divide the people, but united them. The prophet Isaiah foresaw a day when peoples from many nations will come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the temple of the God of Jacob. He will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths.”
Let us think about how urgently we need a renewal of Pentecost, a fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit, on the church today. Is there nationalism today? Yes, it is rampant not only in our own country, but in others too. It is a global phenomenon. And yet Parthians, Medes, Elamites, Cretans and Arabs are only a few of the nationalities or people groups mentioned who hear the word of God spoken in their own language. This show us that it is the Holy Spirit’s intent to create not only a multi-generational and classless church of men and women, but also a multi-national, multi-lingual, and borderless one.
Is there racism today? Yes, it is endemic not only in this country, but in countries throughout the world. Hardly a day goes by where we don’t hear in the news about racially-motivated verbal and physical attacks against blacks, Asians, Jews, and Arabs, and whomever else we can add to this list. And yet in the nationalities mentioned in our lesson there are black, brown and white people. They are there together in one place to hear the one Word of God. This shows us that it is the Holy Spirit’s intent to create a church that is also multi-racial.
We may ask, where? Where is this church that fits this description? Have the churches ever been more divided than they are now? Could not the Spirit create space in the public square so that diverse peoples with all their differences can come together? With God nothing is impossible. Indeed, this is the Christian hope, when the kingdoms of this world become the kingdom of Christ. But the Spirit calls all peoples in every time and place to come to faith in Christ and be baptized into the church. The church is a sign and harbinger of a kingdom where a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, will one day stand before the throne of God and worship Christ, the lamb of God, together. Until that day, the Spirit is at work among us, creating space in our hearts so that the foreigner we once shunned becomes the neighbor we now love.
We as the church cannot lose sight of this truth. If we do, we risk betraying our own essence and turning into something that is indistinguishable from the world around us. Before his crucifixion, 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. Unity with God in Christ, but also unity with others, unity within ourselves, and with the created world around us. God wants to make us understand his intent to make his fractured world whole again. Let us then open ourselves up to the transforming power of the Holy Spirit, who does not divide us, but rather brings us together. Amen.