Text: Acts 2:1-21
Last August, I had the unbelievable opportunity to spend a week in Switzerland with my family to celebrate my sister’s wedding to her Swiss husband. My parents were there, my sister and her husband were there, his whole family and all of their friends were there, and of course my own husband and toddler came along as well. We had a fabulous trip that I will treasure for the rest of my life. If you ever get the chance, I highly recommend you travel to Switzerland, as it is a country of simply outstanding beauty! While it is a shame to live so far from my sister, I am not at all sad to think that we’ll need to arrange some more trips out there in the future to visit!
One of the coolest perks of traveling outside of the United States, in my opinion, is experiencing how well-developed so many other countries’ public transportation systems are. Having lived in Europe myself for a year in high school, I really miss the convenient, timely, clean, and affordable non-car transportation options Europeans enjoy—a wide range of trains, buses, and even streetcars. As we were riding the streetcar from the wedding reception back to our hotel one hot August night, my husband and I, with our toddler on my lap, had an unexpected and delightful experience. We were minding our own business, mostly trying to keep the toddler occupied since it was past his bedtime, and speaking in hushed tones because we (well, I’ll speak for myself here, I) felt self-conscious as English speakers in a multilingual city where the dominant language was Swiss German. But all of a sudden, we noticed some familiar words and phrases drifting our way from a man and woman talking in some nearby seats. They were speaking English, too!
The city where we were, Zürich, is a multilingual place with lots of international students, workers, and immigrants from around the world. Finding other people who can speak English there is no challenge at all, but finding other people whose first language is English is a little more unusual. So when we realized that we had something in common with these two people, we excitedly started up a conversation. In no time, we found ourselves immersed in a discussion of multiple nerdy topics, including linguistics and even the good old Upper Midwest! It turned out that they were both grad students in Zürich. The man was from the U.K., and the woman was actually from Iowa! There we were, sitting on this unpopulated Zürich tram car and feeling like we didn’t belong, when all along there were these two fellow travelers just a few feet away with common interests, a common language, and a common enjoyment of friendly intellectual banter. When the time came for them to get off at their stop, I actually felt a little bit sad to have to say good-bye. But as I watched them leave, I felt a sense of gratitude for the opportunity to cross paths for that brief time and to discover meaningful connections across the world that I never would have expected. That simple connection of two strangers speaking my language made for the perfect end to a spectacular day.
Today’s passage from Acts is the classic Pentecost text, so in some ways it’s hard to find new ideas to preach about. We hear it every year around this time. The disciples are gathered, the Holy Spirit descends upon them, there are tongues of flame, people speak in all kinds of languages, blah blah blah. Yeah, it’s pretty cool and all, but we’ve heard it before. You’d think the story would get old. But actually, when I read through it this week, I could not believe the number of things that jumped out at me that I wish I had time to talk about. This text is so rich with meaning that it will never stop teaching us something new—which is very fitting, considering the subject it is about: the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is, as my husband likes to tease me about, my favorite member of the Trinity. It’s worth teasing about because the Trinity is really both Three in One and One in Three, so preferring one out of the three isn’t really possible… but I still kind of do. I just can’t help but feel inspired (pun intended) when I think about the Holy Spirit. To me, the Spirit is like the fresh, relevant, activist side of God who works nonstop to put in the sweat and time to get things done in every nook and cranny of this world. Now a quick side-note: as God, the Holy Spirit has no gender, but I personally prefer to use female pronouns to give her a more personal sense and feel more closely connected to her.
If you look in the text of Acts 2, the Holy Spirit shows up almost immediately in the form of a fierce wind filling the entire house where the twelve disciples are sitting. The Spirit can be a still small voice or a subconscious nudging, which is more how I have experienced her, but sometimes she can be loud and powerful. The Spirit lit flames of fire above each person, and suddenly they found themselves speaking God’s message in languages they didn’t even understand! All the people around them there in Jerusalem were shocked to hear this multilingual preaching coming at them so clearly and simultaneously, yet from a decidedly non-diverse, non-multilingual group of people. As it is today, the city of Jerusalem at that time was a hub for believers from many different nations, gathered together to share in their common faith in spite of their different nationalities and native languages. So the fact that this diverse crowd (there are 15 different groups mentioned in the text!) could all hear this same message being preached, in spite of their differences, is exactly the kind of thing the Holy Spirit does.
She bridges gaps where human effort alone falls short. She opens hearts that were otherwise closed. And she brings life into places of darkness and destruction. On that day in Jerusalem, the Holy Spirit reversed the consequences of the Tower of Babel—that moment early on in Genesis when God took away people’s common language in order to prevent their all-too-human pride and greed from wreaking havoc in the world. At Pentecost, the Spirit poured into, through, and out of the disciples to remove those previous linguistic barriers that so often divide people.
Before I go on, I feel compelled to mention the fact that Jerusalem has been on the news a lot this past week. For years—basically continuously since Old Testament times—Jerusalem has been the site and subject of spiritual and political conflict. This conflict has been heightened as of late, and on Tuesday, a tragic 60 Palestinian protesters and journalists, almost all of whom were teenagers or young adults, were killed in a demonstration directly related to the question of who should control the city of Jerusalem. The fact that so much violence and harm is being done regarding and on behalf of Jerusalem, even today, after all these years, highlights the brokenness of our human condition and the level to which worldly forces continue to divide us from our fellow humans, our fellow children of God. But this division, this harm, this violence and force, is not the way of the Holy Spirit.
The good news is that the Holy Spirit breaks into our broken, divided world and opens up unforeseen possibilities. As we see in the story of Pentecost, she takes a group of a dozen probably-illiterate rural Galileans and uses them to shake up the whole metropolitan city of Jerusalem, bringing with her a sweeping new reality in which the old divisions are no longer relevant. The people on the streets of Jerusalem that day may have thought of themselves as Parthians, Medes, Elamites, Mesopotamians, or the rest, but in that moment—as they all heard the same message delivered in their own diverse languages simultaneously—they were united. United as listeners. United as fellow witnesses of a world-changing moment in history. United as recipients of this incredible gift of the Holy Spirit. United as people, each one called by God into relationship. Because that’s what this message from the Holy Spirit is all about.
The message that this multinational, diverse crowd heard that morning was, in the words of verse 11, “the mighty works of God.” And for good reason; it was the story of Jesus Christ. What could be mightier than the story of God, humbly dwelling in human flesh, courageously facing a tortuous death on behalf of all humanity, then rising from the grave to victory and defeating the powers of death forever?! We can even see a little later in the chapter, past where today’s reading ends, that the message in Peter’s sermon hits its climax with this proclamation: “This Jesus, God raised up!” (v. 32).
By enabling the disciples’ tongues and lips to speak languages they didn’t even know, the Holy Spirit brought this powerful message of Resurrection—of redemption—of new life out of death—of hope—into a new era. It was no longer just a message for Jesus’ compatriots or his fellow Galileans. It was no longer just a message for other speakers of Aramaic, the language of that region at the time. It was no longer just a message for the Jewish people. The Holy Spirit broke in to that moment to break the good news out to the world. And in that moment, the church was born.
And one of the most amazing things, to me, is the beautiful diversity in our very birth. This day of Pentecost was a shining example of unity in spite of difference. The Holy Spirit brings unity in a different way from how we human beings tend to do it. So often, we assume that to be united, we have to be the same. That to join together, we have to assimilate. That to unite, we have to agree in our beliefs, or like the same things, or have the same backgrounds, or speak the same languages. But we don’t! The hearers of the Spirit’s message that day in Jerusalem did not have to speak the same language in order to be a part of this unified body. Through God’s miraculous and creative power, the Holy Spirit builds up relationships and unions that are grounded in this world’s marvelous diversity. We don’t have to lose ourselves to become one with the other, and others don’t have to lose themselves to become one with us. The Spirit works in diversity and through diversity to produce amazing results beyond what we could ever create through the limits of our own tendencies to group like with like.
Even in our serendipitous encounter with those two other English speakers on the tram that night back in August, it was—in essence—diversity that brought us together. If we had all been riding on a train in the United States or even in England, I can’t really imagine we would’ve ever started a conversation with them. And yet, over the muffled zooming of the electric streetcar and the sounds of distant chatter and laughter that night, we heard the words of our native language calling through the din. The homey-ness of those familiar words in the midst of that unfamiliar and foreign place brought forth a connection out of the contrast. Likewise, the Holy Spirit is flexible enough, creative enough, powerful enough, and persistent enough to call out to all of our hearts in whatever language we need to hear. The Spirit’s call may (and probably will) be shocking at times, and sometimes unwanted, but when it comes, it hits home. And this is because the Spirit is not limited by our human mindsets, our finite experiences, our knowledge of words or languages, or even our divisions. Ever since time immemorial, the Holy Spirit has been breathing into us and our fellow human beings the words of life.
As Peter exhorts the crowed following these amazing proclamations in all different languages, he quotes the Old Testament prophet Joel: “In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and your daughters will prophesy. Your young will see visions. Your elders will dream dreams. Even upon my servants, men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy” (vv. 17-18). No one is excluded—not the young people, who have not yet attained their full status in society; not the elderly, whose power is waning; not the women, whose rights and social standing were minimal compared to men in those days; not even the slaves, who are the lowest of all. When it comes to the Holy Spirit, all are welcome and all are included. All can receive the Spirit into their hearts, and all can prophesy. In the Holy Spirit, our awesome, almighty, ineffable God has come down to us and is so close that she is the very air we breathe. When we long for connection and feel like God is far away, the Holy Spirit is right. here. The power of a God who loved us so much that, in Jesus Christ, he died for us and rose again is right. here. Breaking into our hearts, into this church, into this community, into this country, and all throughout the world. She is already working tirelessly to inspire more people to breathe in that love and power and join her in the transformative mission of building God’s beautiful kingdom of justice, unity, and diversity in every place.