Winston Churchill once said that the United Kingdom and the United States were “separated by a common language.” I found this out the hard way when Matt and I lived in Scotland for a year when we were first married. Matt was studying at the University of Edinburgh and I worked at a Church of Scotland church in the seaside town of Belhaven on the North Sea. Until we moved to Grand Haven, Belhaven was the most beautiful place we’ve ever lived. Our flat was just a stone’s throw away from a beach and it was amazing.
After worship, the Pastor and I would greet people at the door as they made their way to coffee hour just like we do here. At the door these two adorable girls came through the line wearing adorable matching outfits that included purple pants with fun flowers on the cuffs. So I said to these little girls: ”Girls, I love your pants!” To our ears that isn’t a strange phrase. However, “Pants” in the UK means “underwear” whereas what we could call “pants” they refer to as “trousers.” I knew this to be true, but momentarily forgot, and soon realized my mistake when the eyes of both girls got really wide. I was horrified. It was one of my first Sundays and now I’m going to be known as the inappropriate pastor from America. Luckily their mother was very gracious and the pastor I worked with just cackled and said to the girls: “Don’t mind her. Remember she’s American.”
As Churchhill said, while language tends to separate us, the Holy Spirit uses language to unite those who follow Jesus.
According to our passage from Acts, there were devout Jews gathered in Jerusalem who were from as far away as Rome. If we look at this map we can see where these Jews had traveled from. Many of these faithful Jews lived far away because when their ancestors were conquered by the Babylonian Empire they were dispersed as far away as Rome, Asia and northern Africa, and subsequent generations just decided to stay there after Israel was set free from the Babylonian Empire. While they were all Jewish they spoke different languages and came from different cultures.
They had gathered in Jerusalem for a Jewish festival that celebrates the harvest and commemorates when Moses received the Law (aka the 10 commandments) on Mt. Sinai. This is important to know because when Moses received the Law, God made a covenant with Israel. In doing so God declared Israel as God’s own people and God’s faithfulness to them.
Israel, however, constantly failed to uphold the Law, so God sent Jesus to be faithful when humanity could not be. Through Christ’s perfect faithfulness God sees us as faithful. After Christ’s ascension back to heaven God sends the Holy Spirit to be our guide and counselor just as Jesus promised the disciples. So just as God declared his faithfulness to Israel on Mt. Sinai, God continues to declare his faithfulness by coming upon them as the Holy Spirit.
There are so many allusions to the Old Testament in this passage. Empowered by the Holy Spirit to not just speak, but understand languages they’ve never spoken before is the opposite of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11. The tower of Babel was built with the false belief that they could storm into Heaven and take over. As a consequence of their arrogance, God destroys the tower and separates them by having them speak different languages. Their arrogance, their sin, caused their disunity.
But on Pentecost God dismantles disunity by doing the opposite of what happened at the tower of Babel. They are now united through language. Not by speaking one language, but by being able to speak and understand languages from all over the ancient world. Notice that God doesn’t do away with different languages, but instead honors their diversity.
As usual, God works through unlikely sources. Not the religious elite or the highly educated who are now able to speak in different languages, but regular and unassuming individuals such as those who grew up on the outskirts, ie villages no one cares to visit, fishermen, women, and other unlikely disciples.
It’s no wonder they were heckled. A bunch of country bumpkins heckled because they are seen as being drunk. When God works there will always be people who won’t understand.
I have some empathy for the hecklers. God often works in ways we don’t understand. Our tendency is to assume it’s not God at work if it doesn’t make sense.
The disciples were not expecting this either. They held onto Jesus’s promise that the Holy Spirit would come, but they weren’t expecting the Holy Spirit to make such a grand, and let’s face it, odd, entrance.
I love that the Holy Spirit uses language as a way to demonstrate God’s power. I grew up in a bilingual household. While my parents were fluent in three different languages they chose to not teach my sister or me Tagalog, the National Language of the Philippines. In their own words, they wanted us to be “completely American.” That it would somehow be a disadvantage for their daughters to be bilingual as we might be seen as not completely American.
But the story of Pentecost shows that the body of Christ, the church, is for everyone no matter what language you speak. No one is seen as “other” or “less than.” There is no hierarchy. No matter where you come from or what language you speak. What matters is having faith in Jesus Christ. The gospel can be translated through any language as it is for all people and all languages.
This is what the passage of Joel is about that Peter quotes.
Men, women, young and old. Slaves and free. Everyone can be and will be used by God. The people who usually no one listens to are now the ones who will be sharing the good news of Jesus Christ. The Holy Spirit has now given a voice to those most tend to ignore.
So how is the Holy Spirit challenging us to see and listen to people we are inclined to ignore, brush off or even heckle? The very people we think have nothing worthwhile to say have become, thanks to the Holy Spirit, the mouthpiece of God.
The Holy Spirit is constantly guiding us to help us better see and experience God. Part of experiencing God is having our preconceived notions about others, ourselves, and even God, blown apart. Just like the disciples weren’t expecting the Holy Spirit to make the kind of entrance the Spirit made, or speak through the kind of people the Holy Spirit chose. What the Holy Spirit leads us to experience about God challenges to break down any barriers that we have consciously or subconsciously created.
God as Holy Spirit brings us into a more intimate relationship with God. Something that was not present before Christ was resurrected from the dead. The Holy Spirit is the same God who was present when God created everything. The Holy Spirit that was present when Mary found out she was pregnant and who raised Jesus from the dead is now present with us.
The Holy Spirit guides us to hear God, know God, and follow God in Jesus Christ. The Holy Spirit gives us the strength to stand up to hecklers as Peter did. The Holy Spirit gives us words and actions to live as the people Christ calls us to be, following his example. The Holy Spirit empowers us to be faithful so that we are empowered, just like the disciples were, to carry on what God, as Jesus, started. I always say we can’t even believe in God without God’s help and God knew this – which is why God gave us the Holy Spirit to be our help and guide in following Jesus.
But like disciples, be prepared to be surprised, or rather downright shocked at how God works. While the Holy Spirit breaks down our preconceived notions about others, ourselves, and even God, we’ll be all the better for it. For God will show us a new vision. We will see the world through God’s eyes and when we do our perspective will be broadened and deepened. We will know and experience the grace of Jesus Christ more deeply. And despite the hecklers, we will be all the better for it.