*Sermon preached on 09 June 2019, at First Christian Church of Hampton. Like eating together builds relationships, stories knit us together – reminding us who we are and who we are to be. AS those who claim Christ, it is to embody Christ in a very challenged world. If anything witnesses Pentecost, it is we discipling others through our very lives’ example. – Vinson
Book of Acts 2:1-21 (New Revised Standard Version)
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, 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. Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean? But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.” But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: ‘In the last days it will be, God declares, 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. And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’
In 1969, Mom and Dad flew out to the Disciples’ “General Assembly,” in Seattle, putting my 17-year old brother, Loren, in charge while they were gone. It was a different time. But even then, it probably wasn’t the best idea. One night he went for a joyride from our village near Wilson all the way to Tarboro. After all, there was a girl to be seen, one he had met at church camp that summer. Having spotted her across the field, he gunned the car only to sink Mom’s 1967 Vista Cruiser station wagon in an unseen swamp, then had to find a tractor trailer driver to pull him out. Mom always wondered why her car had some odd scratches and I always wondered why the car came back with mud in the door sills. Mom was horrified when decades later, she learned the truth. Other stories we have retold are of the life-informing hard experiences of life as a preacher’s kids, like the Saturday morning my brother Wendell and I spent cleaning up Klan literature and the remains of a burned cross in the parsonage yard – dad having made enemies.
When my sister and two brothers get together every so many years, many long-familiar tales are retold, our children often amused hearing them for the first time. Sometimes new details are added. Sometimes new tales are told, of what each of us did and got away with somehow. Family storytelling of whatever kind has a way of knitting families together in common purpose, and isn’t that exactly what Luke is doing for us, in the Book of Acts, as he retells us the many family stories that ensured the formation of Christ’s church?
WHY I BRING THIS UP
I had already been captivated by the verse, “What does this mean?,” asked by those present at Pentecost, when I crafted today’s bulletin a couple weeks ago. Then, as one might surmise when spending three and a half days in the hospital last weekend, unplugged from my computer, not interested in TV – there was plenty of time to ponder that verse. To be perfectly honest, I have always zoomed past those four words and focused on the whole “birthday of the Church” theme. And yes, this IS the day we rightly think of the historic church as being born, equipped for its mission, emboldened to speak with authority to matters of life. However, perhaps we miss in Luke’s words something that surely speaks to our own age – God’s embrace and acceptance of the diversity of people as inseparable from that which is Church.
Luke, a master storyteller, writes with an economy of words and every detail has meaning. So in looking at verses, 5-11, what if Luke crafted this “table of nations” present that long-ago morning, in order to weaken the prevailing sense of divisiveness of who was in and who out, so that a new foundation might burst forth – a vision that transcends forms of identity without asking any to forsake their uniqueness?
In this larger vision, it would make sense then, that Luke’s list is a theological response to the apostles’ question in Acts 1:6: “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” You may remember, Jesus’ response was rather oblique. “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” [Acts 1:7-8]. Now that the Holy Spirit has indeed come – we find the apostles’ hopes for a renewed Israel to be stretched beyond their limited scope of theological vision. First, there is the inclusion of the Medes and Elamites. The Elamites were nearly wiped out by the Assyrians in 640 B.C.E. and eventually absorbed into the Parthenian Empire. The Median Empire entered into a political alliance with Babylon and was later absorbed into the empire rooted in Mesopotamia and ruled by Cyrus II – the Medes as a distinct ethnic group being extinct for over five-hundred years. Yet, it was that the Parthenian, Medic, and Elamite regions, encompassing Sumaria and Northern Israel, which housed descendants of the ten tribes of Israel and members of the two tribes who did not return from exile. Then, there is the inclusion of nations encompassing North Africa, Asia and Asia Minor, all the way to Rome. I don’t think Luke’s intent was to be exhaustive, but to point to the broadening question of “What does this mean?”
Well, for one thing, God isn’t drunk and neither are the followers present in a morning “breeze” unlike any other in which the Spirit was manifested. Something new is taking place, says Peter, that God’s word through the prophet Joel, has been fulfilled: “…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” [Acts 2:17-18]. All flesh. Not this or that. All inclusive in a universal vision for the restoration of all people.
And here, I would suggest, is the pivotal verse from this story of our family, which is “Church.” Having gathered with fellow Jews across the Mediterranean world, near the full expanse of the Roman Empire, “suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting,” as Luke gets to the heart of it, Galileans were “speaking in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability” – raising the question among the visitors: “…how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?” [Acts 2:8]
“How is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?”
At first blush, it’s easy to think of this event as a reversal of the Tower of Babel story [Genesis 11:1-9], except there is no undoing the diversity of human languages as was precipitated by Babel. This raises the question: Why would the Spirit enable everyone to hear the Gospel in their own language, instead of some common… universal… heavenly language? This was the thing I had thought so much about and I came to a similar conclusion as an intriguing article I came across in recent days. In words far better than anything I could offer, Eric Barreto, Associate Professor of New Testament at Princeton Theological Seminary, writes:
“…what happens at Pentecost. God, through the Spirit, chooses to meet us where we are: in the midst of a multitude of languages and experiences. The Spirit translates the Gospel instantly into myriad languages. If you think this is easy, then you have never tried learning a new language! You don’t just substitute one word in one language for a corresponding word in another language. Language is messy and intricate. Language is rooted in a wider, more complex culture and way of thinking and living. Even when we speak the same language, don’t we still have a hard time understanding one another? Imagine then the miracle of Pentecost and what it means for us today. God meets us in the messiness of different languages and does not ask us to speak God’s language. Instead, God chooses to speak our many languages. God does not speak in a divine language beyond our comprehension. At Pentecost, God speaks in Aramaic and Greek and other ancient languages. Today, God continues to speak in Spanish, Greek, Hindi and Chinese alike. At Pentecost, God makes God’s choice clear. God joins us in the midst of the messiness and the difficulties of speaking different languages, eating different foods and living in different cultures. That is good news indeed.”
So what if Pentecost, the movement of the Spirit upon all life, like the Spirit once moved upon the face of the deep in the Creation giving order to chaos, is about celebrating the wedding of our differences that surrenders none of our uniqueness?
What would that look like then, to be God’s change agents in a society struggling with its own list of divisions, one too often reflected among those bearing the name Christian – instead of being those imbibed with God’s Spirit?
What would it look like to have the insight of the children’s author Dr. Seuss in “The Sneetches,” with his telling of those with the “stars upon thars” and those without, chaos created by the merchants of societal divisiveness, and with only political partisanship profiting? Sounds somewhat familiar, doesn’t it? — as now, in our own age, while our environment dies, our children are poisoned, the stranger is jailed for seeking “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” with the idea an American God only likes native-born citizens – as our nation corrupts God’s good gifts.
What would that look like then, given too often we have incorrectly heard Galatians 3:28 — as to what the reign of God ushers in?
Seeing “no longer Jew or Greek” – but for those born of every color and ethnic clan, we nevertheless ensured that our standard of love for one another wasn’t about mere tolerance, but the embrace of genuine acceptance?
Seeing “no longer slave or free” – yet in spite of the differences of class and status between us, we nevertheless ensured all had healthcare, a place to live, food in their belly, and hope to give their children?
Seeing “no longer male and female” – but that each person has been crafted by God and pronounced “good” by the word of God in the Book of Genesis, we nevertheless accepted one another in the love of Christ, be we male, female, gay, lesbian, bisexual, asexual, intersexual, or trans?
What would that look like if, at last, we truly spoke the language that can be heard by every single child of God? And, by so doing, we discover that the giftedness of Pentecost is about the destruction of privilege, inviting us to the heavenly table where differences are valued, accepted, and finally – are genuinely celebrated?
Perhaps no one has come closer in our lifetime, than when Martin Luther King, Jr, said:
“When this happens,
when we allow freedom to ring,
when we let it ring from every village
and every hamlet,
from every state and every city,
[THEN] we will be able to speed up that day when ALL of God’s children… will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual;
Free at last. Free at last. Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”
May the church say, Amen!
Sermon Notes: Eric D. Barreto, “Acts 2:1-21: Think Differently About Difference,” 23 May 2012, accessed 05 Jun 2019, at: https://www.huffpost.com/entry/acts-2-1-21-think-differently-about-difference_b_1539115