Much like a violent wind, their voices charged with passion through a closed door and down a long hallway. To all who could hear, it sounded like a million languages swirling around in a cacophony so charged, so ignited it like a forest fire fighting to be contained.
Last week Chris talked about the ten-day committee meeting that preceded today’s Pentecost event. After the Ascension and before the Pentecost, the remaining 11 disciples spent ten days deliberating over the disciple who would replace the betraying Judas. If ten days sounded miserable – tedious – imagine fifteen years.
From 1937 to 1952, a group of biblical scholars committed themselves to the task of translating Holy Scripture into a more readable, accessible corpus as the ever popular King James Version needed an update. For those years, they took each word of Holy Writ, each letter and tore it apart. They would unravel a word in shreds of parsing and syntax and stroke and vowel pointing until they felt sure enough to stitch it back up into a suitable and sustainable intonation of their God. But this work – holy as it was – was difficult. See, each scholar spoke in his own native language – a language of faith and learned vocation, of denomination and context, of history and hope, of mind and heart. Not one approached Scripture in the same way. To translate God’s Word with integrity meant that the scholars had to find a common voice, a shared native language. It meant that they would all have to agree, in some way or another, on every word of this Revised Standard Version translation.
To get there, it sounded much like a violent wind as their arguments carried from the seminar room down the halls of Yale Divinity School, disturbing students and professors alike. After some time, the school decided it could not handle the intensity of the scholars’ work. It was disturbing. It was gregarious. It was dramatic. It demanded too much. To keep the halls quiet, Yale installed a second set of thick wooden doors to the scholars’ workroom, hoping that their spirited language could be quelled.1
Let us pray. Holy God who knows no bounds, break into the locked doors of our hearts. Ignite Your Spirit within us. Set us free in the grace of Christ. Amen.
The founding of the church is an astonishing event. We celebrate it here today, as Pentecost, the birthday of the church, the moment the disciples were filled with the Spirit and sent out into the world to preach the Good News of the Risen Christ, to help foster communities of the earliest believers, to render what they knew as hope in their Rabbi and confidant Jesus into a life of faith and discipleship.
The founding of the church is also a bit bizarre. It demands our return to the text year in and year out, always these 50 days after Easter. Let’s review the seemingly normal bits before we delve into this speaking in tongues wackiness.
Acts Chapter 2 starts in verse 1 saying, "When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all in one place." "They" meaning the disciples now 12 in full with Matthias, Judas’ replacement, and "one place" being an upper room – the conference room of the ten-day meeting. "Suddenly," verse 2 tells us, "there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting." Disciples, ten days tired, worn from tedium, wind rushing in, filling house. Then – here’s where it gets good – "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" (verses 3-4, emphasis mine). Missing Jesus, out of words, unsure of the future, doubtful of their skill set. Each one of the disciples began to speak in other languages – verbage they have never used before lighting their tongues, the sounds of trills and guttural consonants filling the air with confidence and bravado. And it was loud; it was strange; it was dissonant.
I love this part of the story. It is thrilling to think of, to imagine such an intensely confined space set loose by the Holy Spirit, people becoming ecstatic with emotion and losing control of themselves as they give in to a sensation new and never to be repeated again. But, once I set aside my feelings and give into my thinking, I’m left with a bevy of unanswered questions like…
As the Spirit filled the disciples’ mouths, devout Jews gathered at the sound and were "bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each" (v. 6). They asked – and I ask, too – "How is that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?" (v. 8). If it were the native language of those gathered, then they must have understood what was being said, right? They knew the words of the disciples even if they had never heard them strung together or posited in that exact way. Remember – it was loud; it was strange; it was dissonant and yet – and yet, it was the same message through every tongue and in every ear. Everyone who was there heard this one proclamation. So the crowd, "amazed and perplexed," looked at each other with wide eyes and raised eyebrows and asked, "What does this mean?" What does this – this thing we’ve all heard in a language accessible and our own yet shared in the same message – what does this mean?
Will Willimon in his commentary on Acts offers this explanation, "We are listening to the account of something strange, beyond the bounds of imagination, miraculous, inscrutable, an origin which, as far as Luke is concerned, was the only way one could ‘explain’ the existence of the church. No flat, prosaic explanation can do justice to the truth of how the church came into being and how the once timid disciples found their tongues to proclaim the truth of Christ."2
What they were saying, were speaking, were proclaiming was the truth of Christ – of the Holiest of Holies who loved us so entirely that God chose to become human, incarnate and live among a broken world preaching restoration, of a Savior crucified, of a Messiah ascended.
Those gathered to hear there and us gathered to hear here begin our life as a church with the same foundational statement: Jesus is the Messiah. The power of the Spirit on Pentecost enabled each tongue to move in such a way that all could hear such a message, a message of monumental, historical, table-turning, life-changing, death-defeating grace that God does indeed live in our midst. People from disparate walks of life, cultures, communities, languages could all hear this foundation of a faith yet still in its infancy. Like a baby letting out her first scream that is at once so new/so never before yet since the beginning/primordial/same as it ever was, the church on Pentecost let out a holy noise in those first minutes that we can still hear like a resounding joy today.
No wonder the crowd retorted, "What does this mean?" It is the same question we’ve been asking since that very moment.
Our history as a particular branch of a gigantic tree sprung from this small and very loud seed is a history rife with asking "What does this mean?" I am a Christian at my core and choose to live that out as a Presbyterian in practice. I want to belong to a lineage who’s family crest is emboldened with the phrase "The church is always being reformed." At the very beginning of our Presbyterian history during the Reformation, this phrase – "Ecclesia semper reformanda est" was sewn upon the hearts of believers right next to a badge which would never be stripped: "Jesus is the Messiah." These two shields are what set us apart in our infancy and have stuck with us ever since. We’ve been on a long journey, a long quest to constantly take the foundation of our faith of Jesus as the Christ and placing it alongside a practice of figuring out what that means.
Today as we confirm our eighth graders, we are not confirming that they have the answers to all questions of faith. We are confirming that instead, they have sewn such crests upon their own hearts – that they affirm Jesus as their Savior and they are committing to a life of always being reformed, of asking, "What does this mean?". These young adults did not get here alone but through the in-breaking of the Holy Spirit into you who made vows at their baptism, into our community who taught with hope in their future, into our world that will challenge them at every turn, into their own tongues that were willing to speak and their own ears that were willing to hear.
Today, we also confirm a hope in our own future as a church made of individuals – of individual tongues and languages and questions and histories and doubts – who are drawn together by the Holy Spirit through the strongest of ties that bind: that Jesus is our Lord and Savior and we, all, are trying to figure out what that actually means. The birthday of the church is a renewal of another chance yet again set our faith aflame, stirred and abuzz with the power of its message.
The sound of our faith – of our unified native language and the questions grown from such fertile seed – is not meant to stand still on our tongues but should be heard down the hall, down the street, at the dinner table, among friends and among acquaintances, with those who voted For and those who voted Against, with those who terrify us and those who comfort us.
The movement of our faith – of a hope so ablaze it cannot be contained – is not meant to be paralyzed but embodied and should be seen in how we greet one another in the workplace as we pass by co-workers’ cubicles, in how we pay attention in the carpool line as you see another as weary as yourself, in how we hold the silence at a family member’s hospital bed.
The promise of our faith – of a Spirit that is eternal and relentless and keeps on coming back – is that when the Spirit lit the voices of the disciples on fire, the Spirit was not picky. The disciples were a rag-tag group of sinners who had varying sets of skills and certainly varying sets of history. What they had in common is that they knew a life of faith in Christ was not about control or about being right or wrong or having a plan or climbing any ladders or checking off any lists but instead was about a native language all their own, all our own: Jesus is the Messiah. When they knew this in their hearts, the Spirit showed up like a mighty rushing wind and gave them each – no matter who they were or what they had done – gave them each the ability to fully be the church.
The Spirit is here, friends.
And all God’s people said, Amen.
1. I owe this story to The Reverend Doctor Nancy S. Taylor, Senior Minister at Old South Church in Boston, MA. Hear and read her sermon "Beautiful" in full form at http://www.oldsouth.org/podcasts/sermon-2009-12-20.
2. Willimon, William H. Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching; Acts. p. 29