May 23, 2021, Do You Hear What I’m Saying? Acts 2:1-21 – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
It was about seventeen years ago that Carroll and I began attending Trinity Church in Potsdam. One of the earliest things I remember at Trinity is the Day of Pentecost. Being in Potsdam where there are two universities, Trinity has a pretty diverse congregation, so it is their tradition on Pentecost that when the Deacon processes out into the midst of the congregation and begins to read the gospel, eight or ten or more other people begin to read the gospel at the same time. Only those other people don’t read the gospel in English. There is a Clarkson professor who reads it in Turkish. And Starr, Fr. Christopher’s wife, reads it in German. And Fr. Christopher reads it in Greek. Someone else reads it in French, and another person reads it in Chinese. Rick Hunter, who is a lawyer, used to read it in Latin. And it is the most extraordinary experience to stand there and hear an explosion of tongues, all those people speaking all at once, in all different voices and intonations. It was incredibly moving, because it made the experience of the first Pentecost Day more real to me than it had ever been.
But there is one big difference, I think, between that re-enactment of Pentecost and the real thing: and that is, except for the people who are doing the reading, pretty much nobody else can understand what’s being read. It’s just kind of a glorious chaos. But something much bigger was happening on the actual Day of Pentecost. All the disciples were gathered together – at that time there were in all about 120 men and women who followed Jesus – and they were just waiting, though they couldn’t possibly have known what they were waiting for. And suddenly there was a noise like a violent wind and when everybody looked at everybody else, there seemed to be tongues of flame resting on each of them. And then they all started to talk. But they didn’t talk in their everyday Aramaic, or even in Hebrew or Greek. They were speaking in Parthian, and Median, and Elamite, and Akkadian, and Cappadocian, and Egyptian, and Libyan, and Arabic, and almost certainly a whole bunch of other languages. We don’t even know what they were saying. All we know is that all the people gathered together in Jerusalem on that morning suddenly heard their own language being spoken. Just imagine being a foreigner in that big city on that day, far from home, surrounded by strangers, and suddenly hearing the familiar, beloved language of your childhood being spoken. That was the gift of tongues poured out on the Church of Jesus Christ on the first Day of Pentecost. It was God speaking directly to the heart of every man and woman and child, God speaking their own language.
We tend to have a very different concept these days of the gift of tongues, and it isn’t a wrong concept or a bad one. The charismatic movement that began in the 70’s revived the use of many spiritual gifts that had fallen out of favor in the Church, and one of those gifts was the use of tongues as a prayer language. Paul himself says that he sometimes prayed in tongues as a prayer language, and he spoke of the use of tongues within the Church service. But the thing about the use of tongues in that way, as Paul makes clear, is that it isn’t a clear means of communication. The person who prays in tongues, Paul says, edifies himself; it is a means of speaking to God when our own words fail. And that can be very helpful. Or, a person might speak in tongues publicly, Paul says, but there must be a person there who can translate, so that the message can be received by everyone. I think most of us have only experienced the gift of tongues, if we have experienced it at all, as something mysterious and beyond our understanding. But on that first Pentecost the gift of tongues was a gift of communication.
Our friend, Dcn. Rick Littlejohn had that kind of experience with the gift of tongues once when he was on a prayer team. A man came to the team to ask for prayer, and after they had prayed for his specific request, Dcn. Rick began to pray over the man in tongues. After a little while the man looked up in surprise, and stopped Dcn. Rick, saying, “Do you know what you are praying?” Of course, Rick had no idea at all. But it turns out that he had been praying in this man’s native language. God had given Rick the words that this man needed to hear in his own familiar tongue. And that was what the gift of tongues was all about when the Holy Spirit was first poured out on the Church.
When we celebrate the Eucharist, I pray these words: “Holy and gracious Father: In your infinite love you made us for yourself; and, when we had fallen into sin and become subject to evil and death, you, in your mercy, sent Jesus Christ, your only and eternal Son, to share our human nature, to live and die as one of us, to reconcile us to you, the God and Father of all.” The coming of the Holy Spirit was the final, essential step in that process of reconciliation between God and his children. To reconcile is to restore relationship, to resolve differences, to re-establish clear communication, which is the essential ingredient in a loving relationship, as we all know, especially if you are married.
If you remember the gospel reading last week, Peter was concerned with filling the gap within the council of the Twelve that had been left by Judas. Among the 120 disciples, there were two who had been with Jesus and the other apostles in his ministry from the beginning, and those were Joseph and Matthias. So they offered the vote up in prayer, and then they cast lots, which is a process like drawing straws or tossing a coin, seeking the will of God in the result. There wasn’t anything wrong about that, it was an established way of seeking God’s will. King David used the sacred stones, called the Urim and Thummim, in the same way, to seek God’s will. Or sometimes he would consult one of God’s prophet’s. But you can see, even for Peter and the apostles, who had known Jesus personally, there was still that separation, there was still that barrier to communication between man and God – until the Holy Spirit was poured out, until God spoke to people’s hearts, in their own words. God spoke to their hearts, to people from all over the known world, and on that one day the Church grew from 120 people to 3,000 people.
At the Last Supper, Jesus comforted his friends, assuring them that it was for their good that he was going away, because then the Holy Spirit would come to them. “When the Spirit of truth comes,” he told them, “he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.” The coming of the Holy Spirit was all that was needed for us to be in real communion with the Father at last. God’ s people would no longer communicate with God through laws or religious observances or the casting of lots or sacrificial offerings, but through the speaking of one heart to another, the heart of God speaking to his children in words they can understand, and the heart of his children speaking to their Father. “The Helper, the Holy Spirit whom the Father will send in my name,” Jesus said, “he will teach you all things. He will bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.” That’s the work of the Holy Spirit, to speak the love of the Father and the Son into our hearts. And you can be assured that he knows the language of your own heart. Because it is his desire to speak to you, in words that you can hear and understand.
Pentecost is often called the birthday of the Church, and it is really important to emphasize that the Holy Spirit was poured out on the Church as a family, a community, and not just on individuals. The gifts that the Holy Spirit gives to each member of the Church are always for the benefit of the rest of the Church, never for personal gain or glory, never just for personal gratification. All that is very true and very important. But today I wanted to shine a light on this personal aspect of Pentecost, that in pouring out his Spirit God revealed that he desires to speak to us, and that he wants us to hear him and to understand him. By the enlightening of the Spirit, God speaks to us in his word, not in riddles and codes, but so we can know him better. God’s Holy Spirit indwells our hearts, not as some kind of mystical power source, but as a teacher, as a counselor, as a comforter – as a friend. When the Holy Spirit poured out his gift of tongues on the disciples at Pentecost, it was not just a kind of glorious chaos. It was the miracle of the children of God hearing the voice of the Father, each and every one in his own, familiar language. And in the same way, every one of us, no matter who we are or where we come from, every one of us can hear the voice of the Spirit, speaking to us in the language of our own familiar hearts and minds.