Text: Acts 2:1-21
You may not fall victim to this, but I know when I read the Pentecost story, I get swept away in the supernatural elements. The winds, the flame, the astounding gift of tongues. And then to hear about the last days where there will be portents of blood, fire, and smoky mist, when the sun will be darkness and the moon turned to blood. Moon to blood - it’s hard not to get distracted by that!
With all these signs, it’s easy to miss the really amazing part of the story – a part that’s not even in the lectionary section for today - that on that very day three thousand people were baptized. Because of what they had heard – the good news in their own language.
This is the beginning of the church - the community of faith. Not just that the Holy Spirit came or that the disciples went from the room they were hiding in into the world, but that people who did not believe came to believe. It is from this moment that the church – our church – our family in Christ will continue to grow, to spread beyond the city of Jerusalem, to cross mountains and oceans and last longer than even the most powerful empires of the earth.
The church grew because along the way, followers of Christ continued to speak the Good News in new languages. And these languages aren’t just Greek or Hebrew, Spanish or English. The disciples could and did speak languages of different cultures and communities. That’s one of the reasons our four gospels sound different from one another. Not only did the writers have different perspectives, but they were writing to different communities – communities that might hear the good news in the language of Jewish prophecy fulfilled as was the case with Matthew or in the language of Greek rhetoric as was the case with John.
Empowered by the Holy Spirit, Christians have been able to reach out to people from different communities and nations and share the good news. The Holy Spirit has gifted those who would seek to share the Gospel with the ability to speak with people with different languages – languages made of words and languages made of culture.
The Holy Spirit has gifted and continues to gift the body of Christ with the languages we need to reach out and share the good news. The Holy Spirit continues to empower us to birth the family of faith in new communities and grow abundantly.
Then why are we dying?
Why does the church in our nation continue to hemorrhage members? Why does it seem people are more comfortable saying they are “spiritual” than to claim a community of faith? Oh, yes, individual churches may be growing but overall the church attendance in the United States is down just as the number of those who say they don’t believe in God is up.
There are certainly many reasons we can say why the church seems to be dying – division, moral relativism, the natural and historic growth patterns of the church that mean we shrink while new places like Africa or Latin America grow.
Or maybe there’s something else. The Holy Spirit has gifted us with the languages and ability to reach peoples of all ages, races, creeds, and contexts. And yet we don’t seem to be doing the best job of that. It’s not as though the Holy Spirit has stopped working or just isn’t around anymore. But something is different than it was on the first day of the church. And what’s different is us.
We have the gift of languages. Even if we can’t speak Swahili or Portuguese or anything like that, we can speak to people who would hear the good news in a different way than we do. Through the Holy Spirit that comes as fire and wind, we can speak as many languages as there are peoples.
But we aren’t. We aren’t speaking new languages – not loudly, not boldly. Instead of acting like we’re on fire with passion for the Gospel, we often act like the disciples before Pentecost, scared and silent, stuck up in the safety of our room, our comfort zone, with no one to worry about but ourselves.
But that’s not who we are called to be. We are called to run out of the safety and security of our walls, to speak loudly of God’s love, and to do so in ways that may be unfamiliar to us, in the hopes that the language we speak resonates with others.
When God sent the Spirit, began the church, the Holy One didn’t demand that all peoples hear the good news in the one true language of Aramaic, Greek, or Hebrew. No - the good news came to the people in their language. As children of the reformation, we can appreciate that God’s living word is one that is meant to be spoken in the language of the people - whatever that language may be.
We are called to speak new languages - not to demand that others learn ours.
The Good News is multicultural and multi-generational. So too must we be. While we - Covenant Presbyterian Church - cannot speak all the languages out there, we can learn a few more. We can learn to understand that brothers and sisters like those in our confirmation class hear and live out the Gospel in new ways and new words - though the Gospel is the same as it was in my generation or yours or yours. While we appreciate our way of worship or our way of education, our partnership with the Bedele congregation in Ethiopia reminds us that different practices and different priorities can still reflect the same faith.
I was talking with an acquaintance of mine the other night about not really being a morning person but managing to pretend reasonably well on Sunday mornings. He looked at me and said, “Yeah, what’s up with that? Why does church have to be in the morning?”
You know, I couldn’t think of a good answer.
That’s in part what I mean by speaking new languages. Maybe church doesn’t have to speak in the words of a morning service – other churches have services in the evenings, on different days. Maybe if we worshipped on Sunday evening this young adult would be more inclined to come since he didn’t have to get out of bed at an hour that in his language he would call too early. Or maybe if we learned to speak through mission instead of just hoping people will come to hear our speech in worship, or maybe if we were just bold enough to say “I love Jesus!,” without any shame, we would connect to those for whom our current language is just babble.
I don’t know. And we won’t know - we won’t know if these are the words we need to speak until we at least try some out. We won’t know if something is the language the Holy Spirit has gifted us with until we try to speak.
We have been hesitant to speak and live the Gospel in new ways in part because our old ways are really comfortable. We know what to expect and know we won’t be ridiculed for them. We know that if we go out into this world, alive and bright and burning with the power of God and the love of Christ, that when we shimmer and shine with the Holy Spirit, we’re gonna stand out. Like with the first disciples, people may look at us and think we’re crazy, foolish, or want to know what we’re on.
But we - like the disciples - need to risk appearing a bit foolish. Need to risk doing something that won’t work or stretches us past our comfort zones, knowing and trusting that the Advocate is still at work among us and within us.
We need to speak new languages so that those who do not hear the Good News in the words we speak now, will. So that they may come to know of God’s love and come to know a community of faith where they can be both nurtured and sent out into the world to share God’s grace with others.