On fire

Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.

Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken.

Utterly amazed, they asked: “Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language?

Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!”

Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “What does this mean?”

Acts 2:1-12

Buenas dias, amigos! ¡Estoy encantando de verte hoy! Hmm. Perdón. ¿Por qué no hablas español?

Bonjour, mes amis! Comment allez-vous aujourd’hui? Hmm. Je vois qu’il y a toujours un problème ici. Hmm.

De repente veio do céu um som, como de um vento muito forte, e encheu toda a casa na qual estavam assentados. Entender?

Good morning, Friends!

Today, we’re going to talk about Pentecost – the day which celebrates the gift of the Holy Spirit. We just tried communicating with you in Spanish, French, Portuguese and sign language. It didn’t work too well, did it?

“Pentecostal” Christians are known for speaking in tongues. People speak in what they feel are different languages which are inspired by the Holy Spirit. But usually, nobody else can understand what they’re saying.

What’s described in today’s reading, however, is something different – it says that people were talking in actual, recognizable languages. “We hear them in our own languages speaking about God’s deeds of power. . .”

Christmas is a miracle. Christmas says that God is in our world. Joy to the world – the Lord has come. God’s will is “peace on earth, good will towards all people. . .”

Easter is also about a miracle. Easter says that Christ is alive. Death is not the last word, and Christ sends us to be his messengers throughout the world.

In the same way, Pentecost marks a big turning point in our history. Suddenly, people saw that God intended us to reach out across all kinds of boundaries.

At Pentecost, God showed that this wasn’t going to be a tiny movement limited to Jewish Christians in Palestine. The explosive growth that took place in the church was caused by the Holy Spirit.

Everyone who reads the Bible can see that the Holy Spirit gives us gifts. There are many different kinds of gifts – healing, teaching, wisdom, peacemaking, leadership, and so on.

And there are many fruits of the Spirit – signs that show us that the Holy Spirit is truly present. We’re talking about love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. (Galatians 5:22) When the fruits are here, the Spirit is here.

Pentecost is about a different kind of gift, which is also a gift of the Holy Spirit. It’s the gift of reaching across boundaries, to talk with people who speak in different ways than us, so that we all can hear the amazing things that God is doing in the world.

I have been fascinated by languages for most of my life. It always seems like a miracle to me, that people have different sounds, different words, to express themselves.

Language, it seems to me, is one of the greatest miracles of all. The story of Pentecost feels like a bigger miracle even than baptism or communion.

To be able to cross an ocean – not just crossing the big, blue wet thing in a boat or a plane – but to cross the ocean of experience and expression which divides us from each other – wow! That’s a real miracle, to me.

I grew up being interested in languages. My parents were fluent in several languages, and I heard them spoken at home. When I was 7, my parents took our family to Italy for a year, and they put me into the Italian first grade.

All the other kids were learning to read and write Italian, so I did, too. It was no big deal.
I think kids must have a special ability, a special flexibility, to pick up new languages when they’re young. In just a few months, I was chattering away with all my new friends in Italian.

When we came back to the U.S., I was lucky to be placed in a school where foreign languages were taught. I took French all through elementary and high school. I can still read the Bible in French and Italian, and sometimes I still dream in those languages.

But just as important – maybe even more important – as I grew up I learned about the history, the culture, the experiences, of the people who spoke those other languages. I learned about their triumphs and suffering. I learned about their ideas and their spirituality. For me, a language is a door to a whole new world. Learning a new language is a miracle, a gift of God.

I’ve never felt that our country was mono-lingual. The neighborhood I grew up in, all the families talked in Italian or Polish at the supermarket and over the back fence. That was just the way things were. I figured that everybody came here from somewhere. Some of us just got here a little earlier. That’s all.

Now that I’m older, I still don’t think that one group in our country should be excluded because of their language. I know that most of us here speak English. Springfield has always been an English-language church.

But the world is changing. Right here in our neighborhood, my next-door neighbor speaks Chinese and her boyfriend speaks Polish. Two doors down are Spanish-speaking neighbors. Down on that corner, our neighbors are from Pakistan, and they speak Urdu. Down on the other corner, that way, our neighbors are from India, and they speak Hindi.

Worldwide, English-speaking people only make up about 10% of the Christian church. Almost twice as many Christians speak Spanish. There are almost as many Christians who speak Portuguese in Brazil, as there are in all of the United States.

To me, it only makes sense to me that leaders and teachers and people who want to serve the community should make the effort to reach out to them.

A few years ago, back when I lived in Indiana, one of our members who was a retired Spanish teacher came into my office one day and announced, “Joshua, this year you are going to learn SPANISH!” (She’s only about five feet tall, but she’s kind of a force of nature. I know when to give up. Besides, I wanted to learn Spanish for a long time.)

I wish there were some way to learn a new language instantly – you know, just take a pill, or turn on a tape before you go to bed, and you wake up the next morning speaking Icelandic. It doesn’t work that way.

Anyway, she came to my office every Tuesday morning at 8:00 and spent an hour with me, and then gave me three or four hours of homework to do in my spare time.

I’m still not a very good at Spanish. I understand more than I can speak. I’m pretty good at nouns and adjectives, but Spanish verbs just drive me nuts. It’s like a whole different way of thinking, for me. But I really enjoy trying.

Some of the phrases I learned in Spanish are very interesting. In Spanish, the word educado means more than just “educated”. If you say, “Ello es muy educado,” it means a person who is well bred, who has good manners and is polite.

In the same way, when you say that someone is mal educado, “badly educated,” that’s the equivalent in English of saying that they’re a jerk. And if you say that someone is sin educación, “without education,” that’s a serious put-down in Spanish. Maybe if we all spoke Spanish we would value education more highly.

One of the things we did every week in my lessons was to read the Bible. I had a Spanish Bible which I brought to my first lesson, but my teacher said the language in it was too old-fashioned. It was like reading King James English or Shakespeare.

She made me send away for a contemporary translation, La Biblia Latinoamericana. Here’s the first thing that we read. It’s the opening words of the gospel of John:

En el principio era el Verbo,
y el Verbo estaba ante Dios,
y el Verbo era Dios.
El estaba ante Dios en el principio. . .

In the beginning was the Word,
and the Word was with God,
and the Word was God,
who was in the beginning with God. . .

It’s beautiful. Just being able to read that aloud, to hear it, for me is a gift. Or the opening words of Psalm 23:

El Señor es mi pastor: nada me falta; en verdes pastos él me hace reposar. A las aguas de descanso me conduce, y reconforta me alma.

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want; in green pastures he makes me rest. By the quiet waters he leads me, and restores my soul.

My point isn’t that everybody here should go out and start taking Spanish lessons. Although, maybe that wouldn’t be such a bad idea. There are a whole lot of people here in the community who speak Spanish as their first language. And it would be so great if we could welcome them!

You know that there are Quakers in Cuba. There are also Spanish-speaking Quakers in Mexico and El Salvador. You may not know that there are about four times as many Quakers in Guatemala as there are in North Carolina.

If we had been ready and had the right mind set, there could have been a Hispanic Friends meeting here in High Point years ago.

Let me tell you a story, about a missed opportunity. It was early in my ministry, in Boston. There was a Quaker meeting in a nearby town, which had once been one of the biggest Quaker meetings in all of New England. It was a cotton mill town, and all the factories had closed and moved to the South – probably here to North Carolina.

So, they had this huge meetinghouse, and only a handful of members – maybe 8 or 10. And this Spanish group came, and asked if they could worship with them. They were from Central America, and they had some previous contact with Quakers. They had a pastor. They wanted to come and worship. They wanted to learn more English, and they wanted to learn more about Quakers.

Overnight, the meeting would have been ten times larger! But the American Quakers said no. They didn’t want to change. They didn’t want to listen. They were even afraid to grow.

This was, like forty years ago. I still remember it. And I still think that the Holy Spirit was disappointed.

We’re not better. They’re not worse. We’re just different. We speak different languages. And from God’s point of view, that’s no biggie.

The real message of Pentecost is that God overcomes our differences. God isn’t limited by what limits us. The miracle is that God understands all languages – English, Spanish, French, Italian, Swahili, Mandarin, and thousands more. God understands them all.

Pentecost says that God speaks to everyone, without exception and without favoritism. God can reach out in all languages.

It says in the book of Acts, “I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and daughters shall prophesy, and your young people shall see visions, and your old people shall dream dreams. Even upon outcast slaves I will pour my Spirit, and they will prophesy.” (Acts 2:17)

God’s will – and it’s right here in the Bible – is for all those barriers to be broken. Not for us to all be the same. Not for everyone to speak one language. But for all of us to be free to speak our own language.

One of my friends, a Quaker pastor who was in the same class as me in seminary, once said, “The miracle of Pentecost isn’t in the speaking, but in the listening.”

Maybe the other side of the miracle, is when we all listen to each other. Not everybody has the same journey. Not everybody has the same life experience. We don’t always talk about things the same way.

I will never know, from the inside, what it’s like to be a Native American, with all those memories, and all those experiences. But I can try to listen.

I will never know, from the inside, what it’s like to be an African American, and live with all the history and all the prejudice they face. But I can try to listen. I don’t have to close my ears, and close my eyes, and close my mind.

Do you hear what I’m saying? Pentecost is about languages, but it’s also about listening. It’s about listening to who people are, and it’s about listening to how the Holy Spirit is speaking in their language as well as my language.

Sometimes it takes a long time to learn someone else’s language. Other times, the miracle of understanding takes place in a moment.

But when people listen and reach out to each other, when we discover the Light in another person, it’s a miracle, and the Holy Spirit is rejoicing.

God wants all of us to be able to listen to each other. To do whatever it takes, to work and study and even be open to miracles, so that in the end we will all be amazed and astonished.

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