The Day of Pentecost
May 15, 2016
William G. Carter
Pentecost is a really noisy day. Perhaps it is the lesser-known of the big Christian holy days, but certainly it is the loudest.
Christmas is quiet. A baby cries in the barns out back and only his parents can hear him. The angels make their announcement the Good News to the shepherds, but nobody else can hear it. King Herod wasn’t there to hear it. It is an infant-sized event in a little town that hasn’t had a famous person present for a thousand years. So we come on Christmas Eve, light candles in the dark, and sing, “How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given.” Christmas is big, but it is quiet.
Easter is quiet. The Gospel of Matthew says there was an earthquake (28:2) when an angel rolled the stone away, but he has to tell us that because nobody was there to hear it. Nobody saw the moment when Jesus was raised from the dead. It was out of sight, off the screen, under the radar. Pontius Pilate didn’t hear it. Caiaphas the high priest didn’t hear it. A few women returned from the tomb and said it was empty, but the men didn’t believe them. Behind the brass quartet and the Hallelujah Chorus was a very quiet moment.
But Pentecost is loud. When the Holy Spirit came down upon the church, the sound was deafening. Luke says it was like the rush of a mighty wind, like a tornado had come into the room. All Jerusalem had gathered for the ancient harvest festival of Pentecost, and this holy explosion happens in an upstairs room.
Not only that, all the people in the room start talking. They can’t help themselves. Everybody’s voice was raised. The sound was out of control. There was no way to shut it down. Ever been in a room where there’s too much noise?
One of my friends went to her daughter’s elementary school violin concert. She said the parents were talking, laughing, hooting and hollering. You almost couldn’t hear the violins. What’s wrong with these people? Everybody’s talking.
I think I’ve been to that meeting. Somebody up front is doing their best to moderate, but there’s a conversation over here and a conversation over there. Everybody is talking over the meeting agenda because everybody has their own agenda. It is disconcerting, really. The aftershock of that old Tower of Babel story – everybody is talking, and a lot of them are trying to out-shout the next voice.
Some say talking out of turn is a sign of the times. Maybe so. Technology makes it easy for you to text somebody from the inside of a worship service. One Christmas Eve at the late night jazz service, the drummer started texting somebody while I was preaching the sermon. Afterward I said, “What were you doing?” He said, “I sent a note to my honey and said, ‘Erin, I forget to get a Christmas present for Rev. Bill. Stop and pick something up. If you leave now, you can get here in time for communion.”
There is a lot of noise out there – and some of it comes in here. Politics is all about shouting louder than the enemies across the aisle. Advertising is all about drowning your listener with a flood of words until they give in and buy your junk. In one household I know, the family had televisions in adjacent rooms. They thought that might be a good idea; everybody could watch their own shows. But Friday nights, each TV is continually turned up louder to be heard over the TV in the next room.
The ancient story of the tower of Babel still infects us. Babel is just what it sounds like – a lot of noise, senseless syllables colliding against one another. The confusion inside our heads and hearts comes out in the chaos of our tongues. Everybody is talking, nobody is making sense. What a confusing, isolating experience!
But then, Pentecost happens. Fifty days after the cross and resurrection, there is wind and fire. People are filled with different languages, and they begin to speak. This time, however, they understand one another. The Pentecost miracle is not that everybody speaks, but they speak and understand. This is the gift of God’s Spirit – the gift of comprehension that creates human community. It’s a holy dismantling of the Babel confusion, where everybody talks over everybody else. On Pentecost, “people from every nation under heaven” are equipped to speak – and to understand. The Holy Spirit is the Translator.
It couldn’t have come at a better time. It was time for the church to push beyond its own borders, to speak beyond its own dialects. Jesus is risen, forgiveness of sin is to be announced, God wishes to create peace and unity for the whole world through a radical experiment called “church.” Here is a group of people who will love one another, who will care for the poor and needy, who will not let languages divide them.
In some corners, there are some who want to compel everybody else to speak the same language. In south Philadelphia, Geno’s Cheese Steaks made a lot of noise when the owner posted a big sign: “Only English Spoken Here.” It caused a ruckus. That was hard news in a neighborhood where Asians and Hispanics have moved in. Somebody pointed out that the Italian immigrant who started the joint had a short memory.
What are we really hungry for? It’s more than diced steak with Cheez Whiz on a roll. It’s feeling like we belong, that we are understood, that fear and anxiety do not have to define us – and that all of us are worthy of the love of God and the respect of one another. That’s why Pentecost is so important. The Spirit comes to give speech and understanding. The church is empowered to speak truth embodied in compassion.
And at the heart of it all is the astonishing good news that Jesus Christ is risen from the dead and God is stronger than the powers of death and division. The Spirit falls on the witnesses to the resurrection, and gives them courage to speak the love of Christ into a damaged and divided world.
Peter was the first to find his voice. His speech that day goes like this: Jesus was the One who did God’s wonders, who showed God’s power. He knew what it was to be crucified by human sin, to be killed by hands outside of God’s Torah. But God raised him up and freed him from death. So it’s time to turn from our destructiveness, and take the name of Jesus for ourselves. His ways can be our ways. And God’s Spirit will fill us with the ability to speak and understand.
From the very first day, this message rang true in whatever language was spoken or heard. There is something about the Gospel that meets every person at their point of need. It doesn’t matter to God what tongue is used. What matters is that the message is heard, that people cancel their own destructiveness and encourage others to do the same. What matters is that people who cannot trust one another or will not speak to one another have their tongues loosened, their ears opened, and their hearts thawed. For there is room for all of us in the embrace of God.
The Good News of Pentecost is that we don’t have to live unto ourselves, as if we’re the only ones who matter, or as if human community is an impossible dream. The Spirit blows open the window and pushes the church out into the world. God invades our isolation without asking for permission, and gives us the possibility of hearing one another, really hearing one another. And in the deep mystery of a continuing Easter, Christ comes among us as we speak in our own native tongues of how God gives us faith, hope, and love.
Pentecost is a noisy day. God’s Spirit counters the arrogance and confusion of Babel with a different kind of sound – the sound of love enlarging our hearts, the sound of peace far deeper than our fear, the sound of unity cancelling all division. Let the love, peace, and unity of God touch down on each of our foreheads as fire that cannot be extinguished.
But let us take the same love, peace, and unity beyond these walls into a broken world. Because that is what God has intended from the very beginning.
(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.