Acts 2:1-8, 42-45 - read in English, German, Yoruba,French & Mandarin
Our scripture reading today tells us that there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven gathered together, waiting for some sign or word from God. They had seen their leader executed, witnessed his resurrection and watched as he ascended heavenly-ward, returning to God. Their patience and dedication bore fruit in the coming of the Holy Spirit as it descended upon them with a rush of wind and with tongues of fire. They each spoke in their own language and yet they were all understood. This remarkable moment of the speaking of many different tongues is intended to recall the listener of the day back to the story of the Hebrew Scriptures—a story that every Jew in that time would have known from hearing it being told in synagogue—the story of the Tower of Babel.
In chapter eleven of Genesis, it is told that the whole of earth spoke the same language and used the same words. I suppose that means idioms did not really exist—you know, those words and phrases that are specific to a certain culture or location. Like, only people from Saskatchewan know what a bunny hug is or how when I asked for a pop in Australia they looked at me in confusion and finally asked, do you mean you want a SODA? Back in the days of Genesis, everyone spoke the same and could understand one another. But then they all got a little too big for their britches and God felt the need to knock them down a peg or two. The people had begun to build a tower that would reach the heavens. In the creation of such an impressive structure, they were attempting to make a name for themselves. God saw that if they could build such a tower, there would be no end to their striving to become God-like themselves and so, because of their hubris, God threw a wrench into their plans by confusing their language. No longer could they understand one another. And to make matters worse, God scattered the people all over the face of the earth so that the knowing each other and the learning of each other’s languages was made all that much more difficult.
It reminds me of Trevor Noah's story of the important of language and dialect that he speaks about in his memoir, Born a Crime. Being a child of mixed race in South Africa, he fit in with neither the blacks or the whites. But he found that he was more readily accepted if he SOUNDED like the group he was trying to hang out with. Trevor had a knack for easily picking up other languages and copying the dialects of whomever he met. The difference in colour of skin between him and who he was talking to, no longer mattered as much as long as he sounded like them. Language matters. Sounding the same and having similar words as each other matters.
This Pentecost tale that we’re told today could be heard as a reversal of that Tower of Babel story. Instead of many languages being spoken and no one understanding the other, a multitude of languages is spoken but they all understood one another—just as if they each had a little translator in their ear like they do at meetings of the United Nations—you know, the speaker speaks their language and someone is translating simultaneously so that those who don’t understand whatever language is being spoken can hear it right in their ear in their own language. Today, instead of you all having your own such devices, you had the words projected up on the screen. French, English, Yoruba ,Mandarin, German, all spoken and all understood. But the Pentecost moment is not a true reversal of that Babel story. There was not a reverting to everyone speaking the same language as they did before the arrogance of humankind allowed them to think they all could become gods themselves if they built a big enough tower. The people of Pentecost were NOT of all the same culture, background or even positions of authority within their faith. There were people of all standings there together. They met without regard for societal rules concerning the mixing of genders and status. What or who you were outside the doors of the house church mattered not. Those gathered were not necessarily the same in all of their beliefs or the manner in which they lived their lives BUT they had this in common. They were willing to be with one another. To be in relationship with one another. The diversity of those gathered was not washed away, not blended into an indistinguishable mix—like when the kids smush together the colours of playdough so it became an allover taupey colour. A non-colour. Instead the differences amongst themselves were acknowledged and used to best worship God and to follow the Way that Jesus set before them in his life, his ministry and his resurrection. The Pentecostal moment, the Holy Spirit descending, the fire lighting above their heads, the speaking in tongues understood by all, was not the culmination of God’s work through Jesus in the world, but it was the beginning of God’s work in and around the world through this gathering of people we have come to call the Church.
This birthing of the Church, nearly 2000 years ago, brought together people of all stripes, sizes and shapes. There seems to have been no prerequisites for joining in. In today’s reading we hear the Church began with devout Jews—and of course it did, because Jesus lived his life as a Jew after all. Remember, he would have considered himself a Jew until the very day he died—he didn’t set out to break away from Judaism but to offer a new way of showing and sharing God’s love in the world within the faith tradition in which he was raised. And so, the story of the Church begins with the Jews. But we know that it is not too long after this wind-filled and fiery moment, that Gentiles, non-Jews, were welcomed into the fold. And, when that began to happen, no longer could this breakaway sect be considered, at its foundation, to be a strand or denomination of Judaism. Thus Christianity and its Church was born.
And what is important for us to hear, all these years later, is that this Church which was developing in real time for those followers of Jesus, was not was created with a perfect and saved people. We know these people from the Gospels. The disciples had trust issues. They had moments when they were not at their brightest, they failed to stand up when standing up was the only right and good thing to do. They sometimes spoke and acted hastily, without first literally considering what would Jesus do in those moments. Peter, the rock upon which Jesus built his church, even denied knowing Jesus, not once but three times. It is vital for us to understand that this story of Pentecost shows us that it was the perfectly imperfect who came together to receive the Holy Spirit. And the Holy Spirit was sent by God to ready all them, each of them with their own strengths and weaknesses, to empower them to offer the witness of what God’s love looks like when it’s lived out as was demonstrated by Jesus. This description of the early Church shows to us how Church was, and still is supposed to be, first and foremost, a fellowship of believers. It is a gathering of those who were then, and are today, a group of people who come with their own baggage, our own hurt, our own bits of selfishness and greed, our own sense of mistrust in the world around us and we gather so that we may enter into the process of being changed. Of being made whole and healthy—which is another way of saying, if you will, of being saved. Of finding trust. Of finding peace. Of finding the truth of oneself. Of finding a love and grace that overflows and in the overflowing, can be shared with abandon into the world. The Church was and is a people coming together and inviting others along on the adventure, this journey of faith. Inviting others into a life that lifts up love for one another over the striving for individual gain. Into a life that offers an abundance of compassion, care and concern over and above scarcity that comes with greed, fear and distrust.
The early Church collected themselves together and figured out how best to continue to learn from the ascended Jesus, the one whom they knew to be their Christ. And how to offer that learning to others who had never met Jesus but also understood him to be their Christ. The second chapter of Acts lays out how they encouraged others to become disciples of Christ. Sell all possessions, distribute to those in need, spend time together in the Temple and break bread with one another with a glad and generous heart. Out of interest, I went to the Holy Search Engine of Google to find out if there were any modern-day guidelines on how to be a disciple. And this is what I have to say about the results I found. Don’t use Google to find out how to become a disciple. Stick with the Bible, it’s all there. We do need to do a little updating and interpreting. It is the year 2017 after all. We now know the world is round, we know that the hubris of humanity continues to cause problems for ourselves, we live in a world in which birds of metal fly, science can help us see to worlds beyond our own and also helps us see how illness makes our bodies sick, we can talk to people pretty much anywhere on earth and from space and, within 32 hours, we can take youth from this congregation and have them visit youth on the other side of the world, in Zambia.
Being a disciple in this day and age is to live your life through the lens of the teaching of Jesus. It is the asking yourself, what WOULD Jesus do? It is choosing the option of love over the option of fear or greed. It is the recognizing that the lifestyle of which we avail ourselves has an impact on the world. Realizing when we have enough and we can give away the excess. That money and things are not all that matters—our energy, our skill, our talent can be given so as to make the world just for all people. It is the trust and belief that if we find ourselves in need, there will be others holding out their hands and hearts in love, willing to help. It is the coming together, praising and worshiping the God who loves us beyond measure. It is the taking time to sit and listen, quietly, patiently, for the Holy Spirit to breath upon us, to light such a fire that we see the Way before us.
And we are to invite others along on this journey of discipleship, remembering the purpose of the Church is not to convert. Only God can change and transform. The purpose of the Church is to offer opportunities such change and transformation. Our culture and society teaches us the illusion of control and autonomy. When, the reality is that we are NOT in control. We do not have autonomy over our lives. Ask anyone who lived near the river here in Calgary four years ago. They did not have control over whether their home was flooded. Ask anyone who has sat in the doctor’s office, listening to the worst news one can hear in that moment. Ask anyone who is of a certain age and is being told they can no longer live in their home. Control and autonomy is a falsehood that is taught to each us from an early age. The Church teaches us that, while we may not be control, we are not alone. WE are the Church, after all. Not a building but a gathering of perfectly imperfect people coming together in temple to worship and praise God, to share together what we have, to help those in need, to break bread and eat together with glad and generous hearts. In the uncertainty of what our lives have in store for us, in our fear of what is to come, in our need, in our wondering and in our doubts, there are two very certain things—one is that God loves you without end, without reservation, there is no limit to the grace offered to you in a love that beyond all knowing. And the second, is that you are not alone. You are never alone. You live in God’s world and there are many, many fellow travelers journeying along this life with you. Thanks be to God.