The Sound of Pentecost

You may listen to Mother Erika's sermon here.

It is a tradition, in some Episcopal churches, to offer this morning’s lesson from Acts in a slightly unusual way. Because the reading tells of the disciples being inspired by the Holy Spirit to speak in many different tongues, some churches try to recreate this experience by having not just one reader for this lesson, but a whole string of readers, each of whom reads a verse or two in a language in which they are fluent. The effect, I’m sure, is to create a sense of the sound of that Pentecost morning in Palestine, to paint the aural landscape from a rich palate of sounds and inflections, to sound something like this:

When the day of Pentecost had come, the disciples were all together in one place. Und es geschah schnell ein Brausen vom Himmel wie eines gewaltigen Windes und erfüllte das ganze Haus, da sie saßen. Au même moment, ils virent apparaître des sortes de langues qui ressemblaient à des flammèches. Cosí furono tutti ripieni di Spirito Santo e cominciarono a parlare in altre lingue, secondo che lo Spirito dava loro di esprimersi.

While I appreciate the intent behind these kinds of readings, there are two problems with this approach that are immediately apparent. The first is that most of the time, because of the people who read them, these verses are read in a smattering of European languages – French, Italian, German – languages whose aural colors are different than English, to be sure, but not from quite the same palate as the languages of the Parthians, Medes, and Elamites. The sounds are not quite right. The greater problem, though, is that this experience is not quite right. The whole point of the disciples being gifted by the Holy Spirit to speak in different languages was so that all of the people, all of the visitors “from every nation under heaven” who were in town for the festival of Pentecost, could understand what was being said. The miracle was that everyone could understand everything, not that random people in the crowd could understand two verses in twenty. The upshot of all of this is that unless you’re someone who speaks every language known to man, as some of you undoubtedly do, the experience of these kinds of Pentecost readings is likely to be more confusing than clarifying.

In response to this concern, I’ve heard of a few churches who try a different approach. Instead of dividing up the reading into separate verses, one for each represented language, they have different people read the entire lesson in different languages – all at the same time. The lesson is read simultaneously by a whole gaggle of lectors, lined up at the front of the church and belting out these verses in their best Mandarin Chinese or Portuguese or Russian. This approach, while eliminating the problem of understanding only two verses in twenty, obviously comes with its own significant challenges, which are best summed up by a former parishioner of mine who, honestly confused by a church experience she had had while on vacation, asked me why this church had acted out the story of the Tower of Babel on Pentecost instead of the regular lections.

Now I don’t mean to make these approaches to this Pentecost reading seem overly silly, because they certainly aren’t intended that way. I do see what these churches are getting at. The day of Pentecost as we hear it described in Acts was, first and foremost, an experience – a banquet for the senses, something to be seen and felt and heard and touched. The rumble of rushing wind, the heat and light of those tongues of fire, the pure music of all of those lovely languages as they danced around the dazzled crowd. Pentecost is a day to be felt, known and understood not only with our minds but with our bodies. Pentecost is a big, larger-than-life festival day, a scene that we can easily imagine in epic, Cecil B. DeMille style, with apostles standing on majestic sets, booming forth their proclamation in hearty voices well-trained for the stage, with thousands of extras running to and fro with looks of bewildered joy on their faces and happy exclamations on their lips, with fanfares and flourishes and noise, noise, noise, noise. Pentecost is a celebration on a large scale, a loud, busy, grand and wonderful day.

But Pentecost is not just about the pomp of the circumstance. Pentecost is not just about the noise. Because the devout Jews who heard the disciples speaking in many tongues not only heard words in their own language; they actually heard the word of God. They heard what the disciples were saying, not just how they were saying it. They were able to listen past the wonder of the words themselves deep into the heart of their meaning, to hear the stories of God’s deeds of power in and by and through Jesus Christ. They not only heard; they understood. And if they understood, then they couldn’t have been just standing in place, straining to hear someone screaming at them in Mesopotamian from a far parapet; they must have followed the sound of familiarity, found the disciples who spoke their language, and gathered in tight to hear what he had to say. They must have huddled together, drawn up close, face to face, breath to breath, to hear and feel this Gospel message as near to them as it had ever been.

In the Gospel according to John, Jesus promises his disciples that he will send them the Holy Spirit to guide them into all truth. He says he will send them the Paraclete, a word sometimes translated as the Advocate or the Comforter. But the Greek word parakletos literally means “the one who is called alongside.” The Paraclete is the one pulled next to, the one drawn near, the one who comes up close. It is this particular gift of the Holy Spirit that Jesus offers us in his physical absence – not just the majesty and might of the swirling winds and fiery breath, but the intimacy of a companion, one who comes near, walks beside, and shares with.   

This has always been God’s way. For all of the smoke and fire with Moses on Mount Sinai, the flames that shot out of heaven and licked up the watery sacrifice on Elijah’s altar, the burning chariots that showed Elisha that he, too, would be a prophet, God has always also been a God of great intimacy – a personal God who speaks not only to His people but speaks to them one at a time, in their own language, who calls Moses’ own name out of a burning bush, who startles Balaam by speaking through the very donkey he is riding on, who offers Elijah the small voice of sheer silence. God has always drawn near to His people, pulled close, spoken to them persons to person.

And when the Son of God became flesh to redeem the world, he, too, spent his ministry drawing close. He spoke to the crowds, to be sure, but he also spoke to persons – to Zacchaeus and Matthias, to the Magdalene, to Nicodemus – one on one, drawing near, sharing space and breath, close and personal and intimate.

One of my professors at seminary once joked about how much easier it would have been if God had just waited until now to be made manifest. If God had just waited, he teased, he could have put Jesus Christ on CNN – the Sermon on the Mount could have been streamed live all over all the continents in every language known to woman, his healings could have been broadcast live and in HD. But then, my professor said seriously, this never actually could have happened. Because this is just not how the Son of God works. Even if he had walked the earth in our own age of lightning-fast communications, Christ still would have worked slowly, quietly, one on one, drawing close, coming alongside, and being near. 

This is how God works today, on this Pentecost. Yes, there is a feast, and yes we are celebrating, and yes we sing mighty hymns and think about the height and depth and breadth of the Holy Spirit’s life-giving and energizing work in the Church. But we also remember that aspect of the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete, who comes alongside you and speaks the Gospel – not just to all the multitudes where we might have to strain to hear the Good News – but right to you, in your ear, in the language that is easiest for you to hear – the language of Stravinsky, perhaps, or the language of shared prayer. The language of bended knee, the language of another’s face, the language of bread and wine. This is God’s promised gift – that he comes alongside us, wherever we are, whatever language we speak, and says, Lean in and listen. I am here, I am with you. When you are in church, at work, at school, on the streets, I am beside you. When you are kneeling in repentance, lying in weakness, standing in strength, dancing in joy, I am beside you. When you are comforting, exhorting, dreaming, prophesying, proclaiming, I am beside you. When you go into all the world, to the ends of the earth, to share and live and sing the Gospel message, I am always right beside you. So lean in close and listen, to the still, small voice – to that sound of Pentecost.       


Posted on June 3, 2012 .