Pentecost

ImageToday is Pentecost — the day when the Apostles and disciples received the fullest expression and experience of the Holy Spirit.

I say it that way deliberately because in John’s Gospel, the Apostles receive the Holy Spirit via the Resurrected Christ Himself, who breathed on them. For John, there is no way to recognize the Resurrected Christ without the Holy Spirit making it known. The Holy Spirit is not simply “The Comforter” but He is also “The Teacher and Revealer” of knowledge and faith. Apart from the Holy Spirit, Jesus is simply another dead, would be Messiah. It would not matter that Jesus was raised from the dead because no one would recognize it or believe it. Yet, the Holy Spirit moves upon the Apostles and they witness the Resurrected Christ and go out into the world in His name. According to John, this all happens on that first Easter Sunday when Jesus Christ was raised from the dead.

Pentecost happened fifty days later. The Apostles and disciples were praying together and the Holy Spirit came, sounding like a forceful wind and “tongues” of fire settled on them and they began to preach. Saint Peter began to preach a sermon and the multicultural and multi-ethnic crowd each heard him preaching in their own language. Of course, many have attempted to explain this. I have always taken it to mean that whatever Peter was saying was heard by the crowd in their language. Some have interpreted it to mean that Peter preached and others who received the Holy Spirit translated, but I am not a fan of that interpretation.

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If Saint Peter preached and everyone, regardless of language, understood what he was saying in their own language (either by the Holy Spirit speaking a special language through him that is like the “Master Key” language that everyone understands, or through the Holy Spirit interpreting what he was saying within their own hearts), then Pentecost is the undoing of the confusion of language at Babel. If you remember the story of the Tower of Babel, before that time everyone spoke the same language and after that time God confused the language so that different people started speaking different languages. Perhaps, what happened is that the Holy Spirit was active within the world and after the Tower of Babel incident, the Holy Spirit retreated from the world at large, occasionally moving through people but not the world itself, until after the Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. I will leave it to you to decide for or against that idea as you see fit.

But Pentecost, if nothing else, does remind me of when I moved back to South Jersey after spending years away in other places in academic settings. In Seminary and in the course of my following studies, I had to learn to be somewhat functional in reading many different languages. I had to learn Biblical Hebrew, Koine Greek, I knew some Spanish already, I had to learn German, Latin, and who knows what else crept in there while I was studying. I also had to learn an academic language that is spoken in academic settings. I had to learn how to freely use and understand words like “Ontology” and “Ecclesiology” and “Praxis” and “Exegesis” and “Eschatology.” All of these languages served me well as long as I was settled within an academic setting talking with other academicians, but they did not serve me well when I was in a setting of every day people who did not devote years of their lives studying Theology or the New Testament in academic institutions. It did not serve me well in places like, well, a local congregation. It was okay in congregations near the academic setting because those churches were usually made up of professors and students, but if I ventured away from those congregations, I may as well have been speaking a foreign language when I was speaking about the Bible or anything else.

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So when I moved to South Jersey, I found it hard to talk to people in any meaningful way because we just spoke different languages even though speaking the same language. That’s another thing about Pentecost: Peter preaches in his language and people hear it in theirs. I have been in many settings, religious and nonreligious, where someone was saying something in the same language as the hearers, but the hearers were not understanding. What I did to relearn the local language is I noticed that a lot of people were into Nascar, and even though I did not get the attraction, I let them teach me about Nascar, which gave us a “common language” to speak.

The problem was not that I was smart and they were stupid, or that they were smart and I was stupid. The problem was that the way we spoke reflected the way we think and our way of thinking was different, so that even though we could use the same words, we could not understand each other. Our difficulty was not in language but in understanding. By learning Nascar, I was learning to understand the people who spoke that language, and thus, learning the way they think, and mutual understanding was established.

So, then, Pentecost, as much as it is about the coming of the Holy Spirit in power, and recognizing the crucified Jesus as the Risen Lord, and about preaching, and about different people understanding the preaching and converting to the faith — what it is mostly about is Understanding in the fullest sense of the word and Unity.

The Holy Spirit binds us together and guides us, so that even though we are very different people, and even though we may speak and think differently, we are able to “hear” and “understand” each other and respond in a new way of being that is centered on Love and unity (even in the face of diversity), rather than remaining unable or unwilling to understand each other and seek to conquer or oppose what is different simply because we cannot presently understand it.

I have no idea if any of that makes any sense, but I have faith that the Holy Spirit will translate if we are willing to listen…

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