Mr Zachary Fletcher
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
The Day of Pentecost: Whitsunday
May 20, 2018
"All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability." Please be seated.
It’s hard for me to think of a place more annoying than airport security. With each passing year, at least in America, my experiences in airport security seem to get more and more anxious. I’m so afraid of getting in the wrong line, or upsetting one of the TSA officers. And those creepy body-scanning machines... Anyway, it seems that based on my experience, airport security is forever doomed to be a miserable place that puts me, and everyone else, on edge.
So whenever I have a pleasant or interesting interaction with someone in airport security, it’s all the more memorable. I have one such memory from several years ago. I had just been in Bermuda for Spring Break. Now as you might imagine, Bermudian airport security is much more laid-back than anything we have in the States. The lines were so short, and the officer inspecting my backpack was super nice. I was studying Greek back then, and the officer came across my Greek textbook. He says, “Ah, I see you’re studying Greek!” I say, “Oh yes, that’s me!” So he says, “You know, I’ve been trying to teach myself Hebrew.” He leans in, as if to tell a secret: “When God created the world, he was speaking Hebrew.”
I don’t remember how I responded to that. I probably just smiled and nodded, but I was laughing inside. I thought, what does that even mean? God speaking Hebrew? Seriously? God doesn’t speak anything!
But I’ve been reflecting on what that Bermudian officer said, about God speaking Hebrew. And guess what? I’ve come around. I think he’s right. What do I mean by this?
Our religion descends from Judaism. The Hebrew Bible, which we believe contains God’s promises to his people as revealed in his relationship with Israel, is almost totally Hebrew. In that context, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, whom we call God the Father, is understood as the universal Creator, but the narrative of his activities in the world takes place in a particular language, Hebrew. So in that sense, yes, God did create the world in Hebrew, because that story is a Hebrew story.
And if God the Father speaks Hebrew, then what about Jesus?
While Jesus may have known Hebrew for liturgical purposes, and maybe some Greek, his native language was Aramaic. This means that the Christian message, from its earliest beginnings, was originally happening among people like Jesus who lived in a world of Aramaic, Hebrew and Greek, a very particular context.
So if God the Father speaks Hebrew, and if Jesus speaks Aramaic, then what does the Holy Spirit speak?
Maybe I’m jumping the gun a little bit. I probably shouldn’t talk about the Trinity too much, since Trinity Sunday is next week. I’m not assigned to preach Trinity Sunday. And yet, this question is immediately relevant to what we’re celebrating today. What language does the Holy Spirit speak?
You can probably see where I’m going with this. We’ve already gotten a little demonstration of the answer to that question, during our reading from Acts. You probably noticed, it was different from how we usually read lessons at Christ Church. And that’s what we learn on Pentecost: we might say, the Holy Spirit speaks every language.
Today, on Pentecost Sunday, we commemorate the descent of the Holy Spirit, the moment when the message of God in Jesus – once understood as particularly Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek – began to be heard more widely, more universally, among people, Jews and non-Jews, who spoke all kinds of languages. It’s the Holy Spirit, newly given to the world at Pentecost, which would help the disciples tell people about Jesus and build the Church in every language under the sun.
This is miraculous work. Notice what the crowd says when they see the disciples speaking other languages: “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans?” In other words, despite the particular Jewish identity of these disciples, their stories of “God’s deeds of power” are heard by all present, regardless of national origin, through the power of the Holy Spirit.
And it’s no coincidence that this is happening on Pentecost, Πεντηκοστή, the Greek term for the Jewish harvest festival, Shavuot, occurring on the fiftieth day after Passover. It’s no coincidence that God’s definitive gift of the Holy Spirit is predicted by the Jewish prophet Joel. This is part of the Pentecost miracle. It’s only through God’s particular revelation to the Jews that the story of Jesus makes any sense. On Pentecost, we come to recognize that story as universal, through our own very particular languages and cultures.
This is the mystery of Pentecost, which extends all the way to today. We may not speak Hebrew, Aramaic or Greek – as we just witnessed during the reading from Acts, we speak a number of other languages. And yet we have still received the good news of Jesus Christ. The message of Jesus has been passed to us, two thousand years later, in a totally different cultural context from the one we read about in Acts. This is the work of the Holy Spirit. So however you understand this bizarre scene as reported in Acts – the “rush of a violent wind”; the “divided tongues, as of fire… resting on” the disciples – make no mistake that we are participating right now in the miraculous reality of Pentecost. We, the Church, would not be here without Pentecost. As members of Christ’s Body in baptism, our fellowship transcends not just linguistic barriers, but also time and space as we know it. Just as the Holy Spirit empowered the disciples to build the first churches, that same Spirit is working today, calling the people of God together, in all their languages, into the One Church of Christ.
And what is the purpose of this unity, brought about by the Holy Spirit? As we read in the Gospel of John, the Holy Spirit empowers the Church to show a world enslaved to sin the true way back to God. Of course, that true way is… Jesus. Jesus says, “When [the Holy Spirit] comes, he will prove the world wrong about judgment: […] because the ruler of this world has been condemned.” The ruler he’s talking about is the Devil. Our culture worships the Devil in so many ways. The news cycle, with its endless stream of violence and hatred – and it’s not getting any better – reminds me of how we, as individuals and as a culture, are addicted to sin. As we’ve seen once again this week, we’re addicted, and thus enslaved, to a false logic that values “freedom” over the dignity of other human lives. It’s not just about guns; it’s about so much more than guns. Without the Holy Spirit, who condemns the Devil and all his works, and who shows by contrast what holiness looks like, we remain totally lost, unable to understand the gravity of our individual and corporate sin. If we are open to receiving it, the Holy Spirit exposes the poverty of our own, chronically misconceived human judgment, and corrects it with God’s eternally perfect wisdom. And that’s the best, most liberating thing that could happen to us.
This is why we need the Holy Spirit. And no matter what language we speak, we must listen for the Spirit’s wisdom, as Christians living in such a time as this. So, let us pray with the Church today, on this Pentecost Sunday, with Christian hope that our prayer will be answered: Come, Holy Spirit. Amen.