*Hymn - Spirit of God, v. 1 and 2 (FWS 2117)
Scripture - Acts 2:1-21
Acts 2:1-21 (New Revised Standard Version)
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.3Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
5Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.7Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 9Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” 12All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” 13But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”
14But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. 15Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. 16No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: 17‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. 18Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy.19And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. 20The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. 21Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’
One: The Word of Life. All: Thanks be to God.
*Hymn - Spirit of God, v. 3-5 (FWS 2117)
The first time I had ever been out of the United States (aside from Canada) was during my freshman year in college. We had, at Colby, what were called “Jan Plans” where in between fall and spring semester, you were encouraged to take a three week course in a discipline outside your field of study. It was an opportunity for enrichment, to try new things in a low pressure environment, and broaden your educational horizons.
The French department was offering a second level course in Guadeloupe. Guadeloupe is technically a part of France - you go through French customs, your passport gets stamped with a French stamp, everyone speaks French...but it’s geographically located in the Carribean. So when my professor put the opportunity out there that there was some room for Freshman students to take the class, I jumped at the chance. I mean, who wouldn’t want to get out of Mid-Maine in the middle of winter and bask for three weeks in the warmth of the Carribean sun?
Even though I had been studying French for six years, nothing could have prepared me for the disorientation of being in a different cultural and linguistic environment. Everything was a translation - from hearing conversations around the table with my host family and having to mentally shift their words to English...to the arduous work of figuring out how to respond in French….not to mention the cultural translation of being an American student in a foreign country in the aftermath of 9/11 and how different the world’s perspective of our current events was.
It was a rewarding experience, but challenging being in an environment where it was so difficult to (1) understand fully what was going on around me and (2) make myself understood to others. Differences around language - culture - ethnicity - nationality...it was the first time where my identity and how I understood the world was not the norm, where everything was in translation. So those rare moments where I’d be out at the grocery store or walking through town and hear someone speaking American English to me was like a breath of fresh air. Beyond being just familiar words and sounds - it was a signal of hospitality, that I didn’t have to work so hard to communicate or be understood.
So I wonder what it must have felt like for the crowd of Jews gathered in Jerusalem on the feast of Pentecost - a festival celebrating the spring harvest and the giving of the law at Mount Sinai - to hear the disciples speaking in their own native languages - Jews from Egypt and Lybia and Rome and Crete and Mesopotamia - speaking the Good News of Jesus not in the language of the Roman Empire, not in the dominant tongue of Aramaic, but in each person’s birth language - the language spoken among family and close friends - the language of home.
We can get caught up in the spectacle of this day - the wind and the fire, the accusations of drunkenness, Peter’s stirring sermon, the thousands of converts and baptisms in response to the message. We celebrate this “birthday of the Church” when the circle of Jesus followers that was relatively small and intimate - about 120 people - expanded 25 times over. But what I also find remarkable is that even though all the people who responded to this message of Jesus’ resurrection and the new day of God’s kingdom were Jews - they represented different cultures, different languages, different worldviews. Diversity and inclusivity woven into our very origin story as a church -- that’s God’s people are both One and Many...and we see throughout Acts, and indeed throughout the history of faith, the ways that God drew the circle wider and wider still, pouring the Holy Spirit out in unexpected ways on unexpected people - the Gentiles, political leaders and emperors, slaves and women, young and old alike...throughout the ages to this very day.
The crowds on that Pentecost day - they weren’t confused about the message - they were astounded and perplexed by being able to understand what was being said. That there was no translation required - that there was nothing extra demanded of them to be included into the body of Christ, no cultural navigations, no wordy and awkward translations of Peter’s message, no feeling like they were on the outside looking in because of their differences. They Holy Spirit came and spoke in the language of their hearts and homes, drawing them in to relationship with Jesus - God incarnate - God who for the sake of love took on language and culture and human skin to experience life and death as one of us, God who comes and makes a home in us.
The Holy Spirit empowered those first few followers of Jesus to stop huddling in safety, to throw open the doors wide, and to speak across the things that divide us - race, culture, language, ethnicity, gender, orientation, worldview, political affiliation, economic status, and age. To take the risk of encountering difference and to be vulnerable in sharing from the heart because they couldn’t help themselves they were so much on fire with the power of the Holy Spirit.
It was risky business for those early believers; they had to move out of their comfort zones to encounter others….they had to trust that something important was happening within them, sharing things and words and sounds they didn’t understand, they had to trust that they were a part of something bigger and more powerful - no matter how silly it looked, no matter how derisive some in the crowd were - claiming they were drunk, no matter the social cost.
Even the crowds who heard these words - words spoken in familiar phrases - had to take the risk of trust...to believe that God was drawing them in...and drawing one another in. They, too, had to widen their circles to include the other, the stranger, those who were different.
And into this glorious mess of wind and fire and language and culture - of risk and vulnerability, trust and transformation, - God breathed life anew.
And I believe God wants to do the same with us today.
We took a step forward as a congregation together, trusting God’s call to affirm and include all people into the full life and participation of the church. As we heard in our opening hymn - there is a place at the table for everyone here - young and old, gay and straight, woman and man, just and unjust - God meets us here, folds us into one body, there is room for everyone. We celebrate that as we seek to live and embody our welcoming statement and as we join the Reconciling Ministries Network.
That is Holy Spirit work - that work that cuts across the things that can divide us to say to those who are marginalized in our society - particularly those who are LGBTQ - that you are welcome here...that you are wanted here...that you are safe here.
But I believe it is just one step. Inclusion isn’t enough. Feeling like everyone can belong isn’t enough. What’s next is to take the Holy Spirit risk of becoming one even though we are many - of crossing the barriers that divide to offer love and hope to all, to engage and listen with open hearts to those who understand the world completely differently than we do - who might figuratively speak different languages.
As author Debie Thomas wrote on this Acts passage - she writes: “Something happens when we speak each other's languages — be they cultural, political, racial or liturgical. We experience the limits of our own perspectives. We learn curiosity. We discover that God's "great deeds" are far too nuanced for a single tongue, a single fluency...It is no small thing that the Holy Spirit loosened tongues on the birthday of the Church. In the face of difference, God compelled his people to engage. From Day One, the call was to press in, linger, listen, and listen some more.”
When that happens - when we truly engage with the other - when we listen and learn from their stories, their experiences, learn their language, their identities - we see Jesus in one another, true inclusion happens. True inclusion isn’t just about appreciation of where others come from, or being glad that they feel like they belong or attend our gatherings...it’s about celebrating the gift they are to us...the gift they are to this church...the gift they are to the body of Christ….and empowering others to use those gifts for building up the body of Christ.
We read later on in this chapter of Acts that the result of this new diverse, inclusive body of Christ was this radical community that devoted themselves to fellowship and study together, to breaking bread together and praying together, to holding possessions in common together, eliminating economic inequality among themselves, sharing and eating together with glad and generous hearts. And what was going on among them was so powerful, so compelling, so fascinating, that others couldn’t help but be drawn in and God continued to draw the circle wider.
And so I can’t help but wonder - what would that look like on this island? What if the Holy Spirit blew through this congregation with fresh fire? What if each person here, from the kids in our Sunday School class to our seasonal friends to those sitting in the choir and those who have lived here their whole lives and everyone in between - was so tapped in to the Holy Spirit...so compelled to engage and speak words of love and hope in the language and stories of the people around us - what couldn’t God do through us?
It takes risk...it takes vulnerability…it takes trust in the one who promised to be with us always...it takes a willingness to follow the leading of the Holy Spirit to full engagement with one another and with our community….and so my prayer for us this Pentecost is that we call upon the Holy Spirit for the work ahead of us -- to let ourselves be moved beyond these four walls with a message of hope and peace for all people….to speak love in the languages of those we meet...to become a church where all are truly welcome and included. May we call upon that Spirit so that we may be on fire for the healing of all those around us...for our community...and for our world. Amen.
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Pastor Melissa Yosua-Davis has been serving the community of Chebeague and its church since July 2015. She currently lives on the island with her husband and five year old son and 2 year old daughter, along with their yellow lab. Read here recent sermon excerpts, thoughts on life and faith, and current announcements for the church community. She also blogs at Going on to Perfection.