Pentecost is the day, as I have said many times standing right here, when we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit, the sermons given by the disciples, because they were empowered by the Spirit, in so many different tongues that more than two thousand believers came to know Jesus Christ in one day! It’s a new phase of a ministry that began over two thousand years ago and continues today as we all gather to worship and celebrate.
So every year when we gather, we wear red the color of fire and the Holy Spirit, our children sing Happy Birthday to the church, and we can see if the liturgist or the pastor can make it through reading words like “Phrygia” and “Pamphylia”. It’s fun, it’s joyful, and in the midst of that, we can carefully and prayerfully place our hope and abiding trust in God that the church will continue for another two thousand years.
Pentecost is, in some ways, our first official lesson on the Holy Spirit—God’s Spirit is all through the Bible, as our Old Testament readings teach us, yet here in Acts, it is different. This is the first time we understand the Holy Spirit as a part of the work and mission of Jesus Christ, as a fulfillment of a promise he gives to his followers that he will send an Advocate to them.
Now, the thing I love about Pentecost is that this passage speaks to me about the importance of language, and as a preacher and lover of words and poetry and literature, this message here is right up my alley! In Acts, we are told that language should be used for good, to build bridges and make connections among God’s people, not to divide or exclude. In fact, that’s the point right there—no one should ever be excluded from experiencing the Gospel of Jesus Christ because of the language they speak.
Most every Pentecost, I have tried to build upon the idea of language and how it plays out in the text in my sermons—often by comparison to other scriptures which have the same theme about the use of language. If you can’t instantly recall my past sermons on Pentecost, I’m sure if you look back in your weekly sermon notebook, it will jog your memory. Go ahead, I’ll wait.
In the Acts text, we find the disciples gifted to use many different languages to tear down the walls of culture, so that the Gospel becomes accessible to everyone. Hold that example side by side with the Babel text we read today and it’s the polar opposite. In the ancient story of Babel, language becomes an element to divide rather than unite. God actually uses language as a punishment for humanity’s hubris, and gives each of those builders a different language to speak, so that they could no longer coordinate their efforts to build a tower.
One year, I gave an example from a novel called The Poisonwood Bible, where a hard-hearted, stubborn preacher tried to missionize the people of Congo, yet because of his ignorance of nuance and subtlety, because of his own racism that without a doubt he as a educated white man could master the simple language of the people he deemed savages, he refused to use a translator and instead of preaching each week about the love of Jesus for his people, succeeded in telling the congregation that they, the Bible, and Jesus, were all deadly poison. One word in the language of the people could mean beloved or refer to the poisonwood plant that killed their crops—and out of his own arrogance, this preacher failed miserably in sharing the Gospel. Language is so important.
Another year, and it’s probably my favorite Pentecost sermon, I held the Pentecost passage against the story of Shibboleth from the Book of Judges, chapter 12. Today in grammar, a shibboleth is a kind of linguistic password: a way of speaking (a pronunciation) that is used by one group of people to determine if another person is an insider or outsider to the group. In the book of Judges, the Gileadites are feuding against the Ephraimites. In battle the Gileadites win, and set up a wall to catch all the fleeing Ephraimites so that they might kill them, too. Now, the Ephraimites do not have the “SH” sound in their dialect, so as the Gileadites capture men fleeing the battle, they give them a word to say that will determine if the unknown man is friend or foe. Translators of ancient Hebrew are actually unsure what the word “SHIBBOLETH” means—speculation is “ear of grain” or perhaps “stream.” As riders were caught crossing the Jordan, they were asked to say “shibboleth” and if they said instead “sibboleth,” they were known to be an outsider and killed immediately. Language, again, so important, is used to not just build walls, but to determine how and if you belonged, and the penalty in Judges, well, the penalty in Judges is pretty much always DEATH. (Just ask Jepthah’s daughter).
So as I faced the Pentecost text yet again, I felt challenged to find another great example of language, maybe another cool word like Shibboleth, to show how important the Pentecost story really is.
In each of the examples before, the Pentecost text shows us how the coming of the Holy Spirit restores the power of language in a good way, in a way that builds bridges and makes connections. One word misspoken doesn’t cause death or separation or rejection as an outsider. Rather, words spoken in love create and restore relationships with God and His son Jesus Christ. They restore the power of words to create and build—as those first words did when the universe was created and God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light.
Amazingly enough, I found that idea has a name. That idea about restoration is reflected in a very fancy Greek word that I almost cannot pronounce. Apokatastasis. I had to look it up and find one of those online audible pronunciation recordings and listen to it three or four times before I could do it myself. Apokatastasis. Apokatastasis. It’s a Greek word that means something like restoration. In the New Testament, it is only used once, in Acts, when Peter heals a crippled man, and then speaks of a future time of restoration, or APOKATASTASIS, when God shall restore the broken world completely. Again, the word means “reconstitution, restitution, or restoration to the original or primordial condition.”
What is so cool about this concept is that it gives the Acts text a much deeper meaning, it shows us how scripture is alive and speaks on many different levels. You see, at Pentecost, as the Holy Spirit comes to us in the final act of the Resurrection—the potential for restoration with God is given back to us. It’s not complete yet, like Peter said, that’s on God’s time, but the potential is there. God used the power of WORDS to create the world. Then that perfect world became broken and human beings used WORDS to hurt, kill, exclude, and reject. They used WORDS to tear down people and put up walls. But then God saved us, God sent us the Living Word, as Jesus Christ was the WORD become flesh, and that WORD spoke about love and unity and equality, hospitality and forgiveness. That WORD invited us to come back to God, to find a new and renewed relationship with our Creator. Then that WORD took on the weight of sin for the whole world and died to save us.
And there’s more to the story. Miracle of miracles, death cannot defeat the WORD who is LOVE. Christ arose, and walked among his followers and spoke words of peace and encouragement. Christ arose, and spoke words of promise that he would never leave them, that his final act, in some ways the final step of the whole resurrection process, would be to send an ADVOCATE, a Holy Spirit that would uphold them, guide them, inspire them and empower them to do mighty and loving and healing acts in Christ’s name.
On Pentecost, it began, the Holy Spirit appeared and the disciples were inspired and empowered, and just as the WORD had promised, they did mighty and loving and healing acts in Christ’s name. They shared the story of Jesus’ life and his resurrection, and they offered all who heard them an invitation to know God in a more intimate way, a way that would change them and heal them and bring forgiveness to their lives. In the Holy Spirit, there is the beginning of that restoration to our original closeness with God before the Fall of Eden and the Tower of Babel and the Battle with the Ephraimites at the Jordan and all the other missteps and sins and mistakes that separated humans from God and from one another.
So what does all this mean for us on Pentecost? Does it mean this is or isn’t the birthday of the church? Should we have cake or not?
Well, this is what I think it means, this is what I think is the good news of this story: I don’t know about you, but I make mistakes, I can foul up royally as a wife, as a friend, as a parent, and as a pastor. And I don’t know about you, but outside of my own brokenness and mistakes, I see brokenness and pain and hurt and sin in the world around me, every day. I think lately we’ve been seeing it on TV and reading it in the news every day, right?
But Pentecost is where I find my hope when things in my life and things in the world around me look grim. Pentecost is the promise that the Holy Spirit is not only HERE in my life, HERE in this world, HERE in this church, but it is also POWERFUL. It’s kind of hard to see, so we forget about it sometimes, but the Holy Spirit is powerful like a mighty wind and strong like a raging fire—only the Holy Spirit’s fire is one that creates and builds and connects, NOT one that destroys!
We are the church, my friends. We are the spiritual descendants of the Greeks and Galileans and Phrygians and Libyans and Persians and Romans. We are the descendants of those Egyptians and Asians and Judeans and Mesopotamians. We are the Parthians and the Elamites and the Medes. We have heard the Gospel, we have found relationship with Jesus Christ and we have rejoiced in the grace of God, and we are called to go out into the world, broken and hurting as it is, and share the HOLY SPIRIT within us!
We are called to use our words to build bridges, to tear down walls; we are called to use our words to show love and hospitality and welcome! We are inspired, commanded, even, as spiritual descendants of these believers to do the work they did, to continue the ministry and mission of Jesus Christ—and we have nothing to worry about in terms of our own abilities to carry on such work because the power of the Holy Spirit is with us, within us, around us, holding us up, giving us words, prompting our arms to reach out and our hearts to open up and love.
We just have to claim that promise. I have to claim it and you have to claim it and our church here at St. John’s has to claim it. Claim it and live it, and stop worrying about how imperfect we are for the job. The Holy Spirit has our back. No doubt. And that my friends, when I look at the work we need to do in our world today to build the kingdom, fills me with a lot of love and a little bit of fear and a lot of hope, all of which leaves me excited and just a little bit… (wait for it…) speechless. Amen.