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Sermon ~ Pentecost: To Speak and to Hear

Acts 2:1-21
Glengowrie Uniting Church
Sunday, 8 June 2014

0.

Today is Pentecost Sunday, 50 days after Easter. Today is also the last day of the Ecumenical Week of Prayer for Christian Unity under the theme from 1 Corinthians 1, “Has Christ been divided?”.

In my home town, Frankfurt/Main in the middle of Germany, the Pentecost weekend traditionally is one of the most popular long weekends: For us, it signifies the beginning of summer, with many people out and about in groups for walks, bicycle rides, and many activities around the place. I know that here in Australia it is just the opposite — almost mid-winter — the shortest days of the year, early darkness, cold and rainy … the kind of weather you would rather stay home. So, let us take time and give this day and the story around it some more thought.

1.

Today is Pentecost. In my preparations for this Sunday, two words crossed my mind as essential for what happened that day many, many years ago: To Speak and to Hear.

I would like to begin by telling you three short stories, all from real life:

First, about myself.
At high school, when I was about 15, we had a teacher by the name of “Frau Dr Jeuthe”. Ms Jeuthe was a very short lady, and most of us lads and many of the girls in my class were a head taller than her. But she had us well under control. Our school was an old building from the early 1900s, with a high ceiling and large windows. While talking to us, Frau Jeuthe would often walk up and down along the window front. Today I can still picture the moment when I was watching her explaining something to us, when all of the sudden the thought crossed my mind — why do I think I understand what she says???? There she was, opening her mouth and shutting it, making some sound, talking to us about things which I was hardly interested in — but why did her sounds mean something to me? This question has remained with me for many years and, strangely enough, you are the first people I have ever told about this fascination.

Secondly, Liz, my wife.
One of her many godchildren is Max, a little boy, about seven or eight years of age, who has cerebral palsy as a result of complications at birth. Max’s parents were distraught, and for quite some time it was not clear if their son was to survive. He had to endure more than 40 hospital stays as a baby and a young boy, and he cannot control his muscles, cannot speak, point, walk, or eat. Yet, he attends the public school, using a special computer that tracks the gaze of his eyes, and he is considered highly intelligent. And you can really see it. When Liz visits her godson, she tries to communicate with him, and so of course do his parents. As Liz does not see him very often, this is quite a challenge for her. Max often responds with a Yes-No answer by simply moving a leg or arm, whatever the agreement with Liz. But often you can see in his face and movements, and hear by the sounds he makes, how he would love to express himself so that *we* can understand. And that makes me wonder — will there ever be a time when Liz, or her godson’s parents, or I myself can understand him and communicate with him in his own language?

Three, Ainara.
She is just about six months old. Liz and I were invited by her parents, my nephew and his partner, to join them and the mother’s grandparents for last Christmas. I had the pleasure of acting as a surrogate grandfather. I am actually scared of little babies, possibly because I never had nor wanted children of my own. So it took me a while to get used to Ainara. And then us two “grandfathers” were sitting side by side at the cot on the floor. I was surprised when Ainara suddenly grabbed my finger and started looking straight into my eyes. She was strong, really strong with her tiny hand. And she held my gaze in a way I may never forget. We did not share any words, of course, but there was something beyond my logical perception.

2.

Today we celebrate Pentecost, 50 days after Easter. In the tradition of our Christian faith, this is the day of the Holy Spirit. In Jewish tradition, it is the holy day of the revelation of the Thora, or what we call the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament, by God to the people of Israel.

It is a remarkable day of celebration and not without reason one of the most important days for the Christian Church: For the first time, the people who followed in the footsteps of Jesus Christ were able to be heard and understood in public. Essentially, this is the day that has ever since marked what we do as Christians and the Church: Speak about Christ the Crucified and the Resurrected, and be heard by as many people as possible. And this is the only tool we Christians have — not the sword but the word, and only God’s Word.

The story of Pentecost has always fascinated me, even as a child in Kindergarten. There is a large group of people gathering, presumably from quite some different backgrounds. I imagine young people beside old, women and men mixing with each other, children running around amongst them. There is a coming and going. I am not sure what the general mood may have been — perhaps expecting something exciting to happen?? or rather subdued, without much hope for the future?? But they had gathered together as, in fact, many people around them in the world of the Jewish faith would have done at this day of celebration.

Our story relays the presence of insiders and outsiders, followers of Christ and curious on-lookers. Indeed, the story is being told from the perspective of the spectators, most of them religious and learned Jews from all around the known world.

All of a sudden, the sounds of a strong wind or storm fill the hall, and then it seems as if every person inside is being touched at the top of their heads by what looks like divided tongues of fire. And they begin to talk in languages “as the Spirit enabled them to speak”, so that all the people outside, the spectators, hear them speaking in their own vernacular from far-away countries.

As a child, and even as an adult, I have grappled with this description. The first reaction is — they must have all been drunk, both inside the hall and outside. Indeed, this is what the people outside, those from Egypt, Libya, Asia, Rome and wherever, say about the others in the hall. They recognise them as Galileans, who they were, i.e. fishermen, farmers, trades’ people and their families who would never have had the time, money and opportunity to learn any of the international languages spoken between Rome, Athens, Damascus, Cairo or Jerusalem.

And, by all accounts, those in the hall were as much members of the Jewish faith community as those around them. It is no surprise to me that the “world” began to talk about them and point their fingers at them. It must have suddenly become a chaotic situation. Many years ago, in Frankfurt, I attended a Charismatic worship service, when suddenly everybody was praying in their own language — some of which around me I understood, but many people really spoke as the Spirit gave it to them, sounds no-one but God would understand. We call it “glossolalia”, the speaking in tongues. The Greek origin of this word is itself a combination of ‘tongue or language’, and ‘to speak’.

At that church service, the prayers lasted for quite some time, each one expressing his or her concerns in languages comprehensible only to God. Paul the Apostle instructed those praying in tongues to interpret their words so that others understand them (1 Cor 14:13). In our story, however, the miracle lies in the fact that the onlookers heard these Galileans speak in their own respective languages.

After hiding away for weeks since Easter, the passion of Christ and his resurrection, all of a sudden Christ’s followers became the centre of public interest and attention in the city of Jerusalem. And Peter, together with the other 11 apostles, took the chance and addressed the crowd. He must have had a remarkably strong voice to be heard, and he did what every well versed Jewish leader would have done at this time and in his situation: Quoting from a prophet of old, Joel.

Have a read of this passage in chapter 2 of the Book of Joel. It is a powerful statement of hope, visions and dreams, but also of warnings of the end to come (Joel 2:28-32 ISV):

Then it will come about at a later time
that I will pour out my Spirit on every person.

Your sons and your daughters will prophesy.
Your elderly people will dream dreams,
and your young people will see visions.

Also at that time I will pour out my Spirit
upon men and women servants.

I will display warnings in the heavens,
and on the earth blood, fire, and columns of smoke.

The sun will be given over to darkness, and the moon to blood,
before the coming of the great and terrifying Day of the LORD.

And everyone who calls upon the name of the LORD will be delivered.

For as the LORD has said,
‘In Mount Zion and in Jerusalem
there will be those who escape,
the survivors whom the LORD is calling.'”

3.

Today we celebrate Pentecost, the day when God poured his Spirit over the followers of Christ.

I am pretty sure that the early Christians may have well remembered at this moment another prophet of old, Isaiah (61:1-3, ISV):

“The Spirit of the LORD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed and to bind up the broken-hearted,
to proclaim freedom for the captives, and release from darkness for the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor, the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn; to provide for those who grieve in Zion —

to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
a mantle of praise instead of a spirit of despair.”

The Spirit of God enables us to stand up, to speak and to hear. He asks us for the unity of our voice in the multiplicity of tongues, or languages. Speaking and hearing signifies a relationship, between people but also between God and men, ever since God created the earth, through all the stories of the prophets, and the life of Jesus Christ. It does not matter what language you speak, and the hubris of the Tower of Babel — that we all speak the same language — has been well disposed of.

We speak, and we hear. We say what we would like to express, in words which others understand. I hear others talking to me, and I may perceive what they intend to tell me. I can learn the other language, and many missionaries, not least here in Australia, have done so.

But words are not all that is needed to comprehend: I watch and hear and understand. To speak and to hear is much more than using words, it includes the gestures, the sounds I make, the joy or sadness in my eyes. I may not even need phrases which I think you may understand. And the sound, or even only the thought, of my prayer is enough for God to hear.

Martin Buber, the Jewish philosopher and theologian in Germany, asked in his little book “I and Thou1 ], how God and I communicate. His answer, in essence, is “immediate”, i.e. without any media like a language or words, or an “It”. As an example, he describes the new-born baby in its “effort to establish a relationship first — the hand of the child arches out so that what is over against it may nestle under it … It is a saying Thou without words …”, exactly what I experienced. And Buber sums it up with, “In the beginning is relationship, the Thou before the baby even discovers the I.”

Words create a relationship between you and I. But we don’t need a grammatically correct language to understand. The Spirit of God of God gives us the ability to express our thoughts and prayers in whatever form is needed. I can speak, and you can hear — you speak and I hear, and we thus become One in the Spirit of God. This is the message of Pentecost.

Amen.

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Footnotes

  1. Martin Buber, I and Thou, translated by Ronald Gregory Smith, 1919/1937, p 36 (paraphrased). [top]

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