The Day of Pentecost: Whitsunday
May 23, 2021
O God, who on this day didst teach the hearts of thy faithful people by sending to them the light of thy Holy Spirit: Grant us by the same Spirit to have a right judgment in all things, and evermore to rejoice in his holy comfort; through the merits of Christ Jesus our Saviour, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the same Spirit, one God, world without end. Amen.
1 Corinthians 12:4-13
This morning, in Episcopal Churches across the country, preachers will get up into the pulpit – or stand up in some other suitable place – and proclaim today to be the “Birthday of the Church.” This is a well-meaning, widely held notion, that gives us a way of understanding how, after Jesus’ Ascension, the disciples were given the inspiration, authority, and the courage to move out of the shadows into the larger world, and preach the Good News of Jesus Christ. From that place where Acts describes the disciples as gathered together, the Jesus movement inevitably became the church we know today.
That’s a nice story, and it’s easy to preach. It shows us a straight line from that day to this, and reenforces a certain notion of Christian unity and uniformity. It generally plays well for congregations. At the same time, I can think of several other, perhaps better, candidates for the Church’s birthday: Jesus’ baptism, the Sermon on the Mount, the feeding of the five thousand, the Last Supper. Someone the other day on Twitter suggested Good Friday, when Jesus asks Mary and the Beloved Disciple to care for each other. If I had to pick, I like a feeding story, but I am not sure it matters. As soon as Jesus began his public ministry, announced the inauguration of the Kingdom of God, gathered people around his Body, fed them and told them to do likewise in remembrance of him a new community had emerged. All this is a way of saying that the Pentecost story, just like the Church itself, is more complex than it is often presented. Indeed, today’s celebration speaks directly to a question that is particularly vexing for us today: how can people of different languages and cultures become united in Christ, integral members of one and the same Body, and not lose their uniqueness and identity? So let’s take a closer look at today’s texts.
On that particular Pentecost – the historic Jewish harvest festival of Shavuot, also known as the Feast of Weeks – that fell ten days after Jesus’ Ascension, the disciples were gathered together. They had been on quite the emotional roller coaster. Jesus’ ministry filled them with hope, drew them to him, but Jesus had been arrested, tried, and executed. Thinking that it had all come to naught, the disciples were amazed when they met the Risen Christ, still bearing his scars, but risen from the dead. After forty heady days together, Jesus left them again, and now ten days on, they are gathered together to celebrate Pentecost, once more unsure about what was coming next, what they were supposed to do.
And suddenly a sound came from heaven like the rush of a mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared to them tongues as of fire, distributed and resting on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.
As they had read in the Hebrew Scriptures, and knew was possible, God came to them in the person of the Holy Spirit, and filled them with the breath of life, energised them, gave them hope that, as they had done before, they were to go on in the faith that the Kingdom of God had been inaugurated, and that God would now work out the divine purpose in and through them. And this is where all that business about speaking in tongues comes in. (I bet you never thought you would hear a sermon from me about speaking in tongues.)
Now, when you think about speaking in tongues, I bet it conjures up images of people jibbering incoherently, making noises that mimic speech, but that do not constitute any known language. That’s what I have always seen in clips of Pentecostal worship, although if you have a better understanding, you can put me straight. Luke, however, is very specific about what he means:
Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven. And at this sound the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in his own language.
Before we get too far, we should note that it appears the disciples were not hiding out in some upper room, with the doors barred, as they had on that first Easter morning. It appears that being “together in one place,” seems to have been in some public spot in the heart of Jerusalem. They were not afraid of being seen in public together and of being associated with Jesus. The Passion story suggests that, in fact, the disciples were familiar figures in the City, as you will remember from how the woman who kept the door recognised Peter and asked, “are you not one of this man’s disciples?” This Pentecost event was public, out in the open.
There was no emerging from the shadows. The Holy Spirit came to them, and people noticed: Jews from every corner of the Roman Empire living in a multi-cultural, polyglot Jerusalem. They spoke in the vernacular of their own land, which should not surprise us given how we already know that Pilate felt the sign he ordered placed on Jesus’ cross needed to be tri-lingual. As New Yorkers we should get it. It’s like those posters we have undoubtedly seen on the subway with information or instructions in no fewer than ten languages. The Holy Spirit seems to have given the disciples the ability to understand all those different languages, and communicate with this diverse crowd.
Luke makes a big point of stressing the intense diversity of these Jewish visitors to Jerusalem and their linguistic variations:
And they were amazed and wondered, saying, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language? Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians, we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God.”
The geographic range stretches practically all the way from the Pillars of Hercules at the Strait of Gibralter into Central Asia, and as far south as the Arabian Peninsula. While we don’t get up north to the Celts, Gauls, and Germans, nevertheless, the extent of the Jewish diaspora across the Mediterranean world is impressive; as is the ability for people to travel, and exchange and spread ideas.
The disciples, then, are not channelling some strange spirit, and spewing out senseless babble. No, they are able to understand and communicate in real languages, with people from all over the known world, from places as far flung from them and each other as Lybia, Mesopotamia, and Cappadocia on the Black Sea. We must note that the Holy Spirit gave the disciples the gift to communicate so that they would be understood many languages, rather than giving all those people the ability to understand and speak with the disciples using a single tongue.
Pentecost shows us that the Kingdom of God stretches all across the world, that it sweeps up people from places that are very different from each other, even separated by language, and that those cultural and linguistic differences are not suppressed into some all encompassing, generic goop. The Pentecost story in Acts is a living example of Paul’s vision in First Corinthians of how the Body of Christ functions:
Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of working, but it is the same God who inspires them all in every one.
Each person is called to a different vocation based on their own unique gifts, talents, and skills. Paul cites healing, miracles, prophesy, tongues. It applies equally well to our more familiar vocations of medicine and law, teaching and scholarship, finance and business, visual arts and engineering, and so many more, each exercised in support of the works of the Kingdom of God. These are the “manifestations of the Spirit” Paul explains to be given to each of us “for the common good.”
Just as there is a diversity of gifts and skills, of vocations and works given to the members of the Body of Christ, those same people come from a variety of places and cultures, and all make their unique contribution to the Body. “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.” Christianity makes the bold assertion that at the same time as our differences matter very much, enriching all the other members of its body, that it is in and through those differences that we come together and participate in something that is larger than ourselves. In Christ, we become a complex and diverse organism that is stronger than any of its constituent parts.
Whether or not Pentecost is the birthday of the Church – I guess people of good will can disagree about that – it shows us in no uncertain terms that the Good News of Jesus Christ, “the mighty works of God,” spread in word and deed by the Body of Christ, enfolds people from all cultures and nations, making use of that diversity to make us stronger, more representative of the complex, inexplicable reality of God.
Andrew Charles Blume✠
New York City
Easter/Ascension Feria, 22 May 2021
© 2021 Andrew Charles Blume