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Sermon for Pentecost Sunday – May 31, 2020
Dear friends, grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.
Something dramatic happened in that house where the apostles were gathered. It was so dramatic that Luke, the author of Acts, had to resort to similes to try to describe the scene: there was a sound like the rush of a violent wind; divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them. Yes, something dramatic happened. Something profoundly spiritual – in the truest, most literal sense of the word!
But at the same time, what happened on Pentecost was also actually pretty down-to-earth. The apostles “were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages.” A miracle? Sure! Suddenly, the Holy Spirit installed Google translate into the brains of each of the apostles. They could speak in other languages! It was like they all had instantaneously been through those Rosetta stone language programs! As the apostles spoke of God’s deeds of power, those Jews “from every nation under heaven” who were in Jerusalem could understand what they were saying, each in their own native language.
But this is the point: the apostles were speaking ordinary human languages. This was not some kind of esoteric spiritual language. Their tongues weren’t just randomly rolling around in their mouths. This was not that kind of “speaking in tongues.” The apostles were speaking actual, established human languages. They were speaking the native languages of the people gathered. These Galileans, many of them fishermen whose linguistic talents didn’t go much further than being good at bartering and cussing in Greek, were now fluent in the mother tongues of people of people from every nation under heaven. This was a miracle, but it was a down-to-earth miracle. It was a miracle of simply speaking and hearing.
A seminary professor of mine likes to describe these native tongues as their “heart language.” The ancient near east, like much of the world today outside of the United States, was multilingual. People spoke at least a little of two or three different languages. But then there was your mother tongue. There was the language of the home, the language of the dinner table. There was the language you heard while sitting in your mother’s lap or on your father’s knee. My great-grandparents spoke both English and Norwegian, and the scant memories I have of them include me sitting in their laps, loving on me in Norwegian. All their terms of endearment were in Norwegian! I could hear remnants of those exotic vowels in my grandmother’s voice as well. That’s the language of the heart. The disciples were speaking of God’s deeds of power in the languages that would reach these people most deeply. The Jewish people had a perfectly good language to use to pray and proclaim the word of God. They could have said all of this in Hebrew, their official “spiritual language.” But now this word was going out in everyone’s mother tongue.
This not only empowered a sense of intimacy, of closeness to God, it also empowered a profound sense of inclusivity. God’s Word could go out to all people, meeting them where they were. It could be heard in languages that they could hear and understand, leading to faith. As St. Paul would later write: “faith comes by hearing.” This was the fulfilment of God’s original promise to Abraham, that through his line all the nations of the earth would be blessed.
Peter points to an important passage from the prophet Joel to interpret what they were all experiencing. God had promised through Joel that a day would come when his Spirit would be poured out on all people, so that they would prophecy – which does not mean predicting the future, it simply means speaking God’s Word. That is what has happening. God’s Word was being spoken so that it would be heard, so that it would be received in the heart, so that, as Joel wrote: everyone who calls on the name of the Lord would be saved.
Lutheran Christians have been accused of being weak on the Spirit. Sometimes we ourselves think the Spirit is given in greater measure to those Christians called “Pentecostals.” Nothing could be further from the truth! A big part of the problem is that sometimes people associate the work of the Spirit with feelings, specifically with enthusiasm – like having team spirit or something. Then it almost becomes a competition to see who can be the most spiritually hyper. Surely the Spirit moves our hearts to joy and peace and to passionate proclamation. But most of the time the work of the Spirit is surpisingly down-to-earth. The Spirit’s primary work, as we hear in this account of Pentecost, is found simply in speaking and hearing the Word of God in normal human languages. And the Spirit has been at work among Lutherans in this way from the beginning. Martin Luther’s most consequential reforms were to translate both the Bible and the words of the liturgy into the language of the people. Our liturgy contains remnants from Greek, like kyrie, and remnants from Hebrew, like alleluia and amen, but for centuries now Lutherans have been at the forefront of this Spirit work of translating the Word of God into people’s mother tongues. Did you know that the first ever attempt to translate a European document into a Native American language was in the 1640s, when a Lutheran missionary translated Luther’s Small Catechism in the Algonquin language? Now you tell me – who are the real Pentecostals?
I say this (half jokingly) not to be sectarian or to pat ourselves on the back. I say it so you will know that the Holy Spirit is at work in your life – right here, right now! It doesn’t matter how you might feel. You aren’t required to have some kind of ecstatic experience to prove you have the Spirit. The Holy Spirit is at work in your life in this very moment in a very down-to-earth way through the speaking of the Word to you in a language you can understand.
The deeds of power the apostles were speaking of was the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This becomes clear later in Acts when we hear the rest of Peter’s sermon. These are God’s deeds of power: that Christ died for our sins and was raised so that we would live with him, today and forever! As these very words are spoken and heard, the wind and fire of the Holy Spirit are still at work in dramatic, but down-to-earth ways – moving our hearts to faith in him.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer
Oak Harbor Lutheran Church