Emmanuel, Champaign—Acts 2:1-11; John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15
During my adult lifetime—indeed, arguably since I could have been legitimately described as “middle aged”—there has been a revolution in the way human beings communicate with one another. The expansion of the internet beyond just a few dozen geek scientists has not only changed the speed at which we communicate, but actually what we say and how we say it. We don’t need to look any further than just about any comment thread on a Facebook status, a tweet, or a blog post to illustrate my point. Virtually everyone here has at least looked at, if not participated in, a comment thread that is, shall we say, passionate, to put it kindly. Heck, some of us in this very church this morning have been involved in the same passionate thread more than a couple of times. And we’ve seen how easy it is for people to simply talk “past” one another, resulting in multiple levels of misunderstanding and misconstruing. Very quickly, emotions escalate, harsh words get used, and everything spirals down into a confused mess. Following the life of one of these “conversations” is like watching a slow-motion train wreck.
Sadly, this is just an intensification of a problem that afflicts virtually all human communication. It shows up in marriages and families. It shows up in public and political discourse. And, as we know all too well, it even shows up among Christians, in church communities. It has no doubt been made worse by the technology we use now, when family members can send snarky text messages from across the dining room table, where people inexplicably have their smart phones and tablets with them. Problems with communication are obvious, of course, when people speak literally different languages. If you study a foreign language long enough, you’ll eventually discover that languages represent not just different words for the same ideas, but actually different ideas, different ways of processing human experience. Translation between languages is far from an exact science; it is at best an approximation. But human communication is just as problematic, though perhaps less obvious, when we supposedly speak the same language. For instance, I read recently about a creative “scheme” that has been devised to help encourage more young people in the Church of England to put themselves forward for ordination. And the important bit there was Church of England, because the word “scheme” connotes something rather sinister and unsavory to American ears, whereas among the Brits, it’s completely “brilliant,” which is another word they use differently! Even using the same language, different cultural contexts can create serious problems in communication.
Poor communication, of course, can result in enormous suffering. Poor communication between diplomats can lead to war. Poor communication between different levels and branches of government can lead to the public welfare being placed in great jeopardy. Poor communication between management and labor can lead to painful economic dislocation. Poor communication is certainly one factor in domestic violence. Poor communication can easily ratchet-up racial tension. It seems to me that most of the heartburn around the Black Lives Matter movement can be traced to people of sincere goodwill feeling like they’re somehow at odds with one another because of inadequate communication. And, of course, the mission of the gospel, the mission of the church, is monumentally compromised because of communication failure, on both the speaking end and the hearing end
It has ever been thus. The biblical story of the Tower of Babel speaks of an occasion shrouded in the mists of pre-history when humankind presumed to try and build a tower to reach the heights of heaven, but God was displeased with the project and put a sudden end to it by causing the workers to no longer be able to understand what the others were saying, thus providing a legendary explanation for the diversity of human languages.
And then, along comes Pentecost. It was a liminal moment, a place of transition. The Jesus Movement had been born, when Jesus rose from the dead, and the umbilical cord was cut at the Ascension, but it had not yet begun to breathe. The life-or-death crisis had arrived. Was the Church going to take a deep breath and begin to thrive? Or would it be stillborn? The disciples of Jesus are gathered in Jerusalem, where they had been commanded by Jesus to wait, ten days earlier. Jerusalem was a cosmopolitan city, and there were a great many outsiders there for the Jewish harvest festival of Shavuot. These outsiders were Jews of the Diaspora—that is, ethnic Jews who lived in various places all over the eastern Mediterranean. One could plausibly surmise that they were at least conversant, if not necessarily fluent, in Aramaic, which was the native language of Jerusalem Jews at the time, and/or Greek, which was the common language of the eastern Mediterranean world. But they spoke and understood those languages in a variety of “accents.”
Were the disciples and those who heard them gathered on the grounds of the Temple, or nearby? It was certainly a public place, and the Temple was the public place in the city. We don’t know whether the crowd saw the tongues of fire that appeared on the heads of the Apostles, or heard the sound of rushing wind described in Acts. Perhaps they did, or maybe it was a private, mystical experience for the Apostles. What we do know is that these Jews of the Diaspora heard the Apostles speaking, each in his or her own peculiar language or dialect. Now, it’s helpful to remind ourselves that the Apostles were all Galileans, so they were themselves outsiders in Jerusalem that day, and, as Galileans, they spoke Aramaic with a very distinct accent that most cultured and educated Jews felt was uncouth, kind of like the way somebody from the upper midwest instinctively feels about the speech patterns of someone from east Tennessee. On Pentecost, it was like sophisticated New Englanders hearing redneck southerners talk without detecting any sign of a “southern accent.” And as a result, these sophisticated Jerusalem Jews were able to take seriously what the Apostles were saying in a way that they would not have been able to if they had “heard” their true accents. And the same things happened for people wherever they were from: they didn’t hear a bunch of Galilean yahoos, they heard people talking the way they talk, using the slang and idioms that they use, speaking with an accent that sounded “normal” to them.
Effective communication took place on the Day of Pentecost, because language barriers were dissolved. The Holy Spirit enabled the Jewish Diaspora present in Jerusalem to hear what they needed to hear in the way they needed to hear it so as to be able to respond in faith. That is the Pentecostal gift that we celebrate and give thanks for today. Emmanuel Memorial Church is here today at the corner of State and University because baptized disciples of Jesus in the century before last were enabled by the Holy Spirit to hear what they needed to hear in the way they needed to hear it. Each of us individually is here today because the Holy Spirit has enabled us to hear what we need to hear in the way that we have needed to hear it. Perhaps this act, this intervention, of the Holy Spirit in the life of any given person here today, began decades ago, and that activity has been sustained to this very moment. Perhaps it began yesterday, or last night. For some in our midst this morning, it will happen a few minutes from now as we call down the Holy Spirit to stir the waters of the baptismal font, to turn the water into a spiritual amniotic fluid from which new life in Christ springs forth. Others will confess the Lordship of Jesus Christ in their lives and be strengthened in that same Spirit through these hands that have been entrusted to me, hands that are significant not because they belong to Daniel Martins but because they belong to the Bishop of Springfield, and therefore reach from through the centuries to make present here today the touch of those very Apostles upon whose heads the tongues of fire rested on Pentecost.
The curse of the Tower of Babel is a sign of the cosmic failure of human communication over the millennia of human existence. The work of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, and since Pentecost, is a sign of the restoration, reconciliation, and connection, among people, and between people and God.
As Jesus promises, the Spirit redeems and sanctifies human communication because the Spirit leads us into all truth. And the arrival of the Spirit is a public and collective event, which all can see and all can hear. The Spirit isn’t a private possession, to be hoarded or rationed, but is an ever-blowing wind that all can see the effects of. So we need one another, as the community of those who have received the gift of the Spirit in baptism. I am not led by the Spirit into all truth apart from you, nor you apart from me. We need to be in conversation with one another—indeed, in holy communion with one another. This is the context in which the Spirit makes it possible for us to hear what we need to hear in the way we need to hear it. Alleluia and Amen.