A Provocation: The Day of Pentecost: June 4, 2017: Acts 2:1-21

Acts 2:1-21
2:1 When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.

2:2 And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.

2:3 Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them.

2:4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

2:5 Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem.

2:6 And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.

2:7 Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans?

2:8 And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?

2:9 Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia,

2:10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes,

2:11 Cretans and Arabs–in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.”

2:12 All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?”

2:13 But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”

2:14 But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say.

2:15 Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning.

2:16 No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:

2:17 ‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.

2:18 Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy.

2:19 And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist.

2:20 The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.

2:21 Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’

A Question or Two:

  • Why is the same word used to refer to the “tongues” of fire and the “tongues” that people speak?
  • What might a “language of fire” sound like?

Some Longer Reflections:

First of all, because Pentecost blows into the imagination of the Church once a year, I have written about this scene in Acts before, just about a year ago.  You might want to go back and read that Provocation, as well.  Last year I spent time thinking about Ezekiel and the breath that brings life back into the world.

This year, what struck me was the people who were gathered in Jerusalem.  They lived there.  They were Jews.  They were “devout,” we are told in English.  I wonder what people make of that word these days.  It sounds like such a church word, such a specialized holy word, so stiff, starched, and pious.

The Greek is more interesting.

The word is εὐλαβεῖς.  It is not simply a religious word.  It means “well-taken-in-hand,” which is also an old expression not much in current use.  It means that a person so described has been brought up well, raised to be trustworthy and true, proved by experience to be the sort of person you would want next to you in the midst of tough times.

And they came from every Gentile nation on the planet.  And they come to Jerusalem complete with the “languages into which [they] were born.”  This last phrase is translated into English as “native languages,” which means roughly the same thing, but with less concrete reality.  In this scene, the crowd is packed with people who were born into languages that the rest of the crowd did not understand.

This suggests at least two things.

First of all, all the people in the crowd will have learned language from a mother who sang to them, played with them, and nursed them.  That is what it means to be “born into” a language.  That is what a “mother tongue” really is.  My mother was “born into” the Swedish language, and only learned English when she went to kindergarten.  To the end of her life, you could hear her mother singing to her when she spoke Swedish.  And you could see the soft, warm love wash over her when she spoke and heard her mother tongue.  My mother was like the people in the Pentecost crowd.

Second, this birth language will have shaped the way the people in the crowd spoke the other languages they knew.  Every language has its own melody, its own rhythms, its own unique sounds, and the music of your birth language leaves marks on everything you say.  If you do not speak Swedish, look up the pronunciation of this set of letters: “sjö.”  There is a whole spectrum of ways that native speakers pronounce this syllable, none of which sound very much like what you would guess as a native speaker of American English.  Though English does not include this sound, it is a sound that you could hear behind every English word my mother ever said.  My mother spoke English with a Swedish melody.

It always sounded normal to me.  It sounds like the way we speak in our family.

And, of course, it did not sound at all normal to people from other backgrounds, other families.

We reserve a special gladness for the ways other people speak English, and we direct a specially kind of ridicule for those ways of speaking.  We tell jokes that can only be funny if you think that others talk funny.  This is the limping premise of every ethnic joke I have ever heard.  We take careful aim at ethnic forms of English and shame those that use them.

The people in the crowd on Pentecost will have heard all the shaming jokes; they will have been identified throughout their lives as outsiders, potentially dangerous.  Their speech was the marker that made them a target.

Notice what happened in this scene.

People are speaking about the “God’s deeds of power.”  People understand what they are saying.

But in all this speaking and understanding, the ethnic accents are not removed.  Everyone hears of the greatness of God in a voice as warmly accented as their own mother, with all the ethnic lilt fully intact.  The foreign melodies do not offend either God or the storyteller.  The foreign melodies are the music of revelation.

I have been listening to the way Christians sing their faith.

It is often pretty depressing.  When we sing, too often we imagine that we, and we alone, have the song right.  When we sing, too often we DO NOT imagine that anyone else has anything useful to add to the song.  In fact, we regularly sing in ways that shut other people out, and we take their inability to sing as evidence of who is, and who is NOT “saved.”

I think it is time we stopped singing only to ourselves.  I think it is time we quit requiring others to learn to sing like us before we will listen to them.

And I think that it is time that we all stopped cheering when someone says what I just said.  As I listen to Christians sing, I hear most voices asserting that no one else is listening.

Stop it.

The miracle of Pentecost is not that everyone finally talked just like you.  It is not that everyone finally talked the same.

The miracle of Pentecost is that God spoke like everyone’s mother, that God embraced the differences, and did not reject them.  So God sounds like a Millennial and like a Baby Boomer.  God sounds like a woman and a man, a child and an elder.  God embraces every way of speaking, and every way of speaking life into a world that needed resurrection.

So, when Christians gather to imagine Pentecost, would Jews hear us speaking of the mighty acts of God?  Would Muslims?  When we imagine the life-giving work of the breath of God, what will be heard by people who (often for very good reasons) are simply DONE with religion in any ordinary form?

These might be useful questions for our reflection on the miracle of Pentecost.

 

 

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