I’m going to start this morning with a quick poll. I’m going to ask for a show of hands, but nobody needs to be anxious about revealing the true answer about themselves. I’m pretty sure you’re all in the same boat out there.
Please raise your hand if you’ve ever spoken Mesopotamian with someone.
No? Not a lot of hands out there?
Let’s try another one, then. How about Phrygian? Anyone out there doing their crosswords in Phrygian? Maybe you’re a little rusty and sometimes need to pull out your Phrygian-English dictionary? Raise those hands so I can see them!
No for Phrygian, too?
I am, of course, being silly. Our separation from those languages is not merely one of geography, but of time. I am not a linguist, so I can’t say with any authority which languages are the modern equivalents of Parthian or Cappadocian. But if I were to ask if anyone out there had heard someone speaking Farsi or Arabic, I suspect a few of you would raise your hands. After all, there was nothing even remotely resembling modern English being spoken back then, either.
Whenever we talk about the miracles of Pentecost, we tend to focus on the profusion of languages. For example, members of Christian denominations described as Pentecostal often engage in the religious practice of speaking in tongues. As far as I know, no churches place flames atop members’ heads. It’s the languages we remember, and which occupy the most space in the description of the event in Acts.
On one hand, I wonder a little why that would be so. After all, fire appearing on people’s heads is far more out of the ordinary than hearing different languages.
In fact, it seems a little bit on the nose. Like “attention, everyone! A miracle is happening!” so they don’t miss it.
After all, for the Jews gathered in Jerusalem from all the nations under heaven, what they were hearing didn’t necessarily sound miraculous. It simply sounded like home.
Admittedly, they didn’t necessarily expect to hear the language of Egypt or Crete or Asia when they spent time in their holy city, except perhaps in little pockets or neighborhoods. But it was a big city, after all. And perhaps it seemed unusual that the language of Parthia was being spoken by Galileans, but who knows what cultural craze had struck Jerusalem?
So perhaps that’s why the flames were there. This is a miracle! You’re hearing the language of home because of the Holy Spirit! Jerusalem sounded like everyone’s hometown because of a miracle.
What better way of welcoming everyone to hear what the Spirit was saying than to put it in the words they heard as children? What better way of telling the assembled people that they were all children of God than to reverse the curse of Babel? No matter where they came from, no matter how diverse their languages, everyone could hear the same thing.
Many listeners. Many languages. One message. One Spirit.
Among the things I loved when I lived in big cities was, like the Jerusalem of Jesus’ time, you could meet people from everywhere and hear languages from around the globe simply sitting and commuting to work or strolling down the street. It makes living in a place like Boston or New York magical.
But we live in an amazing time, even if nobody speaks Phrygian any longer. My spouse Dan does a lot of driving to and from work, which means lots of time listening to the radio. The other day, here in northern New England, he reported hearing a French woman singing a song in English about loving a man who lives in Africa. The world pours its culture right into our cars, only a dial away.
The beauty of humankind is wrapped up in a kind of contradiction, made gloriously whole at Pentecost. All the spices and songs and stories, every kilt and sari and kimono — it all makes this life more wondrous and rich and joyful. Even if hot foods give you heartburn and you prefer lyrics you can actually understand, imagine the duller world we’d inhabit if there was no option even to try things beyond our own horizons.
And yet no matter how far-flung the location you could ever find yourself visiting, the message of our faith doesn’t vary. No matter what language is spoken in the kitchen where your meal is prepared, no matter who dyes or cuts the cloth of the garments you might choose to wear, no matter the instruments playing the tunes you hear around you, God’s love is the same. Christ’s message is the same. Our mission is the same.
Is there injustice? Fight it. Is there poverty and suffering and strife? Work to alleviate it. Are there people who mourn, who live on society’s margins, who believe themselves cut off from the love of anyone? Comfort them, welcome them, love them.
No matter what corner of the globe, the Spirit speaks the same thing to everyone. And today we are reminded that the Spirit’s words reside within us. The Spirit rests on us like flame on a matchstick. The Spirit blows around us and through us and out of our mouths.
The Spirit made the tongues of flame appear to make clear to everyone assembled that the familiar languages they were hearing were no coincidence or (as some people guessed) drunken ramblings. They were a message from God, delivered in words they could understand best. We may not have fire bursting forth from our heads these days, but let us help the world understand the message anyhow. Let us communicate it in ways that sound like welcome to everyone.
Humanity is beautiful and vibrant in its diversity. It is something to be cherished and celebrated and protected. But poured out onto us is one Spirit, one love, from one God. May our lives reflect this truth. Amen.