A Sermon on Pentecost: Hearing the Gospel in our Own Language

[Just in case you wanted to listen to this sermon instead of reading it, here's an audio link from the St. Timothy website.]

To the west of Scotland is the tiny island of Iona. This island, the site of an early monastery and the burial site of some notable kings of Scotland, is an enduring symbol of Christianity in Scotland. For the past 70 years, the island has been home to the Iona Community, an ecumenical community dedicated to the causes of peace, justice, community, and worship. The center of worship for the Iona Community is the Iona Abbey, a restored 13th-century medieval abbey consisting of a chapel and cloister.

The chapel is a rustic cathedral, built in the shape of a cross, boasting tall archways and arched windows. The bumpy stone walls and the smoother stone floor provide a cool and lofty space into which the sun pours from the eastern window over the altar. Inside the chapel is a bookshelf, filled with Bibles. As you scan the spines, you realize that this is no ordinary collection of Bibles. A sign on the bookshelf reads “A House of Prayer for All Nations: Please use a Bible in your own language.” A Chinese Bible sits next to an Arabic Bible, a German Bible by a Gaelic one, an English Bible between Korean and Greek Bibles, Spanish, French, Czech, Polish Bibles all lined up together. This tiny Scottish island heralds visitors from all over the world, and at the center of its worship space is the desire that God’s word is accessible for whomever wanders into the space.

The day of Pentecost had come, and the disciples were gathered together. Suddenly, there was the rush of a mighty wind, a violent wind, a wind that swirled and whirled and twisted the hems of their garments. A noisy wind; a gusty wind like the wind of creation: “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.”

And so, on Pentecost, a wind from God swept over the face of the Jews gathered there, filling the space in which they were gathered. And in the midst of this wind, fire. Tongues of fire, lapping their way through the wind, coming to blaze and crackle and dance over their heads. Fire like the burning bush from which Moses heard the voice of God. Fire like the pillar of flame that led the Israelites through the desert.

And with the rush of the wind and the flickering tongues of fire, the Holy Spirit came to the community. The breath of the spirit, the restless rush of the holy, entered into the disciples gathered there, and they all began to speak, one voice on top of another, all speaking in different languages.

Jews from all across the land had come to Jerusalem to celebrate the festival - “devout Jews from every nation under heaven” - and they quickly gathered around the disciples, gathered around the noise and confusion, gathered around the curiosity and spectacle. The crowds leaned in, strained their ears to hear what was going on, and were amazed and astonished: “Are not all of these people who are speaking Galileans? But they why do we hear each of them speaking in our own various languages?”

The gospel message – the good news of God's love and grace, of the man Jesus, who came to earth, lived, preached, taught, healed, suffered and died; the astonishing news of this same Jesus who rose from the dead – this message of hope and joy and salvation came to each person of the crowd in his or her own language, in familiar words. Baffled and amazed, the crowds could do nothing but ask one another “What does this mean?”

What does it mean to hear the gospel in your own language? What does it mean to receive God’s grace in words you can understand?

We left the vans in the parking lot of an Econo Lodge at the south edge of El Paso. Three fifteen-passenger vans had carried about thirty of us college students from the March chill of Minnesota to the warm desert of Texas. We grabbed our bags and boarded an old, paint-covered bus that would take us across the border into Juarez, Mexico for a week of mission work in the heart of the community.

We arrived at our site – a four-building complex built behind a small church, protected on all sides by a brightly painted cinder-block wall – and unloaded the bus. We were the new curiosity to a group of brown-eyed children who had been swinging and sliding on the church playground. They crowded around us, asking for piggyback rides and playfully grabbing at our baseball caps. This curious gaggle of children followed us around as we toured the entirety of small complex: an unheated dormitory for women with plywood bunk beds in cramped rows, an identical residence for the men, a meeting house with one large common room and a small kitchen with a pass-through window, and a small building with two toilets and two cold showers. As we shuffled across the dust from building to building, the children followed us and peered into doorways from the outside. Those were the rules. They could play on the playground, follow us around outside, but not enter any building unless we gave them permission.

We dropped our belongings on our bunks and the gathered for orientation in the middle of the common room, sitting on rugs on the packed-dirt floor. Orientation was mostly a series of cautions and warnings about things like health concerns – don’t drink the tap water – and personal safety – don’t go anywhere by yourself, especially at night. At the end of the orientation time, just about the time we were feeling a bit homesick, just about the time we all were ready to stand up and stretch our legs before dinner, our site leader told us she had one other thing she needed to share with us.

She told us how she had checked her email that morning, before we crossed the border together. She told us that she had received an campus-wide email from our college pastor. She told us that five of our fellow classmates who were driving across the country to do volunteer work over their spring break – not unlike what we ourselves were doing – had been hit head-on by a drunk driver who entered the highway going the wrong way. She told us that three of them had been killed. As she read the names, people immediately began to cry. One girl in our group had dated the boy who had been killed. One boy in our group had been in a few plays with one of the girls who had been killed. Most of us in our group were connected to those three students in one way or another, and we sat together, crying and hugging one another on that hard, dirty floor.

A couple of us needed tissues, so we got up to go find some toilet paper in the bathhouse. As we got near the door of the meeting house, two little girls stopped us. They threw their arms around our waists and asked us over and over again, in Spanish, “why are you crying?” I don’t speak Spanish – I couldn’t give her an answer. She didn’t seem to mind. Instead, she sent her friend off to find us tissues, and just kept hugging me. She kept repeating “don’t cry, don’t cry” over and over again to me, hugging me tighter. And then, she reached up, and wiped the tears off of my cheeks with her bare hands.

In the depths of grief and confusion, in the midst of a literal language barrier, God’s grace came to me in a language I could understand – the language of a child’s compassion, the language of a small hand wiping away my tears, the language of another’s heart breaking to see my heart breaking.

God’s grace never fails to find us, never fails to seek us out, never fails to show up in language that we understand. God sent Jesus to take on the language of our human existence – birth, life, and even death – so that we might be saved, and so that we might recognize the fullness of God’s love for us. And now, as people of the resurrection, God’s grace comes to us in many languages: moments of hope in the midst of sorrow, moments of comfort in the midst of grief, moments of joy in the midst of darkness, moments of inspiration in the midst of boredom. God’s love is shown to us in the beauty of nature, in the care and compassion of our neighbors, in our amazing capacity for growth and change, in solemn moments of prayer and in holy moments of laughter.

Today, on Pentecost, we remember the work of the spirit who empowers us to go out and share God’s grace with the world in languages that the world will understand. This doesn’t mean that we need to be great orators or philanthropists. It means that we need to live out God’s grace in our attitudes and actions, and it means that we need to share our stories of how we have seen God working in our lives.

I watched last week as boxes and trays and pans and canisters full of food were loaded up to be taken to Hesed house. I watched as we worried that we might have too much food. In a time of scarcity, in a time where the news tells us to be careful with our money, to hold back – this congregation instead shows overwhelming generosity. This month’s Tidings is full of stories of generosity and compassion, of the myriad ways that this congregation is sharing the gospel in the languages of service and fellowship and worship. Even as someone brand new to St. Timothy, it is easy to observe just how deeply connected this congregation is to its mission: To Live the Love of Christ.

When we come together to worship, we share our stories of God’s grace in our lives, and we enter into God’s story as we read the word and celebrate the sacraments. We receive grace in the language of narrative as we listen to the Bible readings. We receive grace in the language of music as we sing praise to God. We receive grace in the language of fellowship as we gather together to worship. We receive grace in the language of prayer as we intercede for one another and for the world. We receive grace in the language of touch and taste as we come to the table. And all of these experiences connect us to the wider community of faith, to the whole communion of saints, past present and future, to the disciples in Jerusalem as the spirit moved among them and birthed the church. May the grace we receive here feed us in faith, and may the spirit lead us from here, refreshed and empowered to go into all the world, proclaiming God’s love in a multitude of languages, as we each are given the ability.

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