This morning we're taking a quick break from our series on Philippians to explore the passage that goes with today's celebration of Pentecost. We're heading back to the book of Acts where we spent a few weeks considering how we can be the church in the world now. All of those great stories that we heard a few weeks ago were sparked by the story we are going to hear this morning. It's the story of when the followers of Jesus are filled with the Holy Spirit with the evidence of speaking in tongues. I really want to unpack this with all of us here together because in this congregation we have a wide range of Christian beliefs and practices. I know that there are people in this room who speak in tongues as part of their regular spiritual practice. And I know that there are people in this room who would be totally freaked out by that. And I know that there are people in this room who are open to new ideas but just find this one confusing. So this morning, I want to explain what I think is happening in this passage and how it relates to living out the gospel in Delaware in 2018. To set the stage a little, the book of Acts is the sequel to the Gospel of Luke. At the point of transition between the books, Jesus ascends to heaven and instructs his followers to wait in Jerusalem to be baptized with the Holy Spirit. He says, "You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the uttermost ends of the earth." So that is exactly what they do. They keep meeting and praying together, and they wait.
Scripture Acts 2:1-21
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 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.
Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked,
“Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.”
All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”
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. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:
‘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. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’
This is the Word of God for all people.
Pentecost is a day of power. That's what Jesus promised the disciples in Acts 1:8: "You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you." The word is dynamis, where we get our word dynamite. It's the same word used in Luke (aka Acts the prequel) to describe Jesus when he returned from being tempted in the desert. He returned in the power of the Spirit, and went almost immediately to his hometown synagogue where he read from the scroll of Isaiah a passage that begins "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me ..." Pentecost is the day when the church received the same Spirit and power that was in Christ Jesus! And that power launched the church out into the world in a totally new way, which is why we call it the birthday of the church.
So let's talk about speaking in tongues. First I will tell you that I spent many years of my life in a Pentecostal denomination and I speak in tongues. (But no, I cannot just do it on command.) This is not a typical experience for people in UCC churches or the other churches that many of you grew up in, so I thought it would be helpful if I unpacked this idea a little bit this morning.
Pentecost was a Jewish festival before it was the birthday of the church. It happened fifty days after Passover and commemorated God giving the 10 Commandments to Moses on Mt. Sinai. After the ancient Hebrews settled down to agricultural life, it was also a celebration of the first harvest in the spring.
So on this holy day, all the followers of Jesus were together. Chapter 1 says there were about 120 of them. Whatever you may have imagined in the past, please now imagine this as a mixed crowd of both men and women.
The scripture is a little ambiguous about where they were. One possibility is that they were in the outer courts of the temple. In that space there would have been enough room for all 120 of them, and there would have been a lot of other Jews also gathered there for the holy day. I also think this is a better image than them all hiding out somewhere. Jesus told them to wait, but he didn't tell them to cower.
So they are all together, men and women, and suddenly <clap>, from heaven, comes a sound like a hurricane wind rushing, filling the whole house. Divided tongues of fire appear and literally sit on each individual person. Each individual person is filled with the Holy Spirit and begins to speak in other tongues that the Spirit is giving them to utter forth.
What is clear from the language is that each person is speaking a language that is not one they know and that it is being given to them by God's Spirit/Breath/Wind. The word "tongues" literally means your actual tongue, and a language, and a nation distinguished by its speech. So the "tongues" of fire correspond to the disciples physical tongues speaking in other "tongues," which attracts the attention of people from other "tongues."
This is why I think they were at the temple. The disciples are quickly surrounded by a crowd of Jews who live in Jerusalem but come from other places. And the miracle here is not only in the tongues but also in the ears. The original text distinctly says that each individual listener heard all the disciples speaking about the magnificence of God in his or her native dialect. So each disciple is apparently speaking something different, but each listener is hearing the whole group in his or her own tongue. Astonishing! And then Peter goes on to preach a sermon that leads to 3,000 people becoming followers of Jesus. That's a growth rate of 2,500% in one day, which is a problem I would LOVE to have!
Here's the key: speaking in tongues as described in the book of Acts, and in the movement that started at the beginning of the 20th century, is always about two things – boldness and inclusion.
First: It's about receiving a new sense of boldness when it comes to living out the gospel. I'm not talking about arrogance; I'm talking about confidence. I'm talking about comfortable in your own skin excited about your own experience of Jesus Christ and able to speak authentically and powerfully about it. The historic Christian word for that is testimony, in Greek it's martyria. When we are filled with the Spirit we live and speak authentically about our allegiance to Jesus as Lord. In Acts chapter 4 when the church begins to experience persecution, they gather for prayer and specifically ask for the ability to speak with boldness and the Bible says "When they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God with boldness."
Secondly, speaking in tongues is evidence that former outsiders are now insiders. In chapter 8 Samaritans begin speaking in tongues and the Jews are like, "What?!" Remember the Jews looked down on Samaritans because although they worshipped God they didn't have the right bloodlines and they didn't worship in the right place. So when the Samaritans start speaking in tongues, the Jews are like, "Well, we know what that experience means, so I guess they're in."
And if that wasn't crazy enough, in chapter 10, a group of Gentiles, non-Jewish people, start speaking in tongues! Which totally forever messes up the boundaries. Because if the Gentiles are in, then everybody is in AND THEN we have to figure out how to live together. The Holy Spirit comes to demonstrate to us that all our barriers are crap. The Bible says, "In Christ there is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, circumcised or uncircumcised for Christ is all and in all!"
Speaking in tongues is not magic that makes the boldness happen. It's not that you can't be bold if you haven't had this experience. But according to our sacred text and our tradition, there's something in this experience. It is a confirmation to the speaker that he or she has been filled with the Holy Spirit in that particular way. And when you know that, you feel more bold. It's like finding money in your pocket. Once you know you have it, you can spend it. Speaking in tongues isn't magic that breaks down barriers. It's a confirmation to us that the barriers were only in our imagination to begin with. It's a sign of unity.
And you are not somehow less than if you've never had this experience. Part of the message of the gospel is that no one is worth less than anyone else for any reason ever. So it would be totally ridiculous to use this as some kind of measuring stick. My former pastor told me years ago that the word for being filled with the Spirit is not the word used when filling an empty cup. It's the word used when wind fills a sail. The sail is not lacking before the wind fills it. It's not less of a sail. But when the wind fills it, it can do more of what it was designed to do.
Being filled with the Holy Spirit with the evidence of speaking in tongues helps us do what we are designed to do, which is to share the amazing news of God's unconditional love, unstoppable justice, and universal salvation with everyone we meet. And in all seriousness if any of you are interested in exploring this spiritual discipline, I would be glad to talk and pray with you about it.
So why do some Christians feel so uncomfortable about it? I'll tell you what I suspect. I suspect it's about control and respectability. Like I said before prayers of the people, in church we like to follow a script. In fact, you don't get the opportunity to say much of anything while we are together on Sunday morning that isn't scripted for you. Even I speak from a manuscript. Which is fine. Orderly worship is good. Having a plan is good.
BUT I think it also develops an unconscious expectation that our experience of God is always going to be scripted. And so many of us are uncomfortable with anything that doesn't fit in our one hour and 15 minute pre-planned liturgy. We are uncomfortable with anything spiritual that we haven't experienced before. We are uncomfortable when we feel like we aren't in control and being respectable. Which is why this morning we changed the decoration on our altar and are wearing funny hats and have party blowers. Because in order for new things to happen we have to be shaken out of our old routines.
And friends, I just want to tell you that God's best work is done off script. Off our script that is, not off God's script. The resurrection was totally off our script. Nobody rises from the dead. In fact Jesus basically lived off script; he was messing with people's expectations all the time! And if we are going to light this world up for love and justice, we are going to have to go off of the world's script.
We are going to have to do some things that seem risky. Part of the reason we come together for worship is to get some training! The reason we practice silence together and the reason we have a time of reflection after the sermon is to make some space for God to go off of our scripts! Like the disciples we have to wait. We have to make room for the Spirit of God to move in us and among us so that we can move boldly, with dynamite power, in the world. We have nothing to fear. Amen.