As the Sunday of Pentecost fast approaches (it is on May 20th this year), I am again pondering the amazing details of the story. Obviously the most spectacular part is when the Holy Spirit descends upon the crowd in fiery tongues of flame. The fact that our United Methodist symbol of the cross and the flame are reminiscent of this event shows how important the story and the action of the Holy Spirit have been in our own tradition.
What also intrigues me is how the Holy Spirit empowers the Lord’s followers to begin to speak in languages not their own, but instead in the dialects of the widely varied members of the crowd that had gathered in Jerusalem for the annual festival. As we remember this action of the Spirit, it has implications both within and outside the church even today.
First of all, consider the fact that if this newly-birthed community was really the first “church”, then the fact that they all could understand each other despite their different cultures and backgrounds might just be a timeless reminder for how any church can function in a healthy way through the power of the Spirit. For our church, like any other, is filled with folks from different backgrounds who have different opinions and experiences. And yet despite our differences, the Holy Spirit empowers us to “speak the same language” so that we can converse with and listen to each other so that we can worship and work together as a community of faith. William Willimon sums it up like this: “At Pentecost, the Holy Spirit descends and gathers a crowd, makes a family out of anybody and everybody—the church.”
Second, the Pentecost story is a reminder that in our secular age, as the church, sometimes we have a “language problem” when it comes to reaching out to and/or attracting other persons. To a lot of people, especially those who haven’t been in the church for a while or who never have been a part of a church, the language that we speak in worship and in what we do within and outside our doors doesn’t always translate very well. Sometimes we assume that since we understand perfectly well the “churchy” language that we use and keep doing things “that we’ve always done that way”, that we are speaking effectively to people who are foreign to the church. And in those assumptions comes the disconnect between the church and the outside world. If nothing else, the story of Pentecost reminds us that the Holy Spirit can and does empower us to speak a language that others will understand. This reality then hopefully can embolden us to begin to “speak a different language” in how we carry out our ministry to our community, whatever that might look and sound like.
So my prayer this year is that we can be “Pentecost people”—speaking and listening to each other and to those outside our church with a sense of common understanding and with the same excitement as those first followers of Jesus who first received the gift of the Spirit.
In the Spirit,