Look, We CAN Communicate: Pentecost, Part 2, Acts 2:5-13

My Ph.D. in Communication is both a blessing and a curse. The curse is that when people know I studied communication at the graduate level they actually expect me to be able to communicate. My excuses that my research was theoretical and in rhetoric and public speaking, not in “normal” interpersonal discourse always fall on deaf ears. I sometimes feel like the undergrad who signed up for a course in interpersonal communication only to be very disappointed the first day of class when he discovered that the course catalogue description of a course about “human intercourse” was not exactly what he expected.

You don’t need a doctorate to know that communication is hard. Words are just symbols that represent objects or feelings or relationships. As symbols they can only point to the reality they represent. Communication goes through different filters of both the sender and receiver of the communication, and those filters are unique to each person. And of course communication occurs on multiple levels – verbal, non-verbal, emotional, rational, and all of those are culturally conditioned and affected by other environmental and genetic factors. This explains the popular success of John Gray’s book, Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus.

Sometimes the challenges of communication produce humorous and embarrassing results. For example, “The V-for-victory sign was immortalized by Winston Churchill in the early, dark days of World War II, and the proper form is with the palm facing outward. But, a simple twist of the wrist puts you in dangerous cultural waters. Throughout much of Her Majesty’s realm, the palm-in V sign is the equivalent of the more infamous middle-digit salute.” (See the article by William Ecenbarger of the Philadelphia Enquirer for many other valuable tips on cultural competence, http://articles.philly.com/2009-02-22/news/25280966_1_taxi-driver-mumbai-desk-clerk.)

The Hebrew Scriptures explain the origins of different languages in various parts of the world via the Tower of Babel story in Genesis 11. In that story it is human pride, a belief that humans could build a tower tall enough to reach to the heavens and establish their importance that leads to this judgment from God: 6 And the LORD said, “Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. 7 Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.”

That story is a mythical way of explaining the reality that languages are unique to different cultures, countries and ethnicities. While I don’t believe God would throw that kind of monkey wrench into the communication machinery as a punishment for our pride, the language barrier is a major challenge to communication. There is a joke that defines “multi-lingual” as a person who speaks 3 or more, “bilingual” as a person who speaks two languages, and someone who speaks only one language as “an American.” That unfortunate state of affairs was demonstrated in a grocery checkout line when a woman finished a cell phone conversation in her native tongue. The man behind her in line said to her, “Excuse me, ma’am, but this is America and we speak English here. If you want to speak Spanish, go back to Mexico.” The woman calmly replied, “Sir, I was speaking Navajo. If you want to speak English, go back to England.”

The task of bridging cultural differences and communication challenges in our global village is very daunting. Technology offers help through on-line language lessons, apps and programs that automatically translate text from one language to another, and systems like the one at the United Nations where people from all over the world can hear a translation of a speaker’s words into their own language through a set of headphones. But those technologies do not solve the deeper spiritual divisions at the root of human suffering that manifests itself in prejudice, racism, economic injustice, terrorism and full scale war.

The on-going cultural and religious conflicts in our world are proof that we’ve a long way to go to overcome our failures to communicate. The Pentecost story in Acts 2 addresses those concerns, not from a technological or academic perspective, but from a spiritual point of view. Acts 2: 5-13 describes it this way: 5 Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6 And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.7 Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?9 Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes,11 Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” 12 All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” 13 But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”

Jews and non-Jews from all over the world hear the apostles sharing their faith story in their own language. This is not some ecstatic, unintelligible speaking in tongues, but genuine communication made possible by the power of the Holy Spirit. These apostles are not educated linguists. They are common fishermen and tax collectors. They have not suddenly been empowered by Rosetta Stone; they are filled with the only force capable of overcoming human fear and division. At Pentecost the confusion of tongues from the Tower of Babel story is reversed and the response of those who have ears to hear the Gospel is both amazing and confusing.

People from all over the world have come to Jerusalem for the Pentecost Festival and some are apparently there on other business – Romans, Cretans and Arabs. The story shows us that as insurmountable as our communication barriers are, be they religious, cultural or political, we cannot just throw up are hands and say “we can’t do that!” Whatever happened in Jerusalem that day, this story makes it very clear the “this is impossible, we give up” excuse simply will not fly. It is easy to despair and say the hatred and divisions in our world today between Islam and the West, for example, are not amenable to any simple communication skills. Anyone who thinks so must be filled with new wine or smoking those funny weeds.

But this story counters with evidence that the Acts 2 audience is exactly like our multi-cultural world. A cross section of the whole world, people from Asia Mesopotamia, Judea, Egypt and Libya are identified; and the message is clear. Because they have received the gift of God’s spirit, a spirit of unity and love that is universal and offered to all of God’s creation, these apostles are able to overcome all of the cultural and communication barriers and share their amazing transformation stories in ways that are heard and understood.

That is a word of hope that our war-weary world desperately needs to hear. We may see no hope for peace and justice because we rely too much on human ways of dealing with our problems. We still think we can build towers or systems or networks that will make us the heroes and heroines of our story. The problem is it’s not our story. And when our best efforts fail, in desperation and fear we think destroying our enemies will bring peace in spite of centuries of evidence that violence and death only beget more of the same.

God’s answer that is blowing in the wind of Pentecost is that the transforming power of the God of the whole universe is the only hope for overcoming human differences and conflicts. The God of Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia is still the God of Americans and Syrians, of Islam and ISIS, of every soul that breathes; and those who dare to believe that are not crazy or filled with new wine. We are filled with the Holy Spirit of the Source of our being, and we speak a language of peace and grace that everyone can understand because it is the message that the world is longing to hear.

Peter’s summary of that message follows in Acts 2:14-36 and will be addressed in the next segment of this series on Pentecost.

(All Scriptures are quoted from the New Revised Standard Version)

The Answer is Blowing in a Mighty Wind: Acts 2:1-4

A recent study by the Pew Research Center on “America’s Changing Religious Landscape” has generated much hand wringing and discussion because it indicates that the percentage of the American population identifying themselves as Christians is in serious decline. The release of that study just before Pentecost in the Christian calendar is a perfect motivation for us to take seriously what is often called “the birthday of the church” in Acts 2.

The second chapter of Acts is a wonderful summary of the Christian Gospel. It begins with the coming of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost, but that is just the beginning. The chapter goes on to describe the whole Gospel of both personal and social holiness which I outlined in my last post, and this article is the first in a series on Acts 2 that will reflect on our Judeo-Christian roots as a way of moving from hand wringing to spirit-led witness to our faith in both word and action.

I wrote a couple of weeks ago about discouragement as an obstacle to resurrection living, and the evidence for being discouraged has not abated in the interim. ISIS victories in Iraq and the ensuing political posturing and blame game, a horrific shoot out in Waco, a deadly train crash in Philadelphia, a huge oil spill and draughts in California while rains and flooding of biblical proportions hammer parts of Texas.

Such bad news everywhere reminds me of a conversation I had with one of my seminary professors back in 1971. I attended Dr. Roy Reed’s memorial service last week, and that brought back lots of memories. One of them was the day I preached my senior sermon in chapel at the Methodist Theological School in Ohio. I invited a talented group of youth from Wapakoneta, Ohio where I was youth pastor to join me for that service. They had formed a folk music group called “The Get Together,” and one of the numbers they sang in chapel that day was a Ray Stevens song, “Everything is Beautiful.” It’s a song about inclusivity and tolerance, but Professor Reed took exception to the chorus and challenged me about its theological soundness after the service. The chorus says:

“Everything is beautiful in its own way.
Like the starry summer night, or a snow-covered winter’s day.
And everybody’s beautiful in their own way.
Under God’s heaven, the world’s gonna find the way.”

The pastor at Dr. Reed’s memorial service talked about how honest (sometimes brutally honest) Dr. Reed could be. He even said Roy’s mother once remarked that Roy was so honest you sometimes just wanted to slap him! In retrospect I have come to appreciate and cherish that passion for truth, but not so much that day when I was on the receiving end as one of his students. In no uncertain terms Dr. Reed argued that everything is not beautiful, and as in every generation there were plenty of current events to support his argument. The news headlines in 1971 were all about Viet Nam, Cambodia, and Laos. Memories of My Lai, Selma, assassinations and riots in 1968, student deaths at Jackson State and Kent State, and the first big oil spill in Santa Barbara were all fresh in our minds.

With the benefit of more life experience I came to understand Dr. Reed’s point. Faith and hope are necessary for human survival, but so is a healthy balance of prophetic realism that shines the spotlight of truth on injustices that need to be made right. Sometimes when I reflect on my own life and career I get discouraged at the lack of progress we are making as a human race. The church and the world do not seem to be much closer to God’s vision for creation than we were that day 44 years ago.

But when I am tempted to lament the fact that the world is going to hell in the proverbial hand basket I remember Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s quote: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” My alma mater, MTSO, is a good example of why we need to see things from God’s perspective. God’s time is not our time. That spring that Dr. Reed and I had our memorable discussion was a different era and the seminary we both love was not the same place it is today. The school was only 13 years old in 1971, and even though it had been founded by a wonderful faculty and board committed to progressive theology and the social gospel, it was a creature of its time and culture. In my class of 50 students there were only two women, and neither of them was in the track for ordination. The faculty we studied under was top-notch, but they were all white males. (The first female and minority faculty members were hired the year after I graduated.)

By comparison, the faculty of that school is now led by a female dean and is 43% female, 29% minority, and serves a diverse student body that is over 50% female. Does that mean it is utopia or that the church is now a perfect place? Of course not. Even though women clergy are now a very significant part of the fabric of our church, the truth is that clergy women still far too often hit a “stained glass ceiling” and are rising to leadership positions in large churches at a much slower rate than women in comparable positions in other professions. We can’t ignore the need for continual progress in the church or society, but neither should we discount the significant gains we have made in women’s rights, civil rights and human rights. Everything is not and never will be beautiful in this imperfect world, but some important things are certainly more beautiful than they once were, and those things can inspire us to keep the faith and continue the quest for truth and justice.

If someone had tried to tell Jesus’ frightened band of disciples just before Pentecost that everything is beautiful, I’m sure they would have objected even more strongly than Professor Reed did to our song. Jesus had been brutally executed and all their hopes for political liberation from Rome and reestablishment of the glory of Israel were crushed. Then their hopes rose again. Jesus was back with them for a short time only to leave again permanently on Ascension Day. He promised to be with them always in spirit but told them to wait in Jerusalem for that promise to be fulfilled (Acts 1).

And that brings us to Acts 2:
“When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.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. 3 Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.” (Acts 2:1-4)

Not too long ago it was common to find a yellow and brown post-it note on one’s door notifying the occupants that UPS had attempted to deliver a package but could not leave it because someone needed to sign for it. That practice has changed because the percentage of people who are home during the day makes it impractical. But God’s delivery policy has not changed. You still have to be fully present to receive God’s spirit. It can’t be done half-heartedly or in absentia. The disciples were told to wait in Jerusalem until they received the Holy Spirit. Jerusalem was not a safe, cozy place for them to hang out. They had good reason to believe their lives were in danger at the hands of those who had killed Jesus.

Given their track record for bravery it is pretty amazing that the disciples obeyed Jesus’ command. They were more likely to go into a witness protection program than to become bold witnesses for the faith. Let me remind you that the Greek word for witness also means “martyr.” Discipleship was not and still is not for sissies, but wait and obey they did; and on the day of Pentecost God delivered an event that transformed their lives and the world forever.

That kind of transformation requires tremendous power to overcome fear and inertia; so the delivery does not come in the form of a gentle dove alighting on their heads. It comes in the form of a violent wind and flames of refining fire that propel the apostles out of their man cave sanctuary into the cosmic battle with the forces of evil and darkness. So be careful what you ask for. Those baptized into the Christian community are playing with fire and will never be the same.

Baptism initiates all who accept it into the priesthood of all believers. Peter and his gang were not seminary grads, just forever changed by their encounter with Jesus and now filled with his spirit to do, as he predicted, even greater things than he did because he was in them and they were in him (John 14:12-20).

The seeds Jesus had planted in the disciples came to fruition on the Day of Pentecost, a significant Jewish holiday, The Festival of Weeks. Our English word “Pentecost” comes from a phrase in Leviticus 23:16, which instructs the Hebrews to count seven weeks or “fifty days” from the end of Passover to the beginning of the next holiday (pentekonta hemeras in the ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Scripture). This Jewish holiday was originally a harvest feast when the first fruits of their labors were brought as an offering to God. That is important to the Christian observation of Pentecost for two reasons.

The new birth of the spirit in Jesus’ followers represents an offering of their best to God first and foremost. The disciples are all in for the first time in their commitment to Christ, offering themselves completely to God’s kingdom and not to any false idols of comfort, wealth or worldly power. It is a new beginning for them, the church and the world.

Secondly, the date is important because it explains why people from all over the world were in Jerusalem. They were there for the Jewish Festival, and that’s why we hear in verse 4 that the first way the spirit manifests itself in the disciples is through a new found ability to communicate in languages they had not previously known. That is an appropriate first fruit of the spirit because it goes without saying that communication is a necessary skill for any human interaction but never more so than when it comes to the mysterious matters of faith.

The Hebrew Scriptures explain our human failure to communicate and understand each other as a punishment for human pride in the Tower of Babel story (Gen. 11). Now at Pentecost a new wind is blowing that restores the ability to bridge the communication chasm and open the potential for genuine community. I will address what that gift of communication means and why we all need God’s unifying spirit more than ever in our global village today when we turn in the next part of this series to verses 5-13.