Preaching on Pentecost

May 30th, 2022

Acts 2:1-21. We’d best be careful to speak of Pentecost as the “reversal of Babel” – which could imply diversification is a bad thing. God used human guile, pride and overreach to fashion a wonderful tapestry, so Pentecost is less the reversal of Babel but the growing into God’s new way? There is understanding at Pentecost, not sameness. It’s not that everyone suddenly spoke Greek or Aramaic, and certainly not Latin, the language of empire! They kept their own tongues, and stories!

God clearly delights in diversity and understanding – which today doesn’t happen miraculously in an instant. Understanding, getting the hang of language, and cultures and ways, takes time – and is no less a miracle because of it! Willie Jennings speaks of Acts 2 as “the epicenter of the revolution,” “the revolution of the intimate.” God breaks everybody open so they can be a radical new, welcoming, fully engaged community. Notice it was no grand strategy on the disciples’ part. God just did this. It was uncontrollable – like the wind, with immense if unseen power.

Jennings wryly points out that they might have asked for the Holy Spirit – but not this! This is real grace, “untamed grace.” He hears an echo of Mary learning the Spirit had “overshadowed her.” The Spirit transforms not just the ears, but mouths and bodies. God is like “the lead dancer, taking hold of her partners, drawing them close and saying Step this way.”

Learning a new language (do you recall sitting nervously in language class?) is humbling – but so beautiful once you get the hang of it. You could learn someone else’s language to dominate them, and history has witnessed plenty of this – or the dominant people declaring “You must speak our language, not yours!” Learning a language though can be love, to be fully with others. 

Thinking of the spread of the church, not unlike the spread of people after Babel, and those who precursors showed up at Pentecost, I recall Mark Noll’s great wisdom: “Christianity appears more and more as an essentially pluralistic and cross-cultural faith. It appeared first in Asia, then Africa and Europe. Immediately those who turned to Christ in these ‘new’ regions were at home in the faith. When they became believers, Christianity itself became Asian, European and African. Once Christianity is rooted in someplace new, the faith itself also takes on something from that new place. It also challenges, reforms and humanizes the cultural values of that place. The Gospel comes to each person and to all peoples exactly where they are. You do not have to stop being American, Japanese, German, or Terra del Fuegian in order to become a Christian. Instead, they all find rich resources in Christianity that are perfectly fitted for their own cultural situations. It is by its nature a religion of nearly infinite flexibility because it has been revealed in a person of absolutely infinite love.”

And Pentecost is learning whether to talk at all! Thomas Merton's pondering is intriguing: Merton: “The mystery of speech and silence is resolve in Acts. Pentecost is the solution. The problem of language is the problem of sin. The problem of silence is also a problem of love. How can one really know whether to speak or not, and whether words and silence are for good or for evil, unless one understands the 2 divisions of tongues – Babel and Pentecost. Acts is a book full of speech. The apostles down downstairs and out into the street like an avalanche… Before the sun had set, they had baptized 3000 souls out of Babel into the One Body of Christ.”

Romans 8:14-17 intrigues, although it will at most be background music for Pentecost. A quirky question I have: “All who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God” was quoted at me once by a church member grousing that I’d spoken of non-Christians as God’s children. I’ll hear that – but I then in reply do want to ask, How many achieve that high bar of Yes, I am so very led by the Spirit? Really?

I’ve written before about Kelly Nikondeha’s marvelous theology of adoption. And we do need to hear Paul in verse 17: “if we suffer with him” doesn’t mean, probably not, if by some remote chance we suffer. Rather, we become his children, close to him, if we suffer as Christ did, or at least some approximation. Not a cross-stitchable passage! – although it was for St. Francis who actually prayed to suffer so he could feel in his soul and body what Christ felt for and with us.

John 14:8-17, 25-27. I want to linger, always, over the simple request, “Show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” No other satisfaction (Mick Jagger, anyone?) – and the request, “Show us the Father” elicits from Jesus a bit of “This is it, you’ve been seeing it right in front of you all this time.” So lovely, surprising, earthy, simple.

Jesus makes two confusing, questionable comments next. You guys “will do even greater works” – than Jesus did? The only parsing of this is to realize the bar is set high – so there isn’t some honeymoon period of amazing things past and gone once Jesus ascends. And we may well reflect on what the Body of Christ, Jesus on earth, has done worldwide and through centuries. Greater, indeed. More embarrassing in many moments, too. Yet that’s God’s way, risking it all, placing the future of Jesus in the hands of confused fools like us! As we saw at Pentecost, it’s God’s surprising irruption into things that wins the day anyhow.

And Jesus also say “Ask anything in my name, I will do it.” When I was fairly new to Christianity, I had friends who insisted you pray in Jesus's name, and they “claimed” the answers if they did so. This is blatant nonsense. It’s not that God is waiting for us to stick “in Jesus’s name” on the end of a prayer before doing something. The question is back at us: are you praying “in Jesus’s name,” that is, are your prayers what Jesus would pray, in sync with his mission, your heart so close to his as for you to be almost him praying? It’s not about control, but the yielding of control. It’s not about prayer working, but us dreaming God’s dreams. As Jennings said about the Day of Pentecost, they may have asked for the Spirit, but they certainly did not ask for or “claim” what they actually received!


This article is excerpted from James Howell's Weekly Preaching Notions, with the author's permission.

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