Sermon for Pentecost 2021

In our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power. (Acts 2:11)

Bonjour, Guten Morgen, Buon Giorno, Hola, Bore Da, Hello!

Do you speak another language apart from English? I’m so glad I was given the chance  to learn French and German when I was at school and I feel sorry for the many young people today who lack such opportunities. In this last week I heard of a scheme to learn languages with a core vocabulary of 2000 words, yet what a strange list it was! The French one omitted cheese (fromage) and the German left out sausage (Wurst)! Back to the drawing board, I’d say!

Words are wonderful and languages are fascinating and different. However- for that very reason- they can be a barrier between people, as we all know when we are trying to make ourselves known in broken Spanish, French or Greek on holiday. How our faces light up when someone comes along asking, ‘Can I help you?’ Like water in the desert!

Today is Pentecost Sunday. Pentecost (meaning 50th day since Passover) is now for Christians the day celebrating the coming of the Holy Spirit but for a much longer time it has been the Jewish festival of Shavuoth or Weeks, when the Jews celebrate the time Moses received the 10 Commandments and other laws from God on Mt Sinai. On this occasion, in around the year 33 (AD) the disciples of Jesus were gathered together in a room in Jerusalem surrounded by devout Jews from the surrounding countries gathered for the Festival, when suddenly something remarkable happened among the disciples, as a wind gathered and tongues of fire rested on their heads, enabling these Galilean Jews to speak in ‘other languages as the Spirit gave them ability’.

What does this mean? The Greek word translated as ‘languages’ is elsewhere in the NT translated as ‘tongues’, that is the ecstatic utterances that are one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, experienced by many in Paul’s churches and many charismatic churches today. This gift is given to individuals in their private prayers, or to churches, to build up faith , give assurance of God’s presence and enable praise . To outsiders, it might seem a little strange. It is clear, however, thatin this passage it means a normal language. Either the Galilean disciples were speaking the language of the Medes, Parthians etc or those visitors heard their speech translatedliterally‘speaking their language’.

This would have stopped them in their tracks and got their attention, just as it would us if we heard English spoken, not in an airport but in a very remote location. The Apostle Peter then used this attention to explain what was going on. We are not drunk with any alcoholic spirit,  hesays,  but filled with the Holy Spirit. It’s this Spirit that enabled them to speak in the different languages represented there. It’s also this Spirit, he goes on, quoting the Prophet Joel, that speaks to old and young, men and women, slave and free.

The Spirit breaks down barriers. Language is a barrier between people, but one that can be easily overcome with an interpreter. Whilst the holy books of other faiths are in specific languages- Hebrew, Arabic, Sanskrit, eg- the Christian Bible has been translated into thousands of languages, to enable faith to be part of our everyday speaking.

Yet there are other barriers much higher than language. Once again, in recent weeks, we have seen old enmities flare up into violence in  Northern Ireland and in the Holy Land, where people live in the shadow of literal barriers between each other. And in our so-called United Kingdom, recent elections have shown there to be great divisions between or within our nations. Sometimes it seems like our language is the only thing that unites us.

Sadly our record as people of faith and as Christians is not good when it comes to unity, with religion seen by many as either something strange which only concerns insiders, or as just another thing to divide us. So, what should we do? How can we make that connection?

We must first of all pray, as I’m pretty sure the disciples of Jesus were doing on that Day of Pentecost. Pray for the Spirit of unity to break down the barriers of age, gender, class, nationality between us to reveal the true Christ among us. WE should pray for this often, because it’s a hard nut to crack. I know many people with whom I share much in common, but when it comes to faith we seem to be speaking quite different languages.  We need to find a common language we share, just as those visitors did with the apostles on that Day, so communication can take place.

It’s been a delight to simply meet people ‘off the street’ face-to-face once again, as I have in the last week, some seeking the churches for help, some to look at the architecture, others to enquire about a concert, others for a coffee. That casual ‘non-appointment’ meeting with people is one of the things I’ve missed most in the last 14 months. We all need to re-learn the language of community, lost in our little isolated spaces as we have been, for deeper communication to take place. (HT- this church has been speaking of a Community Tea Afternoon, a ‘Repair Shop’ for people to bring their broken-down valuables, and of re-starting the Folk Club). SC- it has been great to re-open the Coffee Shop and to look forward to next weekend, with the tabletop sale and outdoor worship. WE pray that those ‘normal’, everyday conversations would lead to something deeper, just as it did between the apostles and the Jerusalem visitors on that Day of Pentecost.

If we do; if we pray for God’s spirit and seek to channel God’s Spirit, then people may be able to see the words of this old worship song coming true:

We are one in the Spirit, we are one Lord

And we pray that our unity may one day be restored

And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love