Meadowbrook Congregational Church
“The Miracle of Understanding”
Rev. Art Ritter
May 31, 2020
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.’
I read an essay this week that spoke to my heart. It was written by CNN’s Editor at Large Chris Cillizza. Cillizza wrote that in mid-March, when the world was just beginning to shut down because of the coronavirus, he anticipated a big rush of anxiety. He had suffered from health issues early in life and so he worried that the virus might prey upon his serious pre-existing conditions. He took his temperature several times a day. He followed proper social distancing. He paid close attention to every cough and sneeze. Eventually Cillizza survived a cold and after a few weeks his health anxiety began to fade.
As the calendar moved into mid-May, Cillizza writes that he suddenly has become anxious again. This time his anxiety was caused not by his health but by his uncertainty. Society was opening up. Some people were happy. Others were not. Some people were venturing out. Others were staying at home. Some were wearing masks. Others were scoffing at the idea of wearing a mask. Some seemed to be content to wait for a vaccine. Others seemed to be advocating for herd immunity. Cillizza writes that the rules had changed or perhaps there aren’t any rules anymore. Yes, there are still guidelines but nowadays people are interpreting those guidelines very differently.
Suddenly Cillizza has all sorts of questions. Should he be wearing a mask? Should his kids go to summer camp or have friends over for play dates? Should he make plans for a summer trip? Should he invite another family over for a Memorial Day cookout? He has reached out for answers and found that lots of people seemed to have plenty of them. But the answers that he has heard are often the exact opposites of each other. There is a cacophony of voices speaking with different wisdom. The certainty of people’s sure answers provide him with even more uncertainty. It is frightening! Cillizza quotes Rousseau in saying, “When things are important, we prefer to be wrong than to believe nothing at all.” This may indeed be the logic behind people’s strong opinions about things today. They just need to believe something.
As I mentioned in a sermon a few weeks ago, it seems to me that in the face of our struggle against COVID-19, uncertainty is growing. Like Cillizza, much of my uncertainty comes from so many other people being absolutely certain about things that have no easy answers. I understand the tension between the health concerns that keep our stay at home requests in place, and the economic concerns that resulting job furloughs and unemployment cause. But other divides seem to grow deeper. The wearing of masks, seemingly a simple yet important gesture of health, has become a hot button political issue. People who wear masks live in fear. People who don’t wear masks don’t care about the welfare of others. Some people have dismissed the idea of social distancing to the ash heap of weeks ago, believing that when it comes to gatherings, now is the time to just get back to normal. Crazy conspiracy theories swirl and gain strength with each news deadline. I read this week where many people will refuse to get a vaccine for COVID-19 if and when it becomes available, because they believe that a certain billionaire is putting a tracking device into the vaccine. It is almost laughable yet frightening. It seems as if we are speaking different languages today; that we are divided by our inability to listen to each other and understand what the other person may believe to be an important truth.
Long ago, on the day of Pentecost, the believers of Jesus Christ were gathered together in Jerusalem. While they were there the gift of the Holy Spirit came upon them. A strong wind began to blow. Tongues of fire danced over their heads. Each person spoke in their own language but everyone around seemed to have the ability to understand that language as their own. Ex-fishermen and tax collectors suddenly gained the ability to talk in ways that learned scholars and trained experts could hear. The sights and the sounds of Pentecost drew people together.
Calvin Seminary’s Scott Hoezee writes that one can only imagine the cacophony that filled Jerusalem’s streets and alleys before the day of Pentecost. Given the many different opinions and voices we hear today, we might imagine the chaos of a community who spoke in at least fifteen different languages trying to communicate with each other. And then wind and flame and the power of God moved God’s followers to speak in those different languages, but not to divide but to bring together. All of those in the diverse crowd heard as if the words were spoken directly to them. There was no longer uncertainty and division. There was no anger and suspicion. There was unity and purpose.
On the day of Pentecost, the followers of Jesus began to act boldly upon their faith. They began to share of their life together in common meal and prayer. They united to pool their resources so that no one went hungry. Instead of trying to persuade others to come to their side through the power of logic and language and politics, they brought others to hear the good news by doing God’s work in God’s world. They no longer felt bound to the correctness of tradition. They no longer worried about who was more right or who had the higher moral ground. They no longer saw themselves as one group pitted against another or one culture trying to change another. They were simply people of God’s compassion and healing and justice. The Holy Spirit brought people together by unleashing their ability to be the body of Christ.
Amy Lindeman Allen, professor at Christian Theological Seminary, writes that the miracle of Pentecost is not so much a miracle of understanding as it is a miracle of hearing. What caught people’s attention, what gave them pause, what lead them to want to learn more, was that the followers of Jesus were speaking in the people’s own native languages. When you preach to others with your moral superiority, when you stand over another with threats and insults, we you claim to rule with only your own power, it is hard for others to listen. When someone reaches out to you, when someone approaches you at your own level, when someone sees you for who you are at your core, it is a lot easier to hear what they have to say in return. Allen writes that throughout the book of Acts, the apostles of Christ engage in proclamation and mission that goes out to people of all nations, that accommodates different views and cultural practices, that does not demand that people come to them, but rather, brings the good news of Jesus to meet everyone where they are.
The Holy Spirit is still loose in our world of pandemic. On this day of Pentecost we are to consider how that Spirit continues to draw diverse and even disagreeing people together. It is not through the logic of our arguments or through the politically charged language or the volume of our voices. Those methods only contribute to the chaos and uncertainty. It is through the work of love spoken in words and acts of kindness and compassion. It is through seeing others genuinely and speaking in their own tongue that we will be heard. We pray for the Holy Spirit to come upon us and between us, turning lives around from the inside out, taking the selfish viewpoints of different interests and creating a desire to love each other with abandon and compassion.