Josef Ignaz Mildorfer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The scripture for this sermon is Act 2: 1-21. It can be found here.
by Lloyd Menke
Have you ever been misunderstood? Or have you ever had trouble getting your point across. Even when we share the same language, there are times when words fail us.
Some people are gifted when it comes to languages. It seems easy for them to convey their thoughts well. Others are gifted when it comes to learning other languages. They seemed to be able to pick them up easily.
I generally have had a struggle learning another language. St. Olaf required two semesters of a foreign language for graduation. I studied Spanish. I squeaked through with C- s, and then, only with the help of a very good tutor.
So, it was no surprise, that I had trouble learning rudimentary Mandarin Chinese when I was on a study abroad trip in Taiwan. They provided some languages classes, but they didn’t help me much. Mandarin Chinese is a tonal language. There are four tones that can accompany any syllable. The meaning can change depending on the tone you use for any exact same syllable. I had trouble with the tones.
We were staying at Soochow University in Taipei, and often we needed to take a taxi to get back to the university from an excursion in the city. In Mandarin, Soochow University is Dung Woo Dosh Wei. But, I couldn’t get the tones right. I could hear no difference between the way I said it and the way it was said when people understood it. I would get in a taxi and say, “Dung Woo Dosh Wei,” and the taxi driver would just look at me with this puzzled look on his face. I’d repeat and repeat it – it didn’t help. I finally had to start carrying a slip of paper with the Chinese characters on it and show it to the taxi drivers. It was the only way I could get back to the university. What have been your experiences in trying to understand or speak a different language?
Today we have what is in many ways, is a strange story at the heart of Pentecost. For those of us who have grown up in the church and have heard this story many times, the familiarity of having heard it over and over can cause us to gloss over some of its strangeness. But, I would like to slow down with this story for a minute. Imagine yourself in the upper room with the disciples. Listen again:
“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.” (NRSV)
If you find yourself saying, “Whaaaaat?!?” you are not alone. We are told the crowd was bewildered, amazed and astonished, amazed and perplexed. The author of Acts piles up all these words in a short space of scripture to emphasize how confusing this experience was. People were asking, “What does this mean?” There were a variety of responses. Including “they are filled with new wine.” Tongues of fire appearing and resting on people’s heads” isn’t exactly an everyday experience. How do you make sense of that?
What would it have been like to suddenly hear foreigners speaking your language? What would it have been like to suddenly be able to speak a foreign language? I think we tend to gloss over stories like this because they are hard to understand. There a temptation to write off biblical stories that are outside of our normal experience.
And then taken at face value, this story is a bit scary – because the disciples are clearly not in control – of the violent wind – of the tongues as of fire, the noise that gathered the crowd – even of their own abilities – to say nothing of the crowd’s reaction.
In the midst of this chaos, Peter stands up and explains, it is all for a purpose, that they might hear about Jesus and what he has accomplished by being crucified and being raised. The Holy Spirit has given the formerly cowering disciples courage and the ability to speak so that others might know Jesus. It is a power that came and worked within them.
The experience of the Holy Spirit in my life is not as dramatic as the disciples. But, I am convinced it helped me with language. Given what I said earlier about my difficulties with learning other languages the prospect of having to learn Greek was intimidating. Most seminaries required Greek in order to become a pastor. But, it wasn’t a requirement at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary, in Berkeley. So, I started seminary there. But, shortly after I started out there, my father’s health got worse, so I came back to Minnesota to be closer.
And so, I found myself enrolled in an intensive Greek class that condensed a full year of Greek into 8 weeks. I needed to do well in order to stay in seminary. My future as a pastor was riding on how well I did in that class. Needless to say, I prayed a lot. I got As, and here I am. I give credit to the Holy Spirit working in me. But, you don’t have to take my word.
In Miracles in our Midst, a documentary examining true stories from 9/11 there is an amazing story about “Jane Doe #1.” Surgeons worked on her for 8 hours in a heroic effort to save her life – and her badly mangled legs. During the surgery, the head surgeon confronted with the seriousness of her injuries prays for guidance. Listen as Dr. Ginsberg describes his experience.
“And whether you believe it was I was guided from without or within or what, but I know with that decision, it felt like it was not my decision. I was just doing what needed to be done. And I asked for guidance, and I not only got just guidance, but I got great advice from people who were calling in and helping me from all around the world. And some little internal voice was guiding me too.”
Amazingly the reconstructive surgery is successful. Not only is her life and her legs saved. She will be able to walk again!
Dr. Ginsberg prayed and got good advice not only from people calling in from all over the world, but also from an “internal voice.” I understand that “inner voice” to be the Holy Spirit.
But, this is not the only way the Holy Spirit works. The gospel of John highlights another aspect of the Holy Spirit. John talks about the Holy Spirit as the paraclete. Paraclete is a compound Greek word that means “to come alongside.” There is a scene in the movie, “The Guardian” that helps illustrate this.
“The Guardian,” about elite Coast Guard rescue swimmers. In the movie, legendary swimmer Ben Randall, is reeling with grief in the wake of a mission that has gone tragically wrong. He is given a mission he doesn’t want – training raw recruits. As he takes on this mission he knocks heads with cocky swimming champ, Jake Fischer.
In the movie clip, Ben talks to his star recruit (Jake Fischer) privately — having just brought up the most traumatic event in Jake’s past: a high-school joyride that ended with everyone dead except Jake. Blaming himself, Jake has the initials of his deceased friends tattooed on his arm.
Ben can relate, as he too, was the only survivor of a rescue mission that went bad. Instead of giving up, Ben encourages Jake to start being a member of the team; to recognize his incredible gift and use it to honor the initials on his arm. (If you would like to watch the movie clip it is available on Youtube here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qpk_r4Y0Ip0 ) Ben tells Jake, he is one of the strongest swimmers he has ever met. He sees in Jake someone who has the gift to rescue someone when others will be unable to. Ben tells Jake, “Honor the gift.”
Honor the gift. The Holy Spirit comes alongside of us like Ben does for Jake, encouraging, challenging, mentoring us – assisting us to honor our gifts for the sake of others and for the glory of God. It comes alongside of us as it did for Ben giving him a purpose for his life in the midst of his grief and despite the challenges posed by his students.
You and I have received the Holy Spirit in our baptism. It is a gift given to empower and guide you. Honor the gift. It come alongside us – sometimes in dramatic, perplexing ways that cause us to wonder what does this mean? Sometimes as the inner voice. Sometimes as a mentor coming along side – prompting, challenging, and encouraging us – to use our gifts. But, always for the purpose of making Jesus better known and glorifying God. You have been given the gift of the Holy Spirit. Honor the gift.