“We Are All In This Together”
June 5, 2022
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.” ***
Early in the pandemic, the phrase, “we are all in this together” was repeated like a mantra by politicians and public health officials. It showed up in TV advertisements, too. The goal was to show solidarity with those impacted by COVID-19. However, as the pandemic progressed and statistics on infection and mortality rates became known, the data showed that COVID 19’s impact was inequitable and we were never “all in this together.”
I have been thinking about the impact of the pandemic on our sense of being together. Perhaps you know people who remain shy about being together inside a public place. We sit in churches on Sunday mornings remembering people we used to be together with there. We have grown accustomed to sitting in front of screens for all sorts of human gatherings in a separate way of being together. Soon I will attend a memorial service which will be exclusively virtual. The world seems less “together” than pre-Covid. How do we identify with the concept of togetherness with these new realities becoming the norm and in a world that is less “together” than in recent history?
“When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.”
The Day of Pentecost marks the dramatic arrival of the Holy Spirit. Pentecost — from the Greek pentekostos, meaning “fiftieth,” — originally was a Jewish festival (Shavout) celebrating the summer wheat harvest, and the revelation of the law (Torah) at Mount Sinai. It was celebrated 50 days after Passover and was marked by pilgrims coming to Jerusalem from all over the world for the event.
In the Christian tradition of Pentecost, Acts provides the account of the Holy Spirit descending on 120 believers in Jerusalem 50 days after Jesus’s resurrection. Emboldened by the Spirit, these people testified to God’s saving work while the Apostle Peter preached to a bewildered crowd of Jewish skeptics. This drew three thousand converts from around the world in one day. For Christians, Pentecost marks the birth of the Church.
This account of Pentecost in Acts is fantastical and detailed and it challenges the imagination. Tongues of fire. Rushing wind. Bold preaching. Mass baptism. Yet this is not a story about spectacle and drama. It is about the Holy Spirit showing up and transforming ordinary, imperfect, frightened people into the Body of Christ. It is about God disrupting and disorienting our humdrum ways of engaging the sacred, so that something new and holy can be born within and among us. It is about the Spirit carrying us out of suspicion, tribalism, and fear, into a radical new way of engaging God and neighbor.
We read that the disciples were “filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.” “At this sound, the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.”
Early in my career a member of the congregation I served was a student scholar of the world’s languages and he enlightened me on fascinating aspects of language. He authored papers about how languages convey identity, culture, history, even spiritualities. He would tell me that the language we speak orients us in ways that set us apart — to see differently, hear differently, process and punctuate reality differently. However, he also emphasized that languages speak across borders of race, ethnicity, gender, religion, culture, and politics.
Language is prominent in this reading of Pentecost. When the disciples and their friends began to speak in foreign languages, the crowds gathered outside their meeting place understood them. They were not confused by the message and for everyone the message came across with perfect clarity in their respective languages.
What the crowds found baffling was that God would speak to them in their own mother-tongues. That God would welcome them so personally, with words and expressions hearkening back to their birthplaces, their childhoods, their countries and cultures of origin. As if to say, “This Spirit-laden place, this fledging community of faith, this new Body of Christ, is yours. You do not have to feel like outsiders here; we speak your language, too. Come in. All are welcome.”
As Christians, we place great stock in language. In words. We are people with a story, like our friends in other faith traditions. We love the creation stories of Genesis, in which God births the very cosmos into existence by speaking: “And God said.” “In the beginning was the Word,” we read in John’s dazzling poem about the coming of Jesus. In worship, we use words to express our faith in the languages of liturgy, creed, prayer, and music. In short, we believe that language has power. Words make worlds. And unmake them, too.
The amazing thing about the words and languages unleashed at Pentecost is that their articulation required surrender and humility on both sides. Those who spoke had to brave languages beyond their confidence. They had to risk vulnerability and trust that no matter how awkward, inadequate, or silly they felt, the words bubbling up inside of them — novel words, strange words — were nevertheless essential words — words precisely for the time and place they occupied.
But speakers need listeners and the crowds that Pentecost day included listeners who had to take risks as well. They had to suspend disbelief, lower their defenses, and open to wonder instead of contempt. They had to widen their inner circles, and welcome strangers with accents into their midst.
Not all of them managed it — some sneered because they could not bear to be bewildered, to have their neat categories of belonging and exclusion explode in their faces. Instead, like their ancestors at Babel, who scattered at the first sign of difference, they retreated into the well-worn narrative of denial: “Nothing new is happening here. This is not God. These are blubbering idiots who’ve had too much to drink.”
But even in that atmosphere of suspicion and cynicism, some people spoke, and some people listened, and into those astonishing exchanges, God breathed fresh life.
Something happens when we speak and listen to each other’s languages. We experience the limits of our own words and perspectives. We learn curiosity. We gain an enlarged sense of together. We discover that God’s “great deeds” are too superior for a single tongue, a single language.
This year, the good news of Pentecost comes amidst our uncertainty if we still have the desire to be together, despite our difference. The trials and frustrations of these times tempt us to complacency.
The good news comes to pull us away from turning in on ourselves and forgetting that we are part of a much larger whole. We live in a world where words have become toxic, where the languages of so many cherished “isms” threaten to divide and destroy us. The troubles of our day are global, civilizational, catastrophic. If we do not learn the art of speaking and listening across the borders that currently separate us, we will burn ourselves down to rubble.
It is no small thing that the Holy Spirit loosened tongues to break down barriers on that incredible day. In the face of differences, God compelled people to engage. Out of the heart of deep difference, God birthed the Church.
So happy birthday, sisters and brothers in the Body Christ. Receive the Holy Spirit. Speak and listen. We are all in this together.
Images: Ed de Guzman