Pentecost – Jesus MAFA – Vanderbilt Library of Art in the Christian Tradition

Jerusalem, the setting for the Acts story, is also the site of the new United States embassy to Israel, which opened this week to much fanfare from some and much anguish from others.  Unlike on the day of Pentecost, this week, no one was speaking the same language, or hearing news of grace in their own language.  Forty miles away from the embassy opening, Israeli soldiers killed over 50 Palestinians in a long-running rpotest, and wounded more than 2700 other protesters, either with live fire or tear gas.  It was the deadliest day for Palestinians since 2014.  “The bloodshed drew calls for restraint from some countries including France and Britain, and stronger criticism from others, with Turkey calling it “a massacre” and withdrawing its ambassadors to the US and Israel.”  In the mixture of celebration in Jerusalem, and violence in Gaza and the West Bank, there was no sense that anyone was communicating across the divide.

Read the scripture here.

Read the Working Preacher commentary here.

Jerusalem is claimed by all three of the religions descended from Abraham: Judaism, Christianity and Islam, and it holds holy sites for all three faiths. Both Jewish and Palestinian people claim it as their capital.  Mapping the city is fraught.  “In the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, Israel captured the eastern portion of the city from Jordan. It still holds it now, and Israel considers it part of Israel. But in the eyes of the U.N. and nearly all governments, it’s seen as occupied territory.  The U.S. consular building, to house the embassy on Monday, is not on occupied territory, because it does not sit on land captured in 1967.”

Even the U.S. government doesn’t speak with a unified voice about Jerusalem.  “Here’s how complex the situation is: The State Department said it would list the address of the embassy as Jerusalem, Israel. But on passports issued to U.S. citizens born there — at least as of last week — the place of birth still reads simply “Jerusalem,” with no country. That’s been the practice for years.”  Jerusalem is surrounded by many voices.

The violence and celebration there both shadow this year’s Pentecost, as we recall the followers of Jesus and their transformation by the Spirit.

In addition, the text calls us to consider our own use of language.  In the story, each of the travelers to Jerusalem, no matter how far from home, hears in their own language.  God is deeply concerned, not that everyone become the same, or speak the same language, but that everyone be able to hear the message.  In this destination city, many people are far from home, whether as expatriates, or people who are in town for Shavuot, the Festival of Weeks. Dozens of languages fill the streets.

Language can illuminate pain, as well as good news.  It can cause pain, too.  A painful article in the New York Times made my stomach hurt, reading the stories of failed language as college students tried to communicate about sex and consent.  It made me realize how much more we have to teach our young friends about how to use language to convey what they really want.  As one woman remembers, “The first time I had sex, the implication was that I would say yes. Not because I had to under some form of coercion, but simply because it was the polite, lady-like thing to do.”  Another woman said, “Here is what you say: “No, no, no, no. Do I have to? Please stop.”  Here is what you can never forget that you finally say: “It’s fine.”  Language fails us when we don’t understand our own desires or our own power, or when we’re with people who aren’t willing to hear us.

Other times, our language makes us dangerous to other people.  What happens when we use the language of privilege to call the police about black or Native American people who are taking a campus tour or taking a nap?

The Holy Spirit uses language to draw people together – to create a shared experience of God’s presence, while each person there retains who they are. Pentecost calls us again to know the power of language, and to use it as God’s people, following the leading of God’s Spirit.

The sermon might look at:

  • The power and the obligations of language.  What do we owe other people, as we speak?  Is God calling us to learn to “speak” in the language of our hearers, whether they’re people younger or older, or people from a different background?  Do we expect people to speak our language, instead of trying to communicate in a way that works for them?
  • In this story, the Spirit is an agent of transformation, moving the disciples first out of the room where they are, and then out into the world. Where do you see the Spirit at work in changes around you?
  • The whole story sounds incredibly noisy!  The sound, the cacophony of the different languages, the sneering of the people in the crowd who misunderstand…where are you hearing God at work these days?  Many of us were raised in quiet churches, but what if God is noisy?

Where are your thoughts taking you this week?  We would love to continue the conversation in the comments section below.

Rev. Mary Austin is the pastor of Westminster Church of Detroit, a diverse Presbyterian church, where she has had wise people teach her how different people hear different words.  She blogs from time to time at Stained Glass in the City.

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