And They Were Speaking in Tongues …
(Sermon delivered on Pentecost Sunday, June 12, 2011, Filipino-American United Church of Christ, Queens, New Yorl, USA)
Ben S. Malayang III
TEXT: Acts 2: 1-4
We were in Boston last week to visit our New England Silliman alumni. The Rev. Bart and Dr. Priscilla Kelso, who had only recently returned to Boston from a semester’s teaching and chaplaincy ministry in Silliman, kindly accepted us into their home. When I told Pastor Bart that I am preaching here today, and that Pastor Bong had reminded me that it’s Pentecost Sunday, Pastor Bart gave me a one-page brief on Pentecost.
It’s a brief by Donald Wilson Stake. And it is from this brief that I contemplate on Pentecost, and I invite you to join me in a prayerful meditation of what Pentecost means to us today.
Pentecost was an event when the Holy Spirit descended upon the gathered disciples of Christ. This was some time after Christ has been crucified and after he had ascended to heaven. It happened on the Feast of Shavuot, seven weeks (or 49 days) after the Passover. Pentecost is Greek for “50th Day” and so the event has since been referred to as Pentecost. I didn’t know this then, but now I do. Or I may have been dozing off when my Sunday school teachers were explaining Pentecost. I know what the event was, of how the Holy Spirit came to the disciples in a great wind, but I never knew why the word Pentecost was used to refer to this event. I thought Pentecost was some kind of a special term with a deep and complex theological meaning. I never thought it simply meant “50th day” because it was in fact the 50th count of days after some other special event in the Jewish calendar. The event gave significance to the day, not the day to the event.
MAY I INVITE YOU TO PRAYER: Lord, speak that we may hear, and make us hear that we may speak. May we hear and speak only your truth, in Christ’s Name, Amen.
Donald Stake describes Pentecost this way: “They gathered that Lord’s day to wait. For what – or whom – they were not exactly sure, except that Jesus had promised them power when the Holy Spirit would come upon them.”
And this was the day the Holy Spirit came upon them. Stake continues: “It was the Feast of the Shavuot and many came from distant places to celebrate in Jerusalem. The disciples of Jesus had just assembled when it happened. A force like a firestorm suddenly swept over them as they spoke in many languages. Words tumbled out of their mouths. If the speakers did not know what they were saying, the listeners did.”
Three things happened on the day of Pentecost: a strong wind like a firestorm came upon the gathered believers of Christ. The disciples spoke in many languages. And yet, every listener understood what the disciples were saying.
Many people can take the Pentecost event very literally, and that should not be a problem. It did happen as how the Bible says it did. But interpretations have been added since, such as that the disciples began speaking in tongues, in the “language of angels”. Now that is a nice touch, of speaking in a “language of angels”, but an addition to what’s in Acts Chapter 2. That the disciples did not understand what they were saying, but their listeners did, must be true, exactly as recorded in Acts. But some Christians today would add that an ability to “speak in tongues” is a measure of utmost Godliness, or that you can’t be much of a Christian unless you’re able to speak in what is audibly a gaggle of gibberish but which can be, as they would claim, a deeply spiritual declaration of hidden truths about our faith. That, too, is a nice touch, but still only an addition.
In fact, it is by adding to the Word of God, by stressing what we would rather prefer God should be saying, or by stretching God’s truths to include our truths, that we begin to speak in many tongues of faith that confuses rather than clarifies God’s message. This is the story of the Tower of Babel. Donald Stake cites how in Babel, multiplicity of tongues confused people so that they were severely divided and so were unable to work with each other. They wanted to build a structure so high that could reach heaven. But they failed to reach their lofty and grand goal because they could not understand each other. To humble them, God caused them to speak in so many tongues that they could not understand each other. They failed to reach heaven because they spoke in so many tongues.
This is the same story among many of us Christians today. We put a twist of doctrine to our faith in the hope of distinguishing us from others. We claim to have superior doctrines than others, or that we are more Biblical than others. Or we claim that we have the better understanding of the Gospel, and a superior theology of redemption, or of justice and mission. Those that do not share our metrics of piety are less Christian than we are. We say our gospel is better than your gospel, and our liturgy is much more meaningful than yours. We put out different colors and colorings of our worship, different hues to our proclamations and theologies, to outdo others so that our world today is much like a big city full of glittering neon lights of different colors and shades of religious claims, trying to outshine all others. And so what’s the result? Christianity has become a mish-mash of many languages of faith, an assemblage of discordant cymbals of inconsistent and opposing doctrines, a cacophony of noisy religious pretensions, that many out there, including Christians, could not anymore understand what Christianity really is. Today, in our desire to reach lofty heights of worship, to be always better than others, we have built up a Towering Babel of Noisy and Disorienting Christianity.
Pentecost breaks the Babel of our discordant faith. It provides the anti-thesis, the corrective opposition, to our confusing cacophony of tongues. It does so by how it creates a situation in which many tongues are able to proclaim the same message. Interestingly in both Babel and Pentecost, God caused the speaking in many tongues. But in Babel, it led to confusion that snapped vanity and pride. In Pentecost, however, the speaking in many tongues led to a widened swath of proclaiming the Gospel across many languages and listeners. And God was glorified. In Babel, vanity overshadowed God so that speaking in many tongues caused a fall of the vain. In Pentecost, God overshadowed the vanity of everyone so that speaking in many tongues allowed for the unification of everybody’s message across everybody’s languages and ears, and everyone glorified God.
Proclaiming Christ, worshipping Christ, and glorifying Christ, can be done in so many ways. Some do it by their ministry of healing. Doctors, nurses and health professionals are people through whom God is able to say to the weak and the sick that God cares for them and God loves them. Teachers extend God’s gift of knowledge and conscience. Pastors, businesspeople, politicians, laborers, taxi drivers – all of us, are God’s extensions of how a Divine being can bestow divinity to an un-divine human race.
And so, we do proclaim God in many tongues, in many ways that through our lives and services for others, we become living proclamations of God’s love for all. We speak in the tongue of tilling the land, of fishing the sea, of caring for the sick, of teaching the truth. We speak in the tongue of unraveling the mysteries of the universe, in the tongue of taking care of the young and the elderly, of making a home, of cleaning homes, of cleaning streets, and of cleaning the world of injustice. These are many ways we say God cares for us and for others. And to those who seek to see and experience God, to those listening for God’s presence in their lives, all our tongues get understood in one way: God loves and God lives!
In Babel, speaking in many tongues led to confusion and discord, because each spoke to dominate and compete with the others. In Pentecost, speaking in many tongues led to the establishment of the Church of Christ because while speaking in many ways, they had one message of Christ.
Unfortunately, Babel can still happen within the community of our faith today, when we seek to “out-faith” each other. But the good news is: Pentecost redeems Babel. We can speak in many tongues indeed, but to “out-fit” the Church of Christ into becoming a singular presence of His Holy Spirit in a plural world with many needs, but all desperately seeking to listen to God.
Incidentally, today, too, is Philippine Independence Day. The same thoughts on Pentecost come to my mind. We can speak in many tongues in how we serve our country, and for as long as all these tongues speak the same singular message of keeping our country free – free of oppressive forces from without and free of oppressive corruption from within – we can stand proud as our flag.
Let is praise God for Pentecost, and for the Independence of our people.