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.”
This morning’s reading reminds me of the one about a man who was going on a vacation to Acapulco, Mexico. But since he didn’t speak any Spanish, he was a bit worried if he would be alright. So he talked to an old friend about his worries and the friend told him, “Don’t worry! Spanish isn’t so hard to speak. Many words are similar to English, so if you just speak slowly enough, I’m sure they will understand.” Assured, the man went on his vacation and arrived at his hotel. He went up to the reception desk and the clerk greeted him, “Hola, senor.” The man decided to try his Spanish-speaking skills and very, very slowly said, “Hell-o. I. Would. Like. To. Have. A. Room. Please.” The clerk realized the man was speaking English, but very slowly, and assumed that maybe this man was a bit slow in the head, so not wanting to embarrass him, the clerk answered back, just as slowly, “Of-course. Would. You. Like. Sea. View. Or. Gar-den. View?” “Oh, this works great!” thought the man to himself and responded, “Sea. View. Please.” “Smo-king. Or. Non. Smo-king?” the clerks inquired. “Non. Smo-king.” answered the man, happy with how well speaking Spanish was going. The clerk asked, “Are. You. A-me-ri-can?” The man answered, “Yes. I. Am.” The clerk told him, “Won-der-ful! I. Stud-ied. Ho-tel. Ma-nage-ment. In. Ca-li-for-ni-a. And. Learned. To. Speak. Eng-lish. There.” Realizing the clerk knew English, the man then leaned forward and asked, “Then. Why. Are. We. Spea-king. Spa-nish. To. Each. O-ther?”
Obviously the man had misinterpreted his friend’s advice yet he was lucky enough to interact with a clerk who knew English and was willing to play along with him. I don’t think too many clerks would be able and willing to accommodate such silly behavior. Of course, in most of my travels abroad the people I interacted with had a basic understanding of English so the burden was removed from my shoulders of having to learn their native language. Instead of the man’s friend advising him to speak Spanish slowly, he should have simply advised him that many people in Mexico have a basic understanding of English so he ought not be afraid to use it. The communication between the man and the clerk was a success only because of a shared language.
Indeed, it’s the only way communication can be a success, with a shared language. And yet our reading for today tells of an event when communication was a success without a shared language. We hear, “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.” So there they were, all of them speaking languages different from their own native language. We don’t know how they were able to do this other than attributing it to the Holy Spirit within them. As if that wasn’t bizarre enough, the people could also somehow understand everyone else’s languages. They’re speaking foreign languages and they’re understanding foreign languages, both without any formal education of foreign languages! There was no shared language, only a shared interpreter. And even then the Spirit really wasn’t an interpreter. The Spirit didn’t convert the languages into a familiar native language. No, the Spirit simply gave the ability to hear in their native languages. The Spirit provided a filter of sorts, a shared filter, while at the same time the Spirit enabled the gathered people to speak a variety of languages. Successful communication doesn’t necessarily require a shared language. It can occur with a shared Spirit as well. And not just because the Spirit filters and enables a variety of languages. I believe the Spirit does provide a shared language, a language that holds us all together, a language that makes all communication successful: the language of love.
Beneath all successful communication lies love. That’s because everyone to some degree understands love. Even those who are woefully neglected of love understand love. Even those who selfishly withhold love understand love. Sometimes love can be conveyed through words. More often than not, it’s conveyed without words in actions and deeds. However it’s conveyed, those who receive it invariably understand it. Love is a language that all of us can understand and it is so graciously and generously provided to us from the Spirit.
Paul famously declared in his first letter to the Corinthians, “if I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.” (13:1) Paul understood the importance of love coming through everything he spoke. In all his travels, he no doubt encountered a variety of different languages and customs. There was no way he could learn all of them before moving on to the next region. But he believed in the love of God and the necessity of sharing that love with the world. Instead of stressing over learning all the regional languages and customs, he focused on communicating in one language, the language of love…of God’s love…of the Spirit’s love. Communication without love IS discordant and disruptive. Remember, beneath all successful communication lies love.
The apostle James writes, “you must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger.” (1:19) When we listen and refrain from speaking, we are actively conveying love to others. It is a great kindness in allowing others to simply be heard. Of course, anger destroys love so we ought to avoid it as much as possible. Jesus himself seldom acts out of anger. He understands how it keeps him from loving us. His words and actions primarily come from a loving place. In the book of John, we hear him say, “it is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.” (6:63) The language of love ultimately leads to life…abundant life…joyful life.
As we celebrate the coming of the Spirit today, let us give thanks for what the Spirit brings to us: the language of love. It’s helpful that the Spirit both filters our words and enables us to speak a multitude of languages but the gift of love is what really holds us together. Like Paul, let us focus on perfecting the language of love and sharing it with each other. Let our words and deeds convey nothing but love to each other. Thanks be to God!
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.