Pentecost and the love of language

This is the second of a series of reflections inspired by readings from the Book of Acts. Acts is a book of beginnings and the focus of this reflection is on what began at Pentecost through the gift of language.

This is Acts 2:1-6 (I’m using the New Revised Standard Version Updated Edition):

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 people 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.

In short, Luke describes a violent rush of wind that shakes up our settled ways of living and possessing. Life can never be the same again. Settled structures are blown apart and the apostles together with some women and some others (Acts 1:14) are blown to join thousands of others through the gift of language and a miracle of hearing.

Language has always been a barrier between people (from Babel) but this miracle brings people together who would have been stranger to each other. Here words are translated by love and the words are taken to heart by people from all parts of the world – “here at last, someone speaking my language”. Alongside that violent rush of wind there is this enormous sigh of people understood – the sigh of relief that here at last, someone is speaking my language.

What does it take to speak the language that makes sense to others, that makes their heart sing? To speak to people in a language they understand requires us to keep silent while we listen to them, while we learn from their words and the emotional history that lies behind them. To speak to a people in any way that makes sense requires an emotional intelligence and empathy that inspires the confidence in one anther that we have something worth saying to one another, and worth hearing from one another. Words on their own will never do because body language communicates far more in the bearing we bring to our words. For a miracle of hearing there needs to be nothing short of love.

The language of vulnerable people is often lost on people of power and many a language has been lost. The English used to forbid the use of Irish in the Irish pig markets insisting that English is the perfect language to sell pigs in. “That English is the perfect language to sell pigs in” is a line from Michael Hartnett’s poem A Farewell to English in which he announced to the world that he would no longer write in English. He did this as resistance and as a way of treasuring the Irish language.

When we think of the languages we are taught in school, they are all the languages of empire, the languages that are supposed to help us get on in life, that help us to get jobs in successful companies. Compulsory language education takes many forms. In the UK language education is benign, but Willie James Jennings writing from an Afro-American perspective, invites us to imagine something far more sinister. In his commentary on Acts he writes: “Imagine centuries of submission and internalised hatred of mother tongues and in the quiet spaces of many villages, many homes, women, men and children practising these new enlightened languages not by choice but by force.”

What of those who insist on the language of empire, who insist on the Queen’s English (should that now be King’s English)? They deprive people of language and understanding : their values, practical wisdom and subtlety are imperilled by a colonising power which conscripts the other for empire. They rob people of their past, present and future. They are responsible for the loss of language. Language makes the store and story of history and all of us want to have ourselves heard and understood. But so many have lost their language, and with it the store and story of their histories.

The book of Genesis sees languages as the curse of empire builders. The story of the Tower of Babel is a story of powerful people thinking they could build all the way to heaven. The seeds of confusion that were sown through their different languages were intended to prevent them getting above themselves.

The way of the empire is not the way of the Spirit or of Spirited people. The Spirit uses the languages long forgotten by the powers that be. In the beginning of this book of beginnings which is Acts Luke goes into detail where everyone has come from. Often readers skip over this long list. They shouldn’t because everyone of them heard the disciples speaking their language. Every one counts and not one of them should be overlooked by us readers.

Imagine this:

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, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11 Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” Acts 2:7-11.

We might add other language barriers that would have been present – the young, the old, men, women, deaf, disabled – “we all hear them speaking our language”. This is a beginning for all of them. Now that they have heard God spoken to their heart they now have their own language for God-talk to take back home to their villages and communities. That was a beginning for them.

But we live in a world where divisions won’t go away, where little empires everywhere build their walled communities of exclusion. How do we make sense to one another through the thick walls of separation and in environments made increasingly hostile? What is the way of the Spirit of God? There is a promising beginning in this miracle of Pentecost. The gift of language, the gift in their tongues, is not for one way communication. It is a gift which enables the believers to join others and to enter into their language and life. It is for the act of living together, for the art of heartfelt conversation and for the creation of new relationships.

This is the way with God, embracing others with a love that is utterly understandable. Love translates, and only translates as good news.

Acts 2:1-21 is read in churches at Pentecost.

Mission that ends ends: preaching from Ascension to Pentecost

This is a sermon preached at Holy Trinity, Leamington for Easter 7(A), the Sunday between Ascension and Pentecost. (I am hoping it will be the first in a series of reflections inspired by readings from the Book of Acts.)

The text is Acts 1:6-14.

When we were finding our way round, when we moved to Leamington nearly two years ago, people kept telling us, “you don’t want to go to Coventry”. 

Apologies to those of you who live in Coventry. Never mind. People will be flocking to Coventry if they beat Luton in the play off final next Saturday, possibly taking the place of my team in the Premier League.

It was a punishment to be “sent to Coventry*. Being sent to Coventry meant people turned their back on you, refused to talk to you, shunned you. 

The origin of the sentence probably dates back to the 1640’s to the English Civil War. Royalist troops captured in Birmingham were taken as prisoners to Coventry which was a parliamentarian stronghold. They were not received warmly by the locals. That’s what happened when they were sent to Coventry.

Samaria from this morning’s reading is the Coventry of its day. “You don’t want to go to Samaria” would have been the equivalent for the Jewish people who found a way round Samaria rather than going through it. Part of the power of the parable of the Good Samaritan is that the hero is a Samaritan and that there was a Samaritan that could be called good.

But Jesus puts Samaria on the mission map, along with everywhere else that was considered off limits.

According to Luke, these are the last words of Jesus before his ascension: You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.

Yes – to Samaria, and to the ends of the earth!

Before this, the disciples ask Jesus this question: Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel? Jesus refuses to give a direct answer. It was an old question, reflecting the old troubles of nationalism brought on by too narrow a view of God’s love. 

Instead of a direct answer to their question, Jesus gives them his last word: a promise of power as witnesses, not just in Jerusalem and Judea, but even in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.

These last words of Jesus are the first words in the beginning of the church’s missionary journey, a journey which takes us further that we could ever imagine, and a journey which undermines any boundaries which prevent God’s love reaching where God desires, to the ends of the earth.

To the ends of the earth – that is beyond the boundaries, the borders and margins of our current imaginations, undermining any attachment to nationalism, undermining the certainties and conservatism of our belief systems. Guy Garvey of Elbow sings (in Come On, Blue), love transcends anything that ever ends. Love transcends anything that ever ends, including the ends, limits, boundaries set by our imaginations and culture. 

Jesus’s words, to the ends of the earth, would be far too one-dimensional if we were only to think geographically about the extent of God’s mission, as if the first disciples had a map of the world at their disposal.

To the ends of the earth is about love’s reach. Think sociologically, think psychologically, not just geographically, think musically, think any way you can – to the ends of the earth, as far as your eye can see, and further – that is where the love of God goes, that is where the love of God comes again and again.

Think psychologically about the ends of the earth, those who are on the very edge, those in the darkest places, those in self harm’s way, those bombarded with cruel internal voices – this is where God’s love goes.

Think as peacemakers – or, better, live as peacemakers. Who have we made enemies? This is where God’s love takes us.

Think socio-economically about the ends of the earth. Who are in the margins? Who’s all at sea unable to make safety on land? To the ends of the earth – encompassing all ages, including children and young people (and it was good to hear about our partnership with Thrive from Ryan last Sunday), including those in their dying days. To the ends of the earth – encompassing enemies, strangers and those we’ve thought beyond the pale. Think the extent from cradle to grave, from prison cell to hospice bed, from palace to hovel, this is where God’s love goes.

To the ends of the earth is the scope of God’s love and the measure of God’s desire. Love isn’t just for Israel but for everyone in God’s creation. Love reaches far beyond our borders and boundaries, undermining those borders and boundaries, challenging wherever we draw the line between who’s ruled in and who’s ruled out, who’s right and who’s wrong.

The Book of Acts is often described as a book of beginnings. Our reading comes from the beginning of this book of beginnings. They are Jesus’ last words which become the first words of mission. To the ends of the earth – anything less doesn’t do justice to the desire and power of God. These are Jesus’ last words which last till the end of time, to the ends of the earth.

Acts reports the early days of mission, on the troubles Jesus’ followers got into on this journey. In the beginnings of this mission Luke shows us all the old certainties being cast to the wind, to the violent wind of Pentecost. He excitedly shows us people of all sorts being joined by the Holy Spirit, their differences and disputes being resolved by the wisdom and love which constitute God’s mission. 

He shows us what these first words of mission means as he spotlights the boundaries undermined by God’s mission and those affected by them. These include boundaries of gender, sexuality, ethnicity, class and religion.

Love still struggles against the same borders and boundaries we see beginning to be undermined in Acts, which is why I suggest these days of our lives are still the first days of mission. 

This is the beginning where we have to cast our old certainties to the wind, one of the old certainties being that we aren’t fit for such a tall order of mission. Who am I for such a thing? We are bound by the voices which say we’re not good enough, we’re not clever enough and we know we’re not confident enough.

BUT. Luke tells the story of two men in white who ask the disciples, “why do you stand here looking at the sky”. The disciples had seen Jesus ascend, they’d seen him go. But they kept on looking where he’d gone, where he was no more. The two men in white redirect the gaze of the church. They’re saying, don’t look where he’s disappeared, look for where he comes again.

It’s seeing where he comes again which encourages us and heartens us. 

It is when we see him coming again as we break bread together, as we listen for his word in preaching, teaching and prayer, as we see the wonderful work of reconciliation that we become inspired for the joy of mission, and joined by

the Spirit who makes herself known as the strengthener, the encourager and the comforter, empowering us to reach beyond our comfort zone.

We never know how we are going to be turned out. There isn’t one way of joining mission. There’s no stereotype. 

Paraphrasing Paul, there’s a whole variety of gifts, there’s a whole variety of services, there’s a whole range of activities in the mission of God so some of us will turn out to be wise counsellors, others will become healers, others will have gifts for administration, some will become great encouragers, some will become teachers, or nurses, or the sort of heartening person we are always delighted to meet on our streets, or the shy person who thinks deeply and critically about the way things are. 

When praying in God’s mission none of us ever knows who we are going to turn out to be.

Going back to Coventry. The night of November 14th/15th 1940 must have seemed like the end of the world as 30,000 incendiary bombs were dropped on Coventry, destroying 43,000 homes, 71 factories, the city centre, 2 hospitals, 2 churches, killing 560 people and injuring over 1000 more. 

The Provost of the ruined cathedral, Richard Howard, witnessed Jesus’ words as he chalked his words Father, forgive them on the Cathedral’s sanctuary walls. 

He can’t have known how that would turn out to open up a whole ministry of reconciliation with what happened in Coventry as its capital. Nor could he have known that his words, (Jesus’ words) would be the first words of a missionary journey that has taken the Coventry Cross of Nails to the ends of the earth, to so many situations of conflict.

In those days, the days of prayer between Ascension and Pentecost, the disciples, the men and women gathered together, didn’t know how they were going to be turned out, and how their mission would turn out. Neither did Provost Howard. Neither do we as we wait and pray, with our eyes trained not on where Jesus has disappeared, but on where he comes again in the triumphs of love as well as our falls from grace.

Acts 1:6-14
So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. 10 While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. 11 They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”
12 Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a Sabbath day’s journey away. 13 When they had entered the city, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying: Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of[a] James. 14 All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.

Note: Acts 1:1-11 is read in churches on Ascension Day and Acts 1:6-14 is read on the 7th Sunday of Easter (Year A)