Unity: Speaking and Listening
It was only a couple of weeks ago that we celebrated another anniversary of Pentecost. We noted then the Disciples being gathered together in prayer, waiting for a Spirit of New Life to visit and invest them with power. It was exciting when that power came and could only be described with the roar of wind and fire.
Just prior this the Disciples had taken care of an important internal organization issue of bringing the number of disciples up to what they thought was a full complement of leaders. With that organizational piece in place they returned to the request of Jesus to wait for the Spirit of Power.
As an aside If the Disciples had waited until after Pentecost to elect their full complement of leaders they may have helped the rest of our Christian history by being sure that someone like Mary Magdalene was involved so we didn’t have to wait so long for women to be official leaders in the church.
Today I will focus on the first actions of the Disciples after they had their experience of the Spirit’s Power. What is it that we might expect if we have prayed and waited for the Spirit’s Power to give direction and purpose to our community of faith, our congregation?
The first thing that happened was that the Disciples began speaking in a number of different languages. If we were only literalists we would take that to mean different human languages. In our day that would mean we would start speaking Spanish and Chinese and Arabic.
Since GOD has given us the gift of imagination and metaphor we can also see in this passage the desire to communicate with other people. How might the Disciples tell what is important to them if they don’t learn the language of the people they want to know their experience of a Living Jesus, a Loving GOD, and a Powerful Spirit?
Just as in our own lives we sometimes have immediate conversion experiences we also know what it means to grow into a new way of living over time. The more dramatic conversion gets a lot of attention and the person who simply grew within the church from early on and matured in their faith through the years gets much less attention. Whether quick or developmental, both types of journeys to faith are valid.
Here we might also read the story of the Power of the Spirit as giving the Disciples the motivation and opportunity to practice and learn other languages for the purpose of telling the wonders of GOD that they have experienced.
Of course language stands for lives. The way we say things is directly tied to our experience. Did you grow up in another country or section of this country? You probably have traces of what is called an accent. Did you grow up in church? You probably have snippets of hymns and scripture that pepper your conversation. Did you grow up around swearing people? You probably have an initial tendency to short-cut saying what you mean by just coming out with a blue streak expressing your emotions, not your thinking.
To begin the process of learning the language of another person is to willingly learn about all of their life. This will be one of the signs of renewal here when we are willing to go out of our way to involve ourselves in actively learning about the life of our neighbors and those who are moving into the community and are strangers to us.
There are those who want to find out about others for their own purposes. A key element in being touched by the Spirit’s Power is that we want to simply pass on our thanksgiving and praise for GOD’s presence in our lives and a witness that Jesus is still alive. We are sure that this will be as helpful for others as it has been for me. But first we need to find out how to communicate with them by knowing their experiences, how they talk, and translating our experience in terms of their understandings. We won’t be expecting them to be the ones to change to find out something they have no idea is there. We will be expecting that we have to be the actors, we will have to change, we will offer Christ to them.
In terms of the mission statement we are working on, we get a hint there that a part of our purpose is to tell about the wonders of GOD and that we are to do that telling in the context of someone else’s life, not just our own. We need to get outside of ourselves and not just tell one another how good GOD is.
An equally important point is made in this passage when we hear the response of people who have all manner of different life experiences. They were thunderstruck to hear the message of Christians about a Living Jesus and a Loving GOD in terms of their life, their language, their experiences.
A part of this surprise is that there isn’t one language, church language, if you will, that has spiritual validity. Every language and experience has the capability of carrying the Spirit’s Power and acknowledging the wonder of GOD. The Disciples don’t just use some Glossolalia, or special God language. The Disciples use real human languages and the experiences behind those different languages.
When people find someone they thought wouldn’t understand, wouldn’t speak their language, actually does understand and speak their mother tongue they are willing to go further with them.
Do the newcomers to this community expect that those who have lived here for awhile are at all interested in anything other than what they can add to the tax base? Do those whose first language is Spanish expect that those who have lived here for awhile are at all interested in hearing them express their life in their own tongue? Do those whose skin is of a darker hue expect we white folks to be interested in their experience of discrimination and how that shows up in their language?
When we intend to pay attention to others it makes all the difference to us, how we shape the ministries we offer, and to them, that there is spiritual value already in their lives that can come even further alive through this congregation.
Practically speaking, if we really want to grow in membership we need to go out to tell what we have experienced of GOD’s Love and to do that telling in the words of someone else, not just in our own words.
This is a very huge task to speak and hear beyond our own.
This very huge task is beyond our own doing. Just like the Disciples of old we need to pray and wait for the Spirit of Power to visit us so we might finally have the desire to go out of our way to learn another’s life and language.
I believe this is a part of our United Methodist heritage as our forebears went into the streets to learn the language of poverty and imprisonment so they could witness to the wonder of GOD in those languages.
I believe this can again be a part of everyday Christian experience.
If we stop with Pentecost and the Wind and the Fire, we have stopped too soon. We need to take it where it goes in the scriptures, into the lives of others.
Pray. Wait. Speak. There are those who are ready to hear.
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The New Interpreter's Bible, "Acts" by Robert W. Wall
The Message, by Eugene H. Peterson
When Pentecost Ends Too Soon, by Barbara K. Lundblad
Pentecost and Babble/Babel, by Marcus Borg
Rehearing God's Voice, by Jonathan Wittenberg