The first disciples are filled with the Spirit and sent outside of the building in which they are waiting and speak to the people who are gathered from many nations. They represent a reversal of the tower of Babel story, empowered to speak in the first languages of all these people who had gathered for the Pentecost festival in Jerusalem. They are able to unite the crowd around the story of the mighty acts of God. Pay attention. It is not a full reversal of Babel. We are not going from many languages to one language. We are going from many stories to one story. The story is what unites this scene; the language actually becomes secondary.
Now in every biblical story, you have the literal story which you can analyze at length, wondering if it happened the way the text says it happened, wondering how tradition gets involved or how mythic remembrance gets involved. You also have the spirit of the text (or in the text) which asks what is the truth that this story is trying to tell. You can still analyze this at length but I find it more interesting and more rewarding.
Everyone miraculously speaks a foreign language on the day of Pentecost, but then it never really comes up again. Did that just last for an hour or a day or were they speaking foreign languages for years? The languages aren’t the point. The story is the point. They could tell the story in a language that was relevant to those who needed to hear it. The Day of Pentecost emphatically shows us that God needs this story to be told so that people can understand.
But what does that mean for us? Most of the people around us speak English so that barrier is not too high. There was a time when our congregations were ministering to specific immigrant communities: Germans, Swedes, Danes, Slovaks to name a few. Lutheran worship told the story in several European languages. Now when someone does a service in German in an English-speaking community it is more a living museum moment, nice but not necessary for our context.
I would argue that the primary way we Lutherans have told the story has been through the language of service. We have a history of seeing needs in a community or in the world around us and responding with food and shelter and other forms of aide (like surgery pillows and stress kits) that tell the Christian story in ways that are relevant to someone in need. We have shown people that God cares for them by offering our care. It seems quite likely that the social service organizations like Ascentria (Lutheran Social Services of New England), Lutheran World Hunger Appeal and Lutheran Disaster Relief that have grown out of congregations will outlive the congregations that birthed them. A colleague once told me, in looking at this situation that “We Lutherans have served ourselves to death.”
I would argue that maybe it’s not a bad way to go, but it is an important point. We have done all sorts of service and aid work. You can find many testimonials thanking the Lutherans and our organizations for helping someone in need. But it hasn’t grown our congregations more than any other group. For good or for bad, we haven’t really worn that service on our sleeves; it’s just what we do. Part of it has to do with our theology of grace. We are always in the place of responding to something that God has done, whether it is in worship or prayer or service. We don’t serve to show that we are Christians; we are Christians and so we serve. There is a quote from Martin Luther that sums up the idea very well. “The Christian shoemaker does his duty not by putting little crosses on the shoes, but by making good shoes, because God is interested in good craftsmanship.” Whatever it is we are doing, we do to honor God who loves us first and gives us life in Christ.
Yet it seems like we need to start learning a new language. I suppose that happens every so often. Martin Luther wasn’t the only person who was questioning the church in the 1500s. He was the first who had political protection and printing presses nearby, but the Holy Spirit was doing something in that time and the church began to speak a new (or renewed, since it was never gone) language of grace.
So what is the language that the Holy Spirit is calling us to speak in this time? I don’t know if I can speak for the whole church but I know how God is calling me to speak. I think that the language of peace, the gospel as peace, has become much more critical in this day and age. Now some of you will say that’s just my quiet side. Others will look to the number of people who are gathering around visions of success and reward. It may not be the language the world wants to hear but I think it is the language our culture needs to hear.
I say this because we look at the political process and people are reacting to an underlying sense of anger and discontent that they don’t to do with, but a voice that affirms and stirs up that anger and discontent is appealing. There needs to be another voice. I say this because suicide rates are on the rise for almost every group in the United States. I say this because opioid abuse and other forms of substance abuse are on the rise. I say this because even as our devices claim to make us more connected, many people feel more isolated. Someone needs to be telling the world that there is peace; that peace and contentment are already available to you. This is part of the good news. This is the story. These are the mighty acts of God.
And I believe that the Spirit has empowered us to speak a new language, but we have to bold enough to speak it and live it. Speaking a new language is not easy because it means replacing familiar vocabulary with new, letting go of old patterns and replacing them, letting go of comfortable idioms and coming up with new turns of phrase. It will mean dropping some expectation of what growth looks like and what success looks like and what church looks like.
Yet here we are in this place with the sun shining, the birds singing, the wind stirring new leaves in the breeze, sitting in a place that where God says, “Slow down. There is no rush. Be at peace.” And what if we could bring that into our lives and our communities and our world. All will be well. There is no rush. Be at peace. Learn contentment. God has already been speaking this language for centuries, perhaps it is time we took it as our own. Peace be with you.