“When you make the effort to speak someone else’s language… you are saying to them… I see you as a human being.”
Those words are from the memoir, “Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood,” by comedian Trevor Noah. As the title suggests, Trevor Noah’s very existence was a punishable crime under South African apartheid. His father was Swedish, his mother black South African, and neither culture had any room for a child like Trevor Noah.
There are eleven official languages in the nation of South Africa, and Noah talked a lot in his book about the challenges and gifts of language in his childhood.
At home, the Noah family spoke Xhosa, a native South African tongue. When it came time to pray, though, they always prayed in English. Trevor’s grandmother asked him to pray, because his English was the best. “The Bible is in English,” she told him, “so English prayers get answered first.”
It’s funny, but I can imagine how Trevor’s grandmother came to that conclusion, even if no one ever explicitly said it: she first heard the Bible in English, verses of freedom from the lips of people who oppressed her. She saw white people in their comfortable lives, without the curfew or travel restrictions that she and other black South Africans faced. She prayed, certainly, but God must have been busy answering English prayers first.
Of course, we know that the Bible was not written in English. We know that, intellectually. But I can’t help but worry about whether we, whether I, have carried on the hurtful assumptions that white South African Christians taught to Trevor Noah’s grandmother. Are we still making the same mistakes as James and John, imagining English speakers–imagining America–at the right and left hand of Jesus? Have we been saying “God bless America” for so long that we’ve forgotten that God blesses other nations, too?
Deep down, do we think our prayers are answered first?
God must have thought of those questions before the church even came to be. God saw our failures coming, saw our pride and limited worldview, and answered our questions in the form of a drama.
The apostles are gathered in a house, praying and waiting for God to make the next move. A violent wind fills the house, a wind that is unmistakably God. The Spirit moves them outside the house to preach of God’s power, and a crowd gathers, Jews from every nation. I imagine them like a scene from Trevor Noah’s book, a street full of people speaking eleven languages. When the apostles start speaking, everyone hears the words, all at the same time, all in their own native tongues.
On that first Pentecost day, the Spirit could have come with any miracle under the sun; the apostles could have been miraculously healed of their ailments, or lifted off the ground, or given a power that any superhero would envy.
But instead, the Spirit gives them the gift of communication across languages.
If those first apostles found themselves tempted to think that God answered their prayers first, the Spirit burst on the scene and blew their assumptions out of the water.
God will pour out God’s Spirit, the scripture says, on men and women, young and old, slave and free, that all will prophesy and all will be saved.
That’s the thing about the Holy Spirit: she does not have patience for the structures of our world. She does not care who holds the cards, who has the curfew and who has free reign. The Spirit is a leveling power, and the wind blows where she chooses.
I am a Presbyterian pastor, and Presbyterians talk a lot about the spirit. Every Sunday, we pray for the spirit to be present in our service. Before we read the holy scriptures, we pray for the spirit to illumine their words. When we celebrate the sacraments, we pray for the Spirit to make the elements holy. Then, at the end of every service, a pastor stands before the congregation with arms raised, praying for the spirit to travel with them in the week to come. We love spirit talk during the week, too, working in the word “discernment” whenever a decision has to be made.
The Spirit is the presence of God, gifted to the church, witnessed in the powerful Pentecost story. It is good and right that we lean on the Spirit the way do.
But we have to be careful not to domesticate the wild wind of our God. The Pentecost story comes as if with a warning label: When the Spirit comes, she comes with fire. If we are going to pray for Spirit’s presence, we better mean it.
A friend of mine [oh hey, Jamie] spent a summer working at Montreat Conference Center, and I will never forget the first time she led worship there. The congregation in Montreat worships in their 1200 seat auditorium in the summers. In a church that big, everything on the chancel has to be big, too. The table is twice the size of most, and the baptismal font has a shallow, clear bowl roughly the size of a bathtub.
It came time for the Assurance of Pardon, and my friend picked up the ceramic pitcher of water, to pour into the baptismal font. The pitcher was the size of her torso, and once she started pouring, gravity took effect and she could not stop. The water went into the font with a gush, created a wave out the other side, and soaked the front of the church with a splash.
Maybe that is something like the way the Holy Spirit came to the apostles: not a conservative drip, carried out decently and in order, but a baptismal tidal wave across the world, with splashes of the Spirit everywhere.
I have been hearing the Pentecost story my whole life, but I noticed something this year that I had never really heard before. When the spirit comes to the apostles, and they start speaking in tongues, it is the crowd outside the house who hears and understands the words.
The Spirit comes to the church, of course, but she is not bound by our walls.
When we see a place where differences are respected, and barriers are shattered, surely that is a splash of the spirit.
When we see a place where differences justify division, where barriers are built high and strong, surely the spirit is calling us there to find unity in our diversity.
This week, we Christians whose God came as a Palestinian Jew cannot ignore the bloodshed at the Gaza border. We Christians whose God promises life even for dry bones cannot ignore the lives lost to gun violence. We Christians whose God speaks every language cannot pretend that we do not contribute to global injustice, or to the myth of white supremacy, or to the devastating assumption that God answers our prayers first.
“God will pour out God’s Spirit on all flesh,” Peter said, and even he did not realize the implication of those words.
Last week, 24 prominent clergy came together to write a new confession, which they titled “A Confession of Faith in A Time of Crisis.”
“We believe Jesus when he tells us to go into all nations making disciples,” they say. “Therefore we reject ‘America first’ as a theological heresy for followers of Christ… Serving our own communities is essential,” they write,“but the global connections between us are undeniable.”
Church, the holy spirit is not our mascot, not a name to be said flippantly, or a prayer to be offered only when it is convenient. The Holy Spirit is God is in our midst, calling us out of the church and into the world, making waves in places we would rather keep dry.
Hear this good news of the Pentecost story:
The Spirit hears all our prayers. The miracle is when we each other.