The story of Pentecost is already rich, but I want to add another bit of reading to the morning. This is part of a sonnet by Kenneth E. Boulding. Professor Boulding was not primarily a poet. He was a highly regarded economist and lecturer in economics. And he was also a highly convicted Quaker with a zeal for peace and justice – my kind of economist.
We know not how the day is to be born, whether in clouds of glory, tongues of flame, as once at Pentecost the Spirit came, or whether imperceptibly as dawn; But as the seed must grow into the tree, so life is love, and love the end must be.
The day of Pentecost is a day of excitement and of power – of the in-breaking of the spirit. God taking on the flesh of the disciples and using them to speak. Not just God with us, God in us.
The events described are so startling that they can almost seem magical. A group of people suddenly start speaking languages that they have never spoken before. Witnesses attest that these aren’t new or unknown languages – they are the native languages of those gathered around; As though just by being in South Africa I could understand and speak Xlosa, or Zulu, or Afrikaans. That would be a miracle.
I’ve heard various attempts to try to rationalize what happened. These languages weren’t, after all, from the other side of the planet – they were from the same region and were routinely heard in Jerusalem. Perhaps the disciples had subliminally learned these languages and then, through some type of hypnotic parlor trick, were coaxed into speaking them.
Almost nothing in that rationalization appeals to me – and I love to rationalize… But we might take a cue from the notion of a parlor trick, from modern day conjurors of parlor tricks. The key to understanding the work of illusionists, of magicians, is to not be distracted by the thing that demands your attention – by the waving hand or wand or whatever. The real action is someplace else. The skill of the magician is to distract us. This approach, of course, ruins the fun of the illusion, but does give clearer insight into what is going on.
So, I look again at this passage from Acts, but looking away from the Disciples and their wondrous ability to speak in tongues – the thing that seems to demand attention…
And what do I notice? The thing that jumps right out at me is that the crowd is not amazed by the ability of the disciples to speak in tongues. They are amazed at their
ability to understand. “How is it that we hear in our own native language? In our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.”
I have always thought of Pentecost as a story about the miraculous ability to speak but those eye witnesses experienced it as a miraculous ability to hear.
So much of our Christian practice these days is about sharing, about spreading the good news. That is wonderful and good. But a great deal of our Christian practice needs to be about listening. What is God saying to us? How is God calling us? If I am to carry God’s good news into this broken and hurting world, I surely must spend a great deal of time listening to God. Otherwise I’m likely to carry my idea of God’s good news into the world – in other words, my news. And that is not God’s call to us.
As monks here at this monastery (and this is true of all monk’s in all monasteries) we spend a big part of each day in silence. We eat many meals in silence. We spend a large part of our prayer time in silence. We do this so that we can hear God.
Someone asked me once why God only speaks when we are silent. It’s not that God only speaks, it’s that we can only hear when we are silent. God speaks in a still voice – and uses few words. The silence is about our ability to listen. God is always speaking to us, always present with us. We, and I include myself at the head of the list, are often not ready to listen. Thankfully God is forgiving as well as persistent.
So, this miracle of Pentecost is that an entire crowd of people could hear God speaking to each of them in their own language.
We know this about God: God comes to us where we are. God reads our innermost thoughts and ideas. God knows our hearts. And God loves us, each and every one of us. It’s incomprehensible. We, as humans, can have a great deal of superficial love. We’re human, we do the best we can. But God’s love is never superficial. God knows us more deeply than we know ourselves. And God loves us.
So here we are on this day of Pentecost. In the great cycle of the Church Year, this is the turning point. Jesus has been present in the flesh with the faithful – but now Jesus has ascended, gone home as it were. And we’re still here. But we’re not alone or abandoned. We are surrounded by the Holy Spirit – not just surrounded… Filled!
This is part of the symbolic meaning of our Eucharistic celebration. By partaking of the body and blood of Jesus, we become part of the body and blood of Jesus.
It starts with listening – just as on that first Pentecost all those years ago. As Kenneth Bouldling reminds us, we don’t know how the day is to be born. It’s not a story about the ability to communicate, it’s a story about the ability to listen. The more we think we know about what we’re listening for, the more likely we are to drown out that voice of God.
Are we prepared to be surprised by God speaking to us, through whatever means, in our own native language? It sounds simple enough, but I have to admit that I probably listen more for God to speak in some exulted “language of the temple.” And the miracle of Pentecost is that God speaks in the languages of our hearts.
We can’t even restrict our listening to spoken language – since God speaks to us in music, through flowers, through other creatures that share our lives, through all of creation. All these things speak to us of their creator… of God.
And so, we pray for open hearts and minds that will let us hear the voice, the music, the dance of God that is all around us.