Pentecost is the third great feast day of the liturgical year, after Christmas and Easter. And yet its meaning may seem more elusive to us than those other two feast days. And its observance is definitely a distant third—especially when it happens to fall on Memorial Day weekend.Even so, we gather together to celebrate the sending of God’s Holy Spirit.
In the second chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, Luke is suggesting that we encounter God’s Holy Spirit when we encounter the other. Today is the beginning of all of that, but it’s a thread that runs all the way through the rest of Acts, as Jews reach out to centurions, eunuchs and persecutors of the community, who are all baptized to become part of the fold of those who follow Jesus as the Way to God.
All of those people speaking different languages, but hearing in their own native tongues, are in Jerusalem for the Jewish Festival of Booths. But this story isn’t just about Parthians, Medes, and Elamites; or even by extension Germans, Spaniards and Japanese. As a metaphor, I think this day reminds us how difficult communication is: and how even people who speak the same “mother tongue” can face challenges in communicating. Sometimes that’s because we come from different generations. Other times it’s because we’re shaped by urban, or suburban, or rural values. Other times it’s because some of us are from Mars and others are from Venus. But no matter how you slice it, communication is hard work! And without communication, community is impossible.
Try putting a group of randomly selected people together to discuss public education. Even when all speak English (more or less) we cannot assume they will hear or understand each other. Many factors will influence that conversation, including the following:
- whether or not you have children or grandchildren in the system;
- whether you prefer the intimacy of smaller learning environments or the opportunities that larger ones afford;
- whether you live in one of the larger towns or one of the more rural ones;
- your own high school experience.
All of these factors (and many I have not named) will come into play before anyone even opens their mouth. Some people will be aware of how these factors influence them and others will be clueless. Some will feel they have a direct line to the truth while others will be more open to the views of others. All of these things, however, impact what each believes and therefore what each one says and how they say it. It also impacts on what they are willing to, or able to, hear.
Now I’ve deliberately picked something nice and easy and non- controversial like the education of our children! But of course this is as true when it comes to electing a president or a bishop as well. We inhabit different worlds even when we do speak the same language—worlds as different as those from which those gathered in Jerusalem came from.
“Hearing” requires listening and most of us are not particularly good at deep listening, especially when the person we are talking with sees the world very differently than we do. It is not a natural instinct to see “the other” as a gift who can lead us into truth. And yet I think this is exactly what Luke is suggesting in Acts. We tend to see “the other” as a barrier to our getting what we want, or what we think we want. When we fear the other, very often our bodies tense up and that influences both what we say and what we hear. And far too often this is where conflict potentially escalates and authentic communication is hindered. The Pentecost story suggests that “the other” is a gift who helps us to discern a deeper wisdom than we are able to discover on our own.
I don’t think the Pentecost story is just about what happened one day a long time ago in Jerusalem. It’s a story about how the Holy Spirit continues to work even now, so that, by the grace of God sometimes people do listen to and even hear one another—and when that happens, community becomes possible. Nelle Morton, a twentieth-century Christian educator, coined the phrase “hearing another to speech.” That is to suggest that when we really listen to another person, it is not a passive exercise.
The greeting “Namaste” captures what this kind of deep-Spirit listening is about. Literally it means “I bow to you.” But it also means that I honor the divine spark in you. Do we really believe that about each other? Can we honor the Spirit of God that is in the person whom we initially feels stands in the way of what we want? The Baptismal Covenant also points to this truth when we promise, with God’s help, that we will respect the dignity of every human being. When we treat others as holy and beloved children of God, there is nothing passive about it. We really do, quite literally, hear the other to speech as we empower one another to speak the truth in love. And where that happens, the Holy Spirit is at work and all are enriched and amazed in the process.
Truth—the whole truth and nothing but the truth—is never something that any one of us can possess on our own. It requires community and discernment. It requires of us that we be present to the Spirit—and the “us” must always include those who are different. “In Christ,” St. Paul insisted, “there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither male nor female.” On the great questions, one side never possesses the whole truth; and I believe that it is the Spirit that pushes us into acknowledging that hard reality—until we are able to hear one another to speech, each in his or her own native tongue.
When this happens, the Church becomes an icon of what is possible in this world: an image of abundant life animated by God’s Holy Spirit. When we love our neighbor we build up the neighborhood. And that is, I think, at the very heart of what Pentecost is all about—the Church as the Church, showing the world what is possible when the Spirit of God is trusted for guidance, and wisdom, and comfort.
This does not mean there will be no conflict. The rest of Acts is filled with brutal honesty about just how difficult it is to be the Church. Luke wants to make sure that we don’t fall into a false kind of idealism that any of this is easy. Acts is not at all naïve about the work we are called to. But it does insist that with the Holy Spirit, infinitely more than we can ask or imagine becomes possible. The Church is called to be a place where the simple question is asked: “what does God desire here?” We believe the Spirit is sent to guide us into all truth, and that it is legitimate to ask such a question. That God does care about our decisions and the Spirit lures us toward healthier and wiser decisions.
That doesn’t ensure that we will always get it right. But it does mean that we can work at developing the practice of looking beyond ourselves for guidance. We listen. We listen to each other and we listen for the Spirit. We embrace a way of life that recognizes that we do not all speak the same language, but through the Spirit we can become more multilingual. We can, with God’s help, become an intentional listening community that practices hearing one another to speech.
Come, holy Spirit, come.