by David Baer, May 20, 2018
Text: Acts 2:1-21
The news spread out quickly, and a great crowd came together, bewildered at the sound that reached their ears. Everyone was astonished, because each of them heard something different. And all were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” And some of them answered with complete assurance, “Laurel.” And others said, with equal certainty, “Yanny.”
Unless your smart phone, computer, and TV have all been switched off all week, you’ve probably come across the viral sound recording that has people so divided. The story begins with a high school student studying for a vocabulary test and visiting a website that features recordings of the pronunciation of many different words. She played the recording for “laurel,” but she heard, “yanny.” She passed it on to her friends, who passed it on to their friends, and onto social sharing networks, and the rest is history. For what it’s worth, those who hear “laurel” are correct, in the sense that this is the word the speaker in the recording was actually saying. Acoustic distortion during the recording or digitizing process is responsible for creating the illusion of another word, “yanny.”1 But this story is a reminder that we can all experience the same phenomenon and come away with wildly different perceptions about what it was. And so it doesn’t seem quite as strange, after this week, to hear a story where everyone can hear the disciples speaking in their own language.
Pentecost is the church’s birthday. And the birthday gift the apostles received on that day, we believe, is one that we continue to enjoy. It’s the presence of the Holy Spirit. Now, it’s not as though Pentecost is the first time the Holy Spirit shows up in the scriptures. In the very beginning of Genesis, at the creation, the “ruach elohim,” the breath or wind or spirit of God, hovers over the waters. When God creates human beings, God breathes the “ruach chayyim,” the breath or spirit of life into us. A great, mighty wind from God splits the waters of the Red Sea to rescue the Hebrew people from their Egyptian slavemasters in the exodus story. The Spirit of God comes over the prophets and allows them to deliver God’s word to God’s people. The Spirit hasn’t been sleeping or absent from God’s story. The Spirit has been active and at work wherever God creates, speaks, and saves. But what happened at Pentecost was a gift that formed and continues to give shape to the church. The Spirit is poured out on all flesh, as Peter says, quoting from the prophet Joel. Men and women, young and old–the Spirit has been democratized, its transforming power made available to everyone.
The gathered crowd marveled and said, “In our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power!” The Spirit has always been active and alive, but the gift given to the church at Pentecost is the ability to meet the people of the world where they are, to bring the message of Jesus in words and expressions and idioms and imagery that people from every corner of the earth can understand. And that’s powerful. It’s also unusual. There are so many rich, beautiful religious traditions in the world where, in order to receive the message, you have to learn a particular language. In the Islamic tradition, to read or hear the Qur’an in translation means you are hearing something other than the essential spiritual message—to get the real thing, you have to learn Arabic. In some Buddhist traditions, the sutras need to be recited in the original Sanskrit. You have to expend effort to bring yourself to the message. That’s not the case with the good news of Jesus. From the very beginning, from the parables of Jesus that used ordinary simple language and everyday, commonplace illustrations, to the crowd at Pentecost, to the present day when the Bible has been translated into every language under heaven, people have been able to say, “In our own languages we hear about God’s deeds of power!”
And that matters so much when it comes to how we share our faith with our neighbors. Pentecost means that the message about God’s love for the world in Jesus is meant to find people where they are, in a language they can understand. It means that as the people entrusted with that message, we can’t put ourselves in a position of making people come to us. It means that just as at Pentecost, what happens here in this space is intended to equip us for bearing witness, for showing and telling God’s message, outside these walls where the people are. And when I hear you guys talk about doing this—at the soccer sidelines, with your friends who are going through difficult life challenges, building houses and feeding people in Paterson, anywhere and everywhere—I am so grateful and humbled. The gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost means the message of Jesus takes shape in the everyday spaces inhabited by the people who need to hear it, and we honor that gift when we show up in those spaces embodying that message in a winsome, welcoming way.
But there’s another lesson from the Pentecost story. When I was reading the text, I noticed something that hadn’t stuck out to me before. “Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them,” it says. I had always pictured something like a single flame over each disciple’s head, standing on its own. But that’s not what it says. It doesn’t say, “many little fires.” It says, “divided tongues, as of fire…” Think of a bonfire or a campfire. There are many leaping flames, but they all stem from the same source, the same fuel. And these individual flames don’t exist, apart from the single roaring blaze. You can’t isolate them or separate them. If you rake the coals apart from one another, the flames subside or die out. It’s their proximity that gives them energy, that makes the fire alive.
A while back, our adult Bible study group read the book of Acts. And we saw how the message of Jesus spread throughout the ancient world, to many different and far-flung places. And we saw that there were certain people—Peter and Paul, especially—who were such key, gifted figures in bringing the good news to new places. But always, always they came back to the core group of disciples to share and celebrate the new things God was doing, and to lean on the community for support. In the Bible, there are no single flames. Every bright, warm light stems from the same fire.
Because when it comes to the Spirit, we don’t carry the power source with us. God’s birthday present to the church comes batteries not included. It’s a gift that drives us out into the streets, into our families and neighborhoods and workplaces to share the message, but the power to do that comes from a Holy Spirit that gathers us in community together and that keeps us reliant on the energy only God can provide.
Yesterday our family got up early and saw the live broadcast of the royal wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. Ordinarily I don’t go in for this kind of thing. I’m not into fashion, and so I don’t care what designers created the clothes that famous people wear. I can appreciate good acting or musical performances, but I have a hard time being interested in the lives of celebrities purely for celebrity’s sake. And let’s face it… as an American, I carry a sense that when it comes to British royals, our country fought a whole War of Independence for the express purpose of not having to be involved with these people.
But I’m glad I caught the royal wedding because of the sermon given by Michael Curry, the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church USA. It was a meditation on love and its power to transform. He talked about the way experiencing love powerfully shapes our lives. And he talked about Jesus’ laying down his life as the ultimate expression of love. Curry invited everyone to imagine what everything—from our homes and families to business and government—would look like in a world where love was the way. It was a message that resonated with me on a week that ended with tragedy in a Texas school, at a time when there is so much to be distressed about. What would things look like if love were really the animating power in all these places? But then Curry ended with an insight from the French theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin: “if humanity ever harnesses the energy of fire again, if humanity ever captures the energy of love - it will be the second time in the history of the world that we have discovered fire.”2
See, I believe Pentecost was that second discovery of fire—the power of God’s love active and alive in our midst. It’s a fire that we’ve got to follow, to keep up with as it carries us out into our streets and neighborhoods, that brings us face to face with neighbors who are different from us, but whom the Spirit longs for, and whose presence we need, if our fellowship and the holy fire that sustains it is going to go on. But it’s a fire that will never be harnessed or tamed or owned. Our lives as followers of Jesus don’t come with batteries—they come with a Spirit that binds us together and powers us with the holy energy of God’s love. That love is wild, it is free, it is creative. It won’t be tied up in buildings. It won’t be bound to a single language or culture or race or ethnicity. It’s poured out equally on young and old, rich and poor, and it lets us not only dare to dream God’s dream, but to get up and do it, until the heart of all creation beats in tune with God’s. Amen.
Louise Matsakis, “The True History of ‘Yanny’ and ‘Laurel’.” Wired. https://www.wired.com/story/yanny-and-laurel-true-history/. Accessed 18 May 2018.
Michael Curry, transcript at https://www.esquire.com/lifestyle/a20759188/royal-wedding-sermon-full-transcript/. Accessed 20 May 2018.