June 9 – Day of Pentecost C
Genesis 11:1-9; Psalm 104:25-35, 37; Acts 2:1-21; John 14:8-17, (25-27)
On this Pentecost morning, we hear the account from the Book of Acts about the gift of the Holy Spirit that opens the way of eternal life to every race and nation. It’s a familiar story with many familiar parts of the storyline. The disciples gathered in one place. The sound like the rush of a violent wind. Divided tongues as of fire appearing among the disciples. The Holy Spirit filling the disciples who are given the ability to speak in other languages, and proclaim the mighty deeds of God. The astonishment and bewilderment as people hear the disciples speaking many different languages. The sneers of those in the crowd who say this is the result of too much wine. And Peter, who gets up and says that all of this commotion, isn’t caused by too much wine, it’s caused by the Holy Spirit who has been given by God.
The problem with familiar stories like this one from the Book of Acts, is that we hear them preached on through the years, and we start remembering the stories in ways that don’t actually reflect how they are written. For example, I have heard many a sermon on this story and I’ve always heard that Jews from all over the world were visiting Jerusalem to celebrate the Jewish holy day Pentecost. They were visitors who had come to celebrate the Jewish holiday of Pentecost which celebrates the giving of the law to Israel and the first fruits of the harvest.
Now I imagine that there were Jewish visitors from around the world who had traveled to Jerusalem for Pentecost. But what we know from the Book of Acts is that the majority of these devout Jews who heard the disciples telling the good news in their own languages weren’t visitors–they were immigrants. Luke, who wrote the book of Acts says that there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. Jews from all over the known world had for whatever reason, immigrated to Jerusalem and now lived there. These Jews weren’t visitors. They were immigrants.
Now this one detail about these Jews being immigrants, may not seem like much, but I think it opens up a whole new world of understanding, about what happens when the gift of the Holy Spirit is given to the early followers of Jesus.
Luke tells us that these Jewish immigrants are comprised of about fifteen different races, nations, and areas of the world. Parthians, Medes, Elamites, residents of Asia, Phrygia, Egypt, and Rome—the list goes on. Each one of these immigrants hears the Spirit empowered disciples sharing the good news about God’s mighty works in their own language. And this is a fascinating detail because the language of the Roman empire in this region at this time was Greek. But God doesn’t use the imperial language to share the good news. God breathes the Holy Spirit into the disciples of Jesus and speaks the native language of each of these immigrants, so they can hear about the great power and love of God in their mother tongues. God didn’t choose to use the official language of the empire to share the good news. Instead God uses the dialect, intonation, and idiom of each race and nation.
On this day of Pentecost, we celebrate how God opened the way of eternal life to every race and nation by the promised gift of the Holy Spirit. And how does God’s Holy Spirit open the way of eternal life for every race and nation? God uses the dialect, intonation, and idiom of each people group to let us all know God’s love for every tribe, tongue, people, and nation.
My mom immigrated to America from South Korea. The first words I ever heard were the Korean ones my mom spoke when I was in her womb. I grew up eating the Korean food she cooked for our family. And I first learned about Jesus in churches where the majority of the service was in Korean.
And as the son of an immigrant in this country, I also saw and experienced the racism directed towards her and people like her. She speaks English with an accent. She carries herself different as someone who grew up in a different culture. And for these and other reasons, there are people in this world who deem her as less deserving of dignity and respect.
But my mom lights up when she runs into someone here in America who has an interest in Korea. In 2012, a Korean pop star named Psy, released a song on Youtube called “Gangnam Style” that became so popular, Youtube had to reprogram their site to be able to count the amount of views the music video had, which has now been viewed over 3.3 billion times. When she saw how popular Psy’s song got, she laughed and didn’t understand it, but I saw how it touched her to see a Korean singer who had millions of people around the world who weren’t Korean trying their best to sing Korean lyrics.
I’ve seen her light up in the same way when she meets someone who can speak with her in Korean. It’s like watching a fish finding itself back in water. Her spirit and her personality shine through, no longer bound by the limitations of a culture and language of a place in which she didn’t grow up. She’s grounded and secure in the connection and freedom of the language that ties her to her family and nation of origin.
And on that first Pentecost day, I wonder how all those immigrants lit up when they heard the good news of God’s mighty acts in their own native languages. Devout Jews from every nation under heaven who had immigrated to a place they didn’t grow up, who may have only been able to speak broken Greek, heavily accented by each of their particular languages of origin. Who carried themselves differently as those who come from a different place. Who most likely knew what it was like to be deemed less deserving of respect and dignity by the majority culture they lived in, because they were immigrants from someplace else. Parthians, Medes, residents of Mesopotamia, Asia, Egypt, and every other nation under heaven who found themselves living in Jerusalem, each one through the Holy Spirit, hearing the love of God addressed to them in the languages they heard in their mothers’ wombs.
Some were amazed and perplexed. They wondered what it meant that God’s Holy Spirit would bypass the language of empire, and with dignity and respect, address each immigrant in their native language. Others sneered at the event—it was the cause of excess and too much wine.
But Peter stands up and tells us that this is what it looks like when God’s Spirit is poured out on humanity. Everyone is welcomed into the saving work of God. Every tribe, tongue, people, and nation, welcomed by the Holy Spirit into the way of life with God. Parthians, Medes, Koreans, Americans, you, me, and all of the world come alive as we hear the God of the nations call each of us by name in the tongues of our mothers.
This is what we celebrate on this Festival Day of Pentecost: the Spirit pours out on men and women, young and old, and inspires them to tell every race and nation under heaven, that their true home can be found in the God who loves every tribe, tongue, nation, and people.