When the Holy Spirit comes in Acts chapter two what is it that Spirit brings? What is the power bestowed on the disciples from the wind and the tongues of flame? What is the gift that was given to the followers of Jesus which they had been waiting for? It was not super strength. It was not greater intelligence. It was not the ability to read minds. Rather, it says in Acts two verse four that, “All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.”
They were able to speak in other languages. That is the gift of the Spirit–the ability to communicate despite differences. It is interesting to me that the account we hear in today’s story says that each of the many different people that were there that Pentecost from a variety of places across the world heard the disciples speak in their own language.
Why did the Spirit have them hear it their own language? Isn’t it possible that the foreigners who had come to Jerusalem would have all known Hebrew since they were all Jewish? Or isn’t possible they could have all spoken koine Greek since that was a common language across much of the middle East at the time? Why didn’t the disciples just use one of those languages or why didn’t the Holy Spirit just make all the people understand one language?
Instead of trying to make people all the same, it seems like the Holy Spirit seems to be celebrating and highlighting the diversity of all those visitors in Jerusalem. It seems like the Spirit wants people to hear the Gospel in their first language–their heart language. It seems like the Spirit is saying that who they are as different people and ethnicities is a good and sacred thing and the Spirit is going to meet them where they are at, to demonstrate that each person is valuable for who they are in the midst of all their variety.
The author Jordan Ware expresses this by pointing out that just as at Mount Sinai, a new community was formed within the Jewish tribe, a new community is formed again at the day of Pentecost. This time, however, the people were united not around one Law, but around a new power, the power of many languages. The power of many voices, not just one. The power of difference. The power of difference isn’t always respected. It’s common for people to want everybody to be the same. They jeer and say there must be something wrong with us. But God says otherwise. God recognizes the gift of difference.
It might be hard for us to see how difference could be a gift. We often don’t like to be around people we perceive as different from us. It can be work and take effort to be around folks who are different from us. Often, we can actually be afraid to be around people who are different from us.
I was thinking about this experience as we have been confronted once again with news of racial violence the last several weeks. From the death of Ahmaud Arbery killed while jogging to that of George Floyd begging to breathe while under arrest. These incidents continue to reveal that there is often a pre-judgment of criminality in our country based on skin color. There is a fear of difference that can lead to a fatal reaction. This fear is not just played out through the hands of the perpetrators of such violence, but seems to be baked into our culture.
The columnist David French wrote about this last week. He observed that there are Americans who would never pick up a weapon and try to track down a black man running on the street, but they understand and sympathize with those who do.
He goes on to say there is no easy cure for an unbalanced fear of someone who is a different skin color. At the end of the day the battle is over the state of the human heart. But he has hope that hearts can change because his changed. There was a time when his own instinct was to disbelieve that injustice and prejudice could still be so profound. But most often the reports of misconduct were right, and with so many people defending the indefensible, the author came to realize that these cases often carried a double injustice.
There was the awful death itself. Then there was the public declaration that something about the alarm and terror that triggered the deadly violence was justified even though there is no reason that jogging through a construction site should create such an unreasonable and fatal sense of fear.
Naomi Wadler is a seventh-grade African-American activist. She gained notoriety for a speech she gave in Washington DC during the March for Our Lives against gun violence. She has since been on many talk shows as a voice for young people and girls of color. Naomi was asked by Time magazine to write an article this week in which she expressed where she finds hope in the midst of tragic situations. Her answer had to do with how she sees stories being told now that in the past would not have been told.
She said in the case of Ahmaud Arbery, people of color in the media like Brittany Packnett and Don Lemon used their platforms to rally folks to action. People made calls, tweeted and protested. The story was told and retold to a growing audience. Then in May, 74 days after the incident, two men were arrested and charged.
The fact that these kinds of stories are being told is a small sign of progress. When you hear the voice of people directly affected by long-standing societal inequities, it’s harder to say you had no idea. It’s harder not to do anything. Knowing that it is possible to raise awareness in the news and in conversations can give us hope to keep going even when we feel discouraged.
Knowing that God calls us through the Holy Spirit not to be afraid of difference can also give us courage. The Holy Spirit doesn’t sweep through the crowd on Pentecost demanding that everyone become the same. Instead it allows the good news of Jesus to be heard in each language that the people know so that they can truly hear it. For Peter and the other disciples it is the beginning of a journey where the Spirit will continue to challenge them to grow to expand their understanding how God’s love extends to all kinds of different people and how really listening to those differences will shape them into the people God is calling them to be.
That Holy Spirit calls to us today to listen as well. It calls us to check ourselves when we get overwhelmed or make assumptions so we can understand another’s perspective. It calls us to begin to allow God’s love to overcome our fear so that hearts and behavior can change. Amen.