When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.”
All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”
But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you,
and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: ‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.
Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’
Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and to the other apostles, “Brothers, what should we do?” Peter said to them, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.” And he testified with many other arguments and exhorted them, saying, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” So those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added.
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.
Many and One
With Pentecost fast approaching, I needed a story about overcoming language barriers, so earlier in the week I sent an email to my brother-in-law. Eric is so fluent in Russian that he is mistaken for a native-speaker when he travels in Eastern Europe, and I wondered if he might have tales to share of encounters there. But his reply, when it came, described a language barrier much closer to home.
Eric is a fascinating person. As an undergraduate, he dropped out of Princeton just short of graduating with a degree in Slavic languages, and went to work as a secretary in the math department. There he picked-up enough advanced mathematics to co-author papers in peer-reviewed journals. He learned to program, and developed a distributed file system that went on to be used by Lawrence Livermore Labs and eventually was acquired by Hewlett-Packard.
You may have gleaned that Eric is curious about many things. When we first met, he was seriously considering seminary.
But a few years ago, Eric committed to using data and technology to help local governments better serve their communities. He took a big pay-cut and now manages data and analytics for the City of Asheville, where he has done pioneering work in making city budget data available in user-friendly formats.
The email he shared with me described an encounter he had with leaders of the Emma Community in Asheville, a strong, largely Latinx neighborhood, which is concerned with the pattern of replacing mobile home parks with condominiums and commercial properties. Eric wrote:
“What comes to mind is … a meeting a couple of months ago with folks … that I’ve been collaborating with. I and a colleague went to their community center to learn more about how they are trying to use data in their advocacy efforts. The leadership is mostly bilingual, but several are weak in English, so all meetings have interpreters and everyone speaks whatever language they’re most comfortable with. [A woman named] Rocio Alvite was speaking in Spanish and I was listening to the interpretation in the headset, but also listening to the Spanish. [It’s] hard to explain…, but the whole experience and that particular moment felt holy…: listening to the beautiful Spanish at the same time that I was understanding what she was saying because of the interpretation in my ear.”
[Then] at one point in the meeting I addressed a question to one of the interpreters. Everyone sort of laughed and explained to me that the interpreters are supposed to be invisible, not part of the conversation. Their only role is to translate so that the participants are able to understand one another.” Eric went on to write: “Sometimes I feel like the [place of someone] like me, [someone] who manages to pick up a little bit of understanding of the perspectives of [those] who are marginalized in our current system, [that part] is similar to that of interpreter. Ideally, I should be invisible, my only role: to help those who are privileged by the system to understand what those-who-are-not are trying to say.”
Which takes us back to Pentecost: Luke tells us that there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. These weren’t pilgrims traveling through for a festival, these were immigrants trying to make a life in a place far from home. Likely they all would have spoken Greek. Greek was the language of the Roman occupation; it was the language of commerce. But the Holy Spirit did not settle for Greek. The Holy Spirit opened a pathway so that each immigrant in Jerusalem could hear the gospel in the language of their birth—in the tongue in which they dreamed and teased, cried out in pain and made love—in the languages that made unfettered worship possible. The Holy Spirit connected to each person’s deepest identity.
This, my friends, is the first work God gave to the fledgling church—to be conduits for the power of God—to connect in the heart language of each stranger in their midst. God put those early believers in a position to let words of grace and mercy and life flow through them, so that each person listening might be able to say: “God reaches me in the most intimate way. God’s deeds of power are not fully expressed, not fully known, without my language and experience. I am needed. I belong.”
I suspect this is still a primary task of Christ’s church. It wasn’t easy then and it is not easy now, but on Pentecost God gave us a picture of what it looks like when the church is inhabited by the Holy Spirit—when we act, together, as the Body of Christ.
The story of Pentecost is one of the most familiar in the New Testament; we hear it virtually every year—but a detail lodged in my heart on this reading that had not taken root in the past. Luke tells us that 3000 persons were added to the community as a result of the Spirit’s coming. He also tells us that the original community was about 120 persons. What I hadn’t considered until this reading was that on that day, the church became a minority-majority community. The original group was overwhelmed by new converts who spoke new languages and brought new ideas. Community and mission needed to be forged again in this new context, and Luke tells us just how they did it. He says that they studied together, and ate together, prayed together and played together. They forged real relationships.
Lee and I got a taste of that possibility last year.
Not long after our son, Nate, started graduate school, we began to hear stories about a woman named Luiza, a student in the same program. It wasn’t long before she was traveling home with him when he came for holidays. We loved Luiza from the start but did not meet her parents until we traveled to Boston for graduation. We knew that she had come to this country from Brazil at the age of seven. We knew that she had grown up in a Portuguese-speaking community on Martha’s Vineyard, and that her father, in particular, spoke little English. Everyone was cordial as both families gathered to share graduation day, but we found few ways to really connect.
Then in October of last year we traveled to Martha’s Vineyard, where Nate and Luiza had taken jobs as therapists at a community mental health center. Luiza sees mostly Portuguese-speaking clients; Nate works in English. The first night we were on the island, Luiza’s parents took us to a lovely restaurant. The food was fabulous, but again, we left with little sense of connection. The plan was for all of us to meet at another restaurant on the final night of our visit, but that morning Luiza announced that her parents wanted us to come to their home instead. We were to come in the mid-afternoon.
That visit changed everything. In his own home, Josenildo came alive. He cooked for us, he showed us the house he had remodeled, the yard he had landscaped, the company he had built from scratch. It was not easy, but he found ways to communicate with us. Maria brought out a battered stack of photo albums, and we began to piece together their story: that when there had seemed to be no opportunities in Rio, Josenildo had left his family behind. Intending to go to Paris he had stopped instead in New York. At first, he shined shoes. When summer came and his customer-base thinned out, he asked where everyone had gone. He was told “Martha’s Vineyard,” so he got on a bus, then on a ferry, and made his way.
At night he cleaned a grocery store, during the day he worked as a laborer. In time, he scraped together enough to send for his family. Once they were reunited, Luiza remembers that her father worked all the time, hardly sleeping. The family stayed with one friend after another—in whatever room could be spared. He saved every possible dollar until he could persuade a bank to give him a loan. As you might suspect, the interest rate was not competitive. He took it anyway.
By the time we met Luiza’s parents, though, this seemed like ancient history. They now have a lovely home, a thriving commercial painting business, and a daughter with two master’s degrees, who is determined to use what she knows to help other immigrants.
The afternoon was so animated and delightful that I hated to see the sun slip toward the horizon, but eventually we were called to the kitchen, where someone indicated that I should pray. A female pastor is outside this family’s experience, but they asked anyway. We bowed our heads, I offered the words I had, and then everyone murmured “Amen.”
Gathered around the table, we feasted on seafood caught that morning, wonderful Brazilian dishes, along with an incongruous bowl of mashed potatoes, served as a gesture of hospitality. We lingered late into the evening. We heard Josenildo tease our son and argue politics with his daughter. Josenildo and Maria dared to be vulnerable with us, to invite us to their table, and so we have begun to be family.
Luke maintains that God’s Spirit will be poured out upon all flesh—that people we never would have expected will turn out to be prophets, inviting us into God’s future, teaching us what it means to be a family with many perspectives, many languages, one Spirit. As we hear that sometimes bewildering cacophony, may we listen closely for the Spirit’s whisper in our ear.