Day of Pentecost
June 12, 2011
St. Thomas Episcopal Church
Psalm 104:25-35, 37
I’ve always been fascinated with people who can speak multiple languages. I cannot. I’ve tried Spanish, French, and Bosnian and each time it is a great struggle for me. I never got much beyond counting, basic greetings and courtesy phrases, and a few nouns, food mostly. But I love to listen to other people speak foreign languages, to listen and watch for any clue as to what is being said by tone, facial expression, and gestures and I get quite excited when I catch the occasional recognizable word.
There is a Greek Orthodox Church in Toronto that I’ve been to a few times – it’s a beautiful place. The interior is completely covered with icons telling Bible stories and depicting various Church Fathers and Saints. Looking up into the dome you see the most wonderful icon of Jesus on his throne, larger than life yet at the same time not anywhere near big enough. The priest, Father Stavros, is fluent in English, Greek, and Iconography. He gave me and some of my classmates a “tour” one day of the icons, interpreting their language to us, teaching us how to understand the message of faith and belief that they convey without any words – every detail has meaning, the posture and hand position of the person represented, the items they are holding, the placement of objects and people in the scenes, the intentional distortion of certain human features. One of my classmates and I attended a service there during Lent. It was of course, in Greek. But the flow of the service was familiar enough to what we know as Anglicans that for the most part we knew what was going on even if we couldn’t understand all of the words. As we were listening to the clergy, the cantor, and the congregation speaking, singing and responding to each other, I could have sworn that all of the sudden I heard one sentence spoken by the priest in English and as he uttered it I remember wondering, wow, have I been listening so intently that I can now understand Greek? A few minutes later, I thought I heard English again, just a single sentence and then back to Greek. And then a third time. I thought: “this must be what Pentecost was like!” When the service was over and we were walking home, I asked my friend, somewhat hesitantly “did you hear any part of the service in English?” He admitted he did too and we concluded that for whatever reason, the priest had spoken a few sentences in English and that we hadn’t really understood the Greek, but it didn’t stop us from feeling like we’d been given a glimpse of what the disciples must have felt that day in Jerusalem as they received through the Holy Spirit what they needed to speak the Language of God to all people.
But, what is the language of God? Dr. Francis Collins, head of the human genome project said he felt he could glimpse the Language of God in the coding of human DNA; some people believe that we can hear God’s voice in all of his creation; Some believe that can happen only in a church; St. Benedict would say that God can be heard in even the most mundane of tasks. God’s word is creational, He spoke creation into being; He spoke and Sarah conceived Isaac; He spoke and rescued the Israelites from slavery in Egypt; He gave his word to Moses and the prophets of Israel; He sent his Word, His son Jesus into the human race to teach us his language so that we can not only speak it to the world around us but so that we can hear it all around us.
We celebrate the Day of Pentecost every year to remind us that it is through the gift of the Holy Spirit that we are both enabled to hear the language of God and to speak it. The Spirit entered the room where the disciples waited as a wind that filled not only the room, it filled each of the disciples as well. In his gospel, John describes Jesus breathing on the disciples as the Spirit filled them. The Greek word John uses is the same word that is used in the Greek translation of Genesis 2 when God forms the first man from the dust of the earth and breathes life into him. The language of God, through the breath of the Spirit, re-created, transformed the disciples to the enfleshed Word of God. God’s language creates and transforms all who hear it. His Word requires some sort of response from everyone. God’s language is word and action as the same time.
For most of us, it is in Church that we first learn to hear the language of God, through Bible study and through participation in worship. Just as every detail of the iconography of the Greek Orthodox church has meaning, so does every detail of the Eucharist service that we participate in. When we open ourselves to recognizing God’s language in more than just words, we hear him not only in the reading and proclamation of His Holy Word but also in the passing of the peace, in the actions of the Eucharist, and in the faces of everyone we encounter both in this place and outside those doors.
Jesus didn’t just fill the room with the Spirit, he filled the disciples. He didn’t tell them they could only experience the Spirit in the upper room. He told them “as the Father sent me, so I send you.” The Spirit filled the disciples; it fills US, so that it is as much a part of us as our very breath, so that we carry it with us, so that with every breath we can be aware that we share the Spirit of God not only in our words but in who we are. We don’t have to think about breathing, for most of us it just happens. When we intentionally think of our breathing, we also become aware bit by bit of what is going on with the rest of our being as well. That is why meditation and centering prayer begin with breathing.
So what would happen if we intentionally tried to think to ourselves “how am I experiencing the Spirit of God in this time and this place? Am I intentionally listening for the Language of God in myself and others?”
How many of you noticed the mints in the pews when you came in? What did you think when you saw them? Did you think perhaps the VBS kids left a mess? Did you wonder who left them? Did you think of Bill Traylor? Did you think of them as a gift? Or did you just move them out of the way? I always considered these mints to be part of the Language of God that our friend Bill was so fluent in, little symbols of the way he cared for each human he encountered as if they were Christ himself. And, yes, they are red, and yes, when you put one in your mouth, you feel a fire in your breath. What better illustration for Pentecost and the fire and breath of the Holy Spirit?
God speaks through wind and fire and in stillness and quiet. He speaks within these walls and in the world outside. He speaks in joyous times and painful times. God speaks and the world IS, we ARE. Our task, yours and mine, is to intentionally listen so that we are transformed by His language so that our very lives interpret who He is to the world.