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  • Writer's pictureRev. Caroline Barnett

Unfamiliar Places

Acts 2:1-21

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.’

The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.


Even though the apostles do most of the talking in this passage, I don’t think it’s really about them.

Experiencing fire and wind and the sudden ability to speak new languages is a miracle, but it’s not really a miracle for them. The apostles don’t need any help communicating with each other. They’re all from the same place: Galilee. And because the official language of the Roman Empire is Greek, they might have spoken some of it if they wanted to get their message across to other people who lived in the multi-lingual Jerusalem

And if the Holy Spirit wanted to make things easy for the apostles, she might have made everyone able to understand the language the apostles speak: Aramaic.

But the Holy Spirit doesn’t do that, which makes me think, as miraculous as this is, Pentecost is not a miracle for the apostles.

But it might be for the people who gathered around them.

Imagine for a moment, that you are living in Jerusalem in the first century. Like in some big cities even today, many who live in Jerusalem are not from there originally. And so, though you’ve lived in Jerusalem for a while now, your home is in Judea or Pamphlyia or Cappadocia. You might like living in Jerusalem, but it still might not feel like home.

In Jerusalem, a city with a lot of different people and cultures, it can be difficult to figure out where you belong. Not everyone speaks your language, and it can be challenging to communicate beyond basic greetings and asking for directions. Communication is more frustrating than informational, another reminder that you don’t quite fit in. Not everyone understands where you come from.

Because language is more than words and grammar. It is how we describe who we are and how we see the world. It’s culture and community. It’s home and belonging. It’s the shorthand we use with family, the inside jokes we tell with friends, the nicknames we give our favorite people. If someone doesn’t understand where we are coming from, if they don’t have the same word associations we do — it can feel like we are speaking different languages even if we are using the same language.

To live in a place, where you might be able to communicate, but you are rarely able to be understood, I imagine that is incredibly lonely.

So it’s nothing short of a miracle when you are living in a strange place and hear your native language out of the mouth of someone else.

The miracle of Pentecost is not that the apostles are suddenly gifted speakers, able to tell anyone and everyone about God’s power. The miracle is that God’s power, through the Holy Spirit, can speak to us in ways we understand, even when we find ourselves in unfamiliar places.

God’s first language is the language of belonging.

So, it’s not a miracle for the apostles; they just happen to be the device through which God speaks.

But Christians have run into some trouble when we begin to see ourselves not as a conductor of God’s love, but the official translator for the Holy Spirit.

Throughout history and still to this day, Christians have had a tendency to believe we know who belongs to God and who doesn’t— whether it is because of their race, gender, sexuality, or any other thing that makes a person who they are. And we’ve made certain that the people who the Church believe don’t belong know it. And sometimes, the Church has not been very good at recognizing that there many ways to speak about God and faith, that our own language is not the only that is pleasing to God. Nowhere in this Pentecost story does God say everyone must speak like the apostles to belong.

When the Church places itself as the official translator of the Spirit, well it has leads to a lot of self-centeredness and ego, to ugly fights and schisms, and hurting the people Christ calls us to love: God’s children.

But through all our human squabbling and power grabs, the Church persists, sometimes I think in spite of itself. God continues to work through this imperfect vessel, God continues to work through us, even when we try to make it all about ourselves.

Pentecost and the birth and life of the Church is not about what the apostles did or we do, it’s about how the Holy Spirit can tell people they belong as just they are, speaking directly to them in words they understand, even if we don’t.

The Holy Spirit was at work in first century Jerusalem, and she was also at work in Gander, Newfoundland nineteen years ago.

After the terrorist attacks on the Word Trade Center in 2001, 38 planes that were mid-flight that day were diverted to the small town of Gander, nearly doubling the population with stranded passengers. In the broadway musical Come From Away, which tells the stories of what happened in Gander, townspeople stopped everything to make food, set up shelters, and care for their unexpected guests who had no idea where they were or when they were leaving.

It’s about as unfamiliar as unfamiliar can get, and made more complicated because not everyone spoke the same language. And so when a bus driver takes a group of African passengers to a community center for the night, he has no way of telling them they are safe and that this is where they can find food and rest. And the passengers look out the windows of their bus and all they see is darkness, and they have no way of asking the very basic question: “Where are we going?”

Everyone is anxious, no one knows how to proceed. But then the bus driver notices something: A passenger is holding a Bible in her hands. Though it’s written in a language he can’t read, the numbering is universal, and so he opens it up to Philippians 4:6 and offers it back to the woman to read.

The verse says: "Be anxious for nothing."

He points to the verse and to the community center, and back to verse.

"Be anxious for nothing."

They begin to speak each others languages and, even if they don’t fully understand completely, they form a community.

We are in an unfamiliar place right now. We’ve never been here before— having to upend our routines to keep the community healthy.

We’ve never done church on YouTube and the radio before March, and we’ve never had communion virtually before today.

It’s all very unfamiliar, and I’m grateful we can do this together, and take it one day at a time.

And someday we will gather today again. But it will also be unfamiliar because it will be something different than it has in the past. Worship and how we gather will have to change due to our circumstance. We ourselves have also been changed because of this.

But no matter what we do, no matter how we choose to worship God, the Holy Spirit will be there, making unfamiliar places feel like home.

No matter what, the Holy Spirit is with us and with those who don’t speak like us, and she says: "You, and everyone who is listening, you belong right here."

Thanks be to God. Amen.

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