By The Rev. Charles Hoffacker
Last week as I walked through an airport concourse, I saw a display case full of matching yellow boxes, each with the name of a language prominently displayed upon it. At this counter, a traveler could purchase a set of tapes for learning any of a number of the world’s major languages. With these tapes, plus time and persistence, it was possible to become, if not fluent, then at least familiar, with the everyday speech of millions of people.
What’s available for sale at that airport counter comes free to the first disciples on the Day of Pentecost. The Holy Spirit of God fills them so that they speak diverse languages recognized by the cosmopolitan crowd thronging the streets of Jerusalem. People in the crowd are bewildered to hear folks from nearby Galilee talking in languages from all around the Mediterranean basin.
The Galileans speak out in ways that moments before were unfamiliar to them. Without resort to the yellow boxes I saw, they have suddenly become masters of strange speech. Yet what happens on this first Christian Pentecost has to do not only with language, but also with content. The Galileans are not making small talk. They are announcing God’s latest deeds of power. They are declaring that Jesus the messiah has conquered death.
Yet even more is going on. Each member of the original Christian community has found his or her own voice. Below the language spoken, below the content of what is said, this is the foundation for their extraordinary outburst.
Because each life was open and waiting for the Spirit, because the Spirit’s flame touched each person, each one speaks now with new authenticity, new authority. Each one has found his or her own voice. What they speak cannot stay inside the confines of conventional language. New languages are required. The divine reality shatters the containers of human speech, demanding fresh expression, new words, new syntax.
Both sides are blessed. Speakers are shocked to find their true voices, a gift to them from God. Listeners are shocked to hear firsthand a message from heaven, that God is active here and now.
A SUBSCRIBER SAYS: “I wish I’d had your service so many years ago. I was doing some research for teaching a class on the lectionary this coming Sunday and your material is fantastic for its insights. You settled the question about the differences between ‘whoever is not with me is against me’ and ‘whoever is not against US is with us.’ I had a confrontation with a troubled person two decades ago on that very point. I wish I’d had your insights back then.”
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There are ways in which the events of the first Pentecost are unique. Their uniqueness may make this feast of Pentecost seem safe to us, a harmless diversion. But the events of the first Pentecost–and today’s celebration of them–are anything but safe, because they help us recognize that God is active here and now, upsetting our small consistencies.
One way God takes action involves people finding their own voices. I am not referring to people whose speech is impaired because of a problem medical science can diagnose. I mean that people find their voice because they accept their life’s truth, and they speak out on that basis.
To accept the truth of one’s own life is a great challenge and a continuing task. It means turning from a multitude of outside influences, influences that may be oppressive, or ill-informed, or simply irrelevant. Accepting your life’s truth means honoring yourself, not the confused surface self, but the deeper, nearly inaccessible self, the one which, if certain mystics are to be believed, is never out of touch with God.
When we honor this truth, then we speak with our own voice, and we do so in a way that benefits both ourselves and our neighbors. What we say shatters the confines of language. Words are no longer simply words, cheap and plentiful; they serve their purpose as pointers to truth.
Using their own voice is what great artists do. This is what distinguishes them from hacks. It’s not hard to recognize when the music is Mozart or the poetry is Shakespeare; each one has his own voice. In the same way, using our voice is what each of us must do in the artistry of living life. We cannot become a second Shakespeare, a second Mozart, but even better we can become ourselves, the first and only one of our kind. We can be authentic, we can be real. Doing this is the human task. It is a gift from God.
The first Christians recognize that the truth of their lives is not found outside the death and resurrection of Jesus. The life of each of them, for all its rugged uniqueness, makes sense only when Christ’s suffering and triumph appear as the background, the stage that frames the story.
Through days to come, these believers discover that the more they enter into the mystery of Jesus suffering and triumphant, the more they recognize the truth of their lives; and the more they enter into their own unique and unavoidable truth, the more they find there the paschal pattern of “dying, and behold, we live” [2 Corinthians 6:9]. The first Christian generations experience this, some to the point of martyrdom. A few, including Paul, write about it in what become the books of the New Testament.
So as Christians we find this truth which strangely belongs to our lives and yet also belongs to Christ. Insofar as we set aside alternatives and access this truth, it becomes the basis for what we say. Working through our lives and our speech, the Spirit sent by Christ shatters the boundaries of language for us, bringing about new life, life abundant.
This world contains speech that is confused and untruthful. Some of it uses the vocabulary of faith. Speech becomes confused and confusing when people have not found their voices, when the truth of their lives remains alien to them. Here in our time, the tower of Babel remains a popular place.
Authentic Christianity means claiming the truth of our lives and speaking with our own voices. This process makes room for the Spirit to act–in us and through us.
When we dare to claim the truth of our lives and speak with no voice other than our own, our authenticity rings out loud and clear, shattering the language barriers that separate us from others. When this happens, then other people hear, perhaps for the first time, how God is alive not only in our lives, but in their own as well.
Let us pray.
Holy Spirit, fire from heaven, so illuminate our storehouses of memory and hope that we may discover Christ there as we look for the truth of our lives.
Holy Spirit, filling us anew, may we find our voices and speak in new languages, so that others will hearken to the God who waits for them.
Holy Spirit, gift of power, make us bold enough to be ourselves, ready to act in ways that reveal us as your image in the world.
Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.
Copyright 2006, Charles Hoffacker. Used by permission.