Readings Acts 2:1-17 and Revelation 21: 1-6, 22-26
Pentecost arrives with a bang! The Spirit is poured out upon the disciples, hovering over them like tongues of fire. They begin to proclaim the good news to the crowd gathered in the city from across the known world, and each person in the crowd hears the proclamation in their own native language.
In this moment, one of the great truths of the faith is confirmed: Christianity is a translating religion. All languages and all cultures are suitable for housing and proclaiming the gospel. Christianity does not have a holy language: not the Hebrew of the Old Testament, nor the Greek of the New, nor even the Aramaic that Jesus spoke. No language is more suitable or sanctified, more holy or hallowed, more appropriate or accurate.
The gospel of our Lord, the good news of salvation, the form and language of worship, theology, and witness is meant to be translated. Not only in different places, but in different times.
Pentecost is the blessing of cultural diversity. It instructs the church as it goes forth that it does not need to impose a language or culture on another in order for the good news to be heard (sadly the church has often forgotten this message).
Indeed far from being commissioned with a colonial or imperial task, Pentecost’s blessing of cultural diversity and the plurality of language, provides an invitation to the church to celebrate and learn from difference. We are commended to ask how might other cultural practices and stories deepen our understanding of the good news (for instance, how might deeply communal cultures with a strong connection to place and nature – such as Indigenous peoples here in these lands – help us to see where our own culture has become too individualised, self-sufficient, and self-interested to receive the fullness of the gospel). We are similarly commended to consider how another language might enrich our comprehension of the great words of our faith (words that have for some become so common – or so loaded – to have lost their power and precision. Words like hope, sin, grace, forgiveness, peace, love can be bolstered through learning the way these words are parsed, constructed, and understood in other times and places).
It is also important to note that Pentecost is not a standalone moment in the story of God – it is not distinct in the truth it conveys. This most remarkable event points backwards and forwards in Scripture to show us that this diversity of language and culture is not a blip or concession on the part of God.
In the shadow of Pentecost we look back to the story of Babel and see that the sin of that great city was in their efforts to resist God’s mandate to humanity to spread across the earth. Their failure was in their desire to be singular, to eradicate difference through stasis. God frustrated their language so that they would be forced to spread, to become different. And in the blazing light of Pentecost we also look forward to the coming of the new city. We heard in our reading that gates of the great city of God will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there. People will bring into it the glory and the honour of the nations.
The picture here is not of uniformity – there is peace, there is harmony, but the image is one of an open and hospitable city ready to receive the gifts of difference, ready to receive what is glorious and honourable in the other nations. People will come in and out freely and peacefully. In this the hope of creation and the promise of Pentecost is fully realised; the beauty of our difference, the holiness of our diversity, the splendour of our uniqueness carries on into eternity. As those fearfully and wonderfully made, the cultures and languages we develop reflect the generous creativity of God who made not one tree, but an abundance of trees, in so many shades of green one could list them for days!
Of course, no culture is perfect, but this serves as just another reason that each is suitable to receive the gospel, because in that reception the opportunity arises to have what is good and true and beautiful confirmed and celebrated, and what is malformed and malevolent exposed in order to be judged and refined.
So what does this mean for us at the Kirk?
The first thing Pentecost reminds us is that we must remain open. Our style of worship, our ways of being church are not the only one’s fit to worship and honour God. The language we use to speak of God does not exhaust what there is to say about God, nor does it take precedent over other ways of speaking just because it is more common or more familiar to us. We must remain open to critique from others, open, for example, to hear the challenge that when our Christianity has come too accommodated to the surrounding culture. We must remain open to being challenged when we start to assume that the way we have always done something is the only way to do it. Pentecost reminds us that the Spirit is poured out on all flesh, and that includes the people we’d least expect have something to teach us about what it means to follow Jesus. Pentecost reminds us: listen – the Spirit might be doing something quite remarkable in a group of people who – for all intents and purposes – seem to be drunk at 9am.
The second thing Pentecost reminds us is that we too are invited to bring our riches into the holy city. Our stories, our gifts, our love, our own manifold and personal ways of being a Christian and witnessing to the good news are glorious and honourable and ready to be received. We don’t have to be cookie-cutter Christians, don’t have to commit to memory a particular way of confessing our faith, don’t have to be a Christian in the same way as our neighbour or our parents and grandparents. We get to bring our whole selves – filled with passions and experiences and quirks into the city of God and say “look, this is how I have lived for you.”
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