Acts 2:1-18 Pentecost Sunday, 2022
A big question about Pentecost is not just, “Did it happen?” But is it still happening? Are we celebrating a past event or the continuing work of the Spirit in the life of the Church? Is God still speaking? God is still speaking has been our “branding” statement for the United Church of Christ for over a decade. It is more than marketing; it is a core theological conviction. We believe truth continues to unfold, and God’s Spirit beckons us. God did not say everything that needed to be told two generations after Jesus, then put it all in one book and then decided to focus on a rebellion in the Dagoba star system. We can’t just memorize the 10 Commandments and think we have wrapped up all we need to know. As William Sloan Coffin put it, too many people use the Bible like a drunk uses a light post – more for support than illumination. God is still speaking means there are still burning bushes to see, still small voices to hear; somewhere, there is another Isaiah whose lips have been touched by a burning coal, who is ready to say, “Here I am, send me.” The Spirit of Moses lives on in the Spirit of Martin, who also went to the mountaintop.
The early Puritans who set out on the Mayflower could not imagine our issues – from global climate change, to privacy issues on the internet, to the inclusion of various gender or sexual identities. But their pastor, John Robinson, said as they boarded that ship from one world to another, “God has yet more light and truth to break forth from the Holy Word.” Those words are a theological vessel that allows us to travel across time, blown by the winds of the Spirit, to adapt and change and love as God intends.
“God is still speaking” is a Pentecostal statement. When you think about the word Pentecostal, what comes to mind? Speaking in tongues, rock bands, and lots of hands in the air. I worshiped with charismatics in college, and it was fun, but my path to God runs more like Quakers. Quakers emphasize listening for God and silently searching for the inner light. If we genuinely believe in a still speaking God, paying attention and listening must be a spiritual practice.
Listening is a part of the Pentecost story. While the disciples were busy speaking in tongues, the crowd was just as surprised that they could hear in their language. This was a crowd of believers, questioners, and questioning believers. Verses 7-8 tell us:
Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?
Great question! How do we hear each other? Galileans communicate, and Medes, Parthians, Libyans, and Cappadocians can all hear. Google these places, and you will see it is the expanse of the ancient Roman world. We might ask -How can Christians, Muslims, and Jews hear each other? How can Democrats and Republicans, no wait, how can Democrats and Democrats, or Republicans and Republicans hear each other? How can parents and children hear each other across the digital divide, and spouses listen to what the other really have to say? We speak the same language, but that doesn’t mean we can hear another person’s experience.
I learned to listen all wrong. As a white male with many privileges and a graduate education, I learned to listen for information, so I could come up with good ideas, my ideas, for better ways to live and do things. Basically, I was trained in seminary to give good advice. That is not so terrible, though it did condition me to fix people. I was not taught to ask ifpeople wanted to be fixed. I was certainly not trained to help people find their own answers. Now I know, though I am still a recovering fixer. Are any other “recovering fixers” out there? We need our own support group. The most powerful thing I learned in psychology class is that empathetic and non-judgmental listening creates the potential for healing, insight, and transformation.
My training as a professional life coach has been a laboratory for learning to listen. The first assumption I learned is that every person can be whole and complete and has the possibility of transformation within them. Using biblical language, I would say that everyone is created in the image of God and therefore emits God in some way. We all have a little divine DNA. Here is the second thing I learned. A good coach seldom gives advice. Even good advice can be wrong when it short-circuits someone’s process. Do you know how hard it is to have someone seek your help and not give them advice? All you can do is mirror what you are hearing or ask questions. To be honest, could you do it? At first, I felt like I was failing people. But I realize that real change happens more from listening, and it is a relief not to feel like I have all the answers. Jesus worked this way too. He asked 308 questions, he was asked 183 questions, and he directly answered on 8 questions. Here is the big reason why it works. A good listening environment where people are free to talk without judgment allows for the Holy Spirit to enter the conversation.
Let’s look more deeply at the Pentecost crowd; some are willing to listen, while others just want to explain away what they don’t understand. Verses 12-13:
12 All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” 13 But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”
When people don’t understand something, they may first assume the speaker is intoxicated! Beware of the first person who answers a question. Occasionally the first answer is the best, but often it is an anxious extrovert who says the first thing that pops into their head. At Pentecost, someone quickly decides everyone is drunk. We all think we understand each other when we are intoxicated. It’s good to step back and breathe a little before answering. A good guideline is the acronym WAIT, W-A-I-T, Why Am I Talking? Think how the world would change if we all asked, “Why am I talking?” before speaking. Fewer apologies are necessary. Boring meetings can move more fluidly. The quiet but creative thinkers can emerge.
Questioners and questioning believers in the crowd are willing to respond with a different questions. “What does this mean?” It’s so much better to start with curiosity than judgment. Begin with “why.” Things often fail because we don’t ask why and clarify the purpose. Misunderstandings happen when we don’t explore the meaning behind another person’s thoughts and behavior. We just think they are so out of line that they must be drunk because we don’t understand.
What would it mean to be a church known for its deep listening?
Let’s hear Peter’s interpretation of the Pentecost moment, quoting from the prophet Joel:
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.
To whom does God speak? Look at what the text says. It doesn’t say God only speaks to experts, clergy, theologians, or only people who have been church members for at least 20 years. All gender identities, all generations, and all socioeconomic levels. If this is true, then the Church must be where all voices have a seat at the table. Who knew that the Bible was postmodern even before the modern world was invented? Postmodernism holds that all agents have validity and equal privilege, not just white males or wealthy voices. What postmodernists haven’t figured out is the listening side of things. Being attentive to one another is somewhere the Church can find new relevance. What if we define ourselves as a people who can listen intently, a place that is a container for many voices to speak, that we are a people who know how to listen and discern. Being Church doesn’t mean we have all the answers, and everything must start with “Thus sayeth the Lord.” Instead, we could be people who listen to understand how God might be speaking through another, even someone with whom we struggle. A church where everyone agrees isn’t very interesting. A church that deeply listens will be a place of transformation.
Do you want to be amazed and astonished like the crowd at Pentecost? Stop and listen, for wondrous things surround us. Ask the questions, “How is it that we can hear each other? What does this mean?” If you believe that God is still speaking, then our most powerful calling is to be fully present, deep listeners, and masters of the art of sacred conversation.