Last weekend I was a special guest at the annual convention of the Episcopal Diocese of Honduras, and all during the long flight down there, and the journey by pickup truck from the airport to the diocesan camp and conference center out on the Caribbean coast, I kept thinking about what I was going to say to the convention when the time came for me to speak. Because I had a pretty good idea that I would be given the opportunity, not for a lengthy speech, but for a couple of minutes to make some courteous remarks appropriate to the occasion: greetings from Bishop Beisner and all of us in the Diocese of Northern California; gratitude to Bishop Allen of Honduras and everyone there for their warmth and hospitality; hope that the companion relationship between our dioceses would continue and grow stronger in the future—you know, that sort of thing.
And sure enough, on Friday night after dinner, Bishop Allen asked me if I wanted to get up and say a few words during his address to the convention the following morning. The opportunity came pretty much exactly as I had expected, so you might wonder why I had wasted so much time worrying about what I was going to say. Well, because I had decided to give my remarks in Spanish. Some of you know that I started studying Spanish seriously about eight years ago. Which is one of the reasons why Bishop Beisner asked me to go and represent him at the diocesan convention in Honduras. Moreover, I’d already made plans to go there during my sabbatical later this summer, partly to improve on my Spanish, and partly to learn more about the work Episcopal diocese there. So I jumped at the chance to make this brief initial trip, to get a little bit of the lay of the land, and make some acquaintances.
It was out of that desire to open doors that I decided that if I did get the chance to speak to the convention, I was going do it in Spanish. And I wouldn’t write my remarks out ahead of time, but would deliver them in an impromptu conversational style. That was why I spent so much time beforehand going over in my mind what I would say, and how I was going to say it. But it turned out, of course, I really need not have worried. Not because I ended up giving a flawless performance. There were things I had meant to say but forgot about in the heat of the moment; and there were other things I did say, only awkwardly, after fumbling for the right word, or the correct grammar. Still, when I was done Bishop Allen thanked me for what I’d said, and for taking the risk of saying it in what obviously not, as he put it, my “mother tongue.”
The twelve apostles take the same risk in the story of Pentecost. I think we often assume that because the power to speak in different languages came from the Holy Spirit, they must have spoken them perfectly. And yet the story says that the people in the crowd that gathered were doubly amazed, because the apostles both spoke to them in their various native tongues, and did so with Galilean accents. And it seems that their syntax was a little jumbled, and their pronunciations a little slurred, because some of the bystanders got the impression that they were drunk. All of which says something important about the way the Holy Spirit works. It gave the apostles the power to communicate with strangers from many foreign lands, but in using that gift they remained the persons they always were—those rough and rude, poorly-educated, fishermen from Galilee.
Which is precisely the point of the passage from the prophets that Peter quotes to explain to the crowd what is happening—that before that great and glorious day when God makes his power and judgment unmistakably manifest on earth, the spirit of prophecy will come on all kinds of people. Young men will see visions and old men will dream dreams; your sons and daughters, even your slaves, both male and female, will be filled with the prophetic Spirit, and speak the truth that comes from God. And it is this great outbreak of divine communication with humanity, this democratization of the power to see and know and speak and hear and understand the hidden things of God, that is the real miracle of Pentecost.
I was able to connect more effectively with the Episcopalians in Honduras, not just because I spoke in Spanish, but also because my Spanish was not all that good. This broke down to some degree the unspoken dynamics of inequality built into our relationship by the legacy of colonialism, so we could see eye-to-eye, heart-to-heart, as sisters and brothers. In a similar way, the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the apostles, does not transform them into higher beings of perfection and light. It does not turn them into flawlessly fluent speakers of Parthian, but uses these ordinary and imperfect channels to open the crowd in Jerusalem to receive its message.
And even though each of them heard it in a different tongue, the Holy Spirit’s message was the same to all. It did not require an extensive vocabulary of subtle theological terms, or a grammatically complex sequence of logical proofs. This message was a new communication that would revolutionize the world, of who God is and how God acts, and yet it came upon the crowd that day with so much spiritual power precisely because it was so simple. It was as deceptively simple as a really good story. And that’s what it was—a story; a story of God’s love for us. It told how God communicated that love by taking the risk of speaking our language, becoming one of us, to meet us face-to-face, heart-to-heart, in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.
The Holy Spirit’s message told how Jesus did not set himself above us, but came as one who shared the disappointment of the poor, the loneliness of the outcast, the sorrows of the bereaved, and the suffering of the oppressed. He struggled against the religious, economic, and political powers of his day, with no weapon but the truth of God, and the faith of the little ones who believed in him. He carried out that struggle to the death, to his own ignominious death on the cross. Through it all Jesus never ceased to love God, never stopped offering himself to be an instrument of God’s will, never gave up hope that God would be faithful to his promises. And God was faithful. For Jesus’ sake, God broke the chains of death that hold us all in bondage, and raised this same Jesus to the life of a new and glorious body, exalting him to heaven where even now he sits enthroned as the gracious and merciful Lord and judge of the world.
The miracle of Pentecost is that the fishermen told this story—in different languages, with poor pronunciation, awkward syntax, and thick Galilean accents—and many of the people in that crowd knew that it was true. The truth of it poured into them, like water sinking into cracked and thirsty ground. And to their amazement they felt an answering response within; the welling up deep inside them of something that they had almost forgotten was there, as if a heavy lid had been removed from an ever-flowing spring. The Gospel of John says that the Holy Spirit will flow like rivers of living water from those who believe in Jesus.
But our translation is a bit misleading when it says this water will come out of our hearts. Because the original Greek literally says that rivers of living water will flow out of our wombs. The Holy Spirit is a fire, burning away all illusions and ignorance that blind us to God’s truth. But it is also water, dissolving hardness of heart, eroding the dam that obstructs the flow of God’s love. We who drink in the story of Jesus discover a God who loves us with the compassion of a mother for her child. This God, the Holy Spirit, not only pours over us, as compassion for our suffering, our fears and weaknesses and limitations; it flows out of us as life-giving rivers of compassion toward all who, like us, are mortal and sorrowful, lonely and afraid. And there can be no mistaking what is meant by this symbol of water bursting forth from our wombs—it is this Holy Spirit, that we know in the self-giving love and compassion of Jesus, that will give birth to a new world.