Liberating Pentecost

Liberating Pentecost May 22, 2012


Fire! Fire! by David Hogg

God speaks.

And the people understood.

This confused them.

In a nutshell, this is Pentecost, or at least, the most intriguing detail of the famous Acts story. But too often this significant detail gets lost in the celebration of rushing wind, fiery tongues and the so-called birth of the church.

The disciples had gathered in Jerusalem during the festival of Shavuot. Pilgrims from around the known world had gathered for the celebration when suddenly the disciples burst forth into the packed streets. From the mouths of a bunch of uncouth, uneducated, disreputable Galileans come a multilingual message of all the magnificent works of God. During a festival celebrating the Torah, law of God given and unified in a single language and people, the Divine voice breaks through and speaks in an unmatched diversity of languages.

And each person heard and understood – in their native tongue no less – the message of God. That much is clear from the text.

What confused the people wasn’t the message. What confused them was that they all understood it.

And so they ask what does it all mean?

Peter answers with the Christian gospel.

I’m convinced he gave them the wrong answer.

I’m not saying the Christian gospel is wrong or backwards, to be clear. I’m just saying that he didn’t really answer their question. The people didn’t want to know what the disciples thought the message of God was. They had already heard and understood God’s message in their own languages. What they wanted to know was what, in God’s name, did it mean that they could all understand it.

What did it mean that the voice of God had spoken outside of the divine language of the Torah? What did it mean that the message of God had broken through the levees of the religious elites in the Temple and spoken in all the angelic tongues of humanity? What did it mean that the voice of God was not reserved for the imperial Latin of the oppressors?

What did it mean that God spoke in the tongues of the powerless? What did it mean that God gave the divine voice to the languages of a bunch of nobodies?

Let’s us not forget the importance and power of language, how forbidding religious language in native and indigenous tongues has marred with cynical imperialism Christianity’s history of missionary activity. Let us not forget how oppressive regimes the world over have rubbed out indigenous languages as a means of maintaining power and authority, have forbidden children to speak their mother tongue, have tried to stamp out the language that binds together a rival culture.

Pentecost is about that most Christian of concepts. It is about liberation. In many ways, it continues Jesus’ work as the liberator of God’s love for all people, his work that circumvented the powerful religious elites who exploited the people of God by holding access to the Temple at arm’s length. It continues Jesus’ work of transforming the transcendent God into an immanent one.

So what does it all mean?

It means that God has been liberated by Christ.

It means that God still speaks and those who find themselves in imperial cultures might to well to participate in Pentecost with open ears and listen for the voice of God among the powerless, among the oppressed, among the nobodies.

It means to listen, and be changed.

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  • cassandratoday

    Excellent! I love it!

  • OK, I have to admit, when I first saw the title for this blog post, I ran the other way. You know we don’t always see eye to eye on things, and growing up in a very strong “Pentecostal” environment, I was nervous to read this. But, I was pleasantly surprised. I think you nailed it as far as what Pentecost and what Jesus really did–bring hope and freedom. And from a “Pentecostal” perspective, so little was taught in the churches I attended other than the speaking in tongues part… which is a significant part, but so much of the message of power and liberty through Jesus, I believe, has been left by the wayside. And I get what you’re saying about Paul, but I understand the importance for him to confront religious leaders in front of the crowds and connect Jesus and the outpouring as fulfillment of prophecies.

  • Pastor Randy

    Your overall message is brilliant – shining light on the inclusive message of our Lord: that His grace is available to all, and emphasizing those who are marginalized.
    However, two of your statements are objectionable:
    1. “I’m convinced [Peter] gave them the wrong answer.” — While the Bible itself is not to be worshiped, it is the inspired word, and deserves our respect. The specific text you refer to here, Peter’s sermon on that first Pentecost following Jesus’ resurrection, follows the disciples’ speaking in languages all could understand, and then “They were all surprised and bewildered. Some asked each other, ‘What does this mean?’ Others jeered at them, saying, ‘They’re full of new wine!’ ” (Acts 2:12-13). And in that sermon, as a part of the quote from the prophet Joel, Peter DID answer the question: “And EVERYONE who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Acts 2:21, emphasis added). Be careful not to let your individual arrogance color your interpretation of scripture.
    2. “the message of God had broken through … and spoken in all the angelic tongues of humanity” — This one is simpler. The tongues of humanity are not “angelic.” In fact, in the account of the tower at Babel (Genesis 11:1-9), whether we take it as literal or metaphoric, God used the separation of human languages to keep people from their hubris, believing they could reach heaven on their own. To call human tongues “angelic” is to engage in corporate, human arrogance.
    Your point on the suppression of indigenous tongues being used as a tool for oppression of many peoples, and that being anti-Christian is spot-on. (Clearly in contrast to Jesus’ self-referencing quote from Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me. He has sent me to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to LIBERATE the OPPRESSED, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19, emphasis added).)
    Let us each, following Jesus’ example, work to liberate the oppressed, heal the sick, and bring power to those who are marginalized. And, still following Jesus’ example, let us do so with humility.

    • David R. Henson

      I appreciate you taking the time to comment, but I do not appreciate your condescending and abrasive tone. I enjoy a dialogue as much as the next person, but it can be difficult to carry on a conversation when one comes across so combatively. Nor do I appreciate you as my guest resorting to name-calling. I respectfully ask that if you want to converse to do so with respect and an appropriate — dare I say Christian — tone.

      The point you have missed is that I brought up is that the people already understood the message of God, and like any good preacher, Peter filters that message through the language of religion when asked by the people what it all means. On Pentecost, God spoke in many languages, and I’m convinced that today for us, this carries overtones of pluralism (I’ve written about this on previous Pentecost days in recent years so I won’t repeat myself here). On Pentecost, Peter spoke in one language — the language of nascent Christianity. I’m convinced that the Spirit of God is not confined to Christianity and that God speaks in whatever language — or religion — God chooses. So, when I see Peter filtering the experience of Pentecost through the lens of his interpretation of Christ, I see a limiting of the expansive nature of God.

      The story of the tower of Babel is a fanciful myth to explain why there are so many divisions in language and culture. The story of Pentecost is one in which God shows the beauty of God’s presence through the presence of the diversity of language. In other words, the Babel myth supposes that God scattered the languages because humans tried to reach heaven (Earth trying to reach the kingdom of heaven — again we’ll set aside the obvious cosmological problems with heaving being “up there.” The Pentecost myth supposes that God brought the kingdom of heaven to earth through human languages. I’d say the presence of God sanctifying something makes just about anything angelic.

      That, and I for one find human languages beautiful and divine in that they contain so much culture, meaning and flow.

      Unfortunately, the suppression of indigenous tongues, indigenous religious customs and idioms *is* a very Christian practice as seen through historical and current missionary activity, particularly to remote tribes. Christianity has been a huge force in wiping out indigenous culture and that needs to be named and repented of collectively by Christians everywhere because the effects are still pronounced and brutalized and the indigenous peoples in what is now America are still displaced.

      • KathMeistr

        Ummmm although I fall firmly on the side of the original poster’s interpretation of the text, I see nothing condescending, arrogant or name-calling in Pastor Randy’s comment. Just sayin’.

      • I can see how it comes across that way- is the sentence: “I’m convinced [Peter] gave them the wrong answer.” — While the Bible itself is not to be worshiped, it is the inspired word, and deserves our respect. “- Is Pastor Randy saying -“hey you don’t respect the Bible by saying that!” or “come close to a line there my friend, be careful!” as a friendly warning. Pastor Randy also writes “Be careful not to let your individual arrogance color your interpretation of scripture.” and “The tongues of humanity are not “angelic.” … To call human tongues “angelic” is to engage in corporate, human arrogance.” This is why including “I” statements (I think, I believe, I understand) are often better than strictly declarative statements in discussions “online”. (see the difference in feel between David’s sentence “I convinced he gave them the wrong answer” if he had written it “Peter gave the wrong answer.” One, without the tome of the human voice, risks coming across as more judgmental to more people than the other. )
        BTW- Great article David

      • David R. Henson

        “two of you statements are objectionable” is unfortunately not the language of dialogue but of lecturing, and no one appreciates being called arrogant, no matter how soft pedaled. Those comments to me color the tone of the comment. It is easy to dismiss content based on an authors perceived arrogance.

  • Garoth142

    Excellent! I might not agree that Peter does not answer the question, though. In fact, you seem to give it to him at the end. As Jesus often did, not seeming at first to answer the question they want him to answer, but essentially rephrasing it, reframing it, in order to give a better answer – a truer answer. As they say, “the right answer requires the right question.” How is it that they hear, each in their own tongue? The answer is that Jesus has broken down the boundaries. for Paul, this was the chief evidence of the resurrection.

    I don’t agree with Pastor Randy about your being “arrogant.” The Bible is full of stories where one might disagree with the speaker. To hold the Bible in high regard is not the same as agreeing with every speaker. Your point about the inclusiveness of the Gospel being “confusing” to the world is spot-on. And your analysis of how tyrants try to eliminate voices other than their own is great. There is an interesting play between this text and Babel (not the pericope this year), since Pentecost is the theological undoing of Babel. It’s a good take on that undoing – not that everyone “speaks the same language” now, which is ultimately oppressive, but that “everyone hears in their own tongue.” That’s incarnational and speaks to post-modern deconstructionalism.

    • David R. Henson

      Thank you for your comment. I would only add that I think Pentecost, in our context today, has some important things to say about pluralism, Christian faith and not confining God’s spirit to the one “language” of Christianity. But that would be a different post and one I have already written elsewhere. I think any time I see the action of God’s spirit breaking down walls and then I see humans and preachers like Peter rebuilding them (the nascent Christian wall), I approach with caution. 🙂


  • Debra

    You are so good! And just in time for my weekly rewriting of my sermon! When are y’all coming out to this side of the world?

  • David ~ I’d love to dialog about this (over coffee perhaps?) since there’s so much I love about this post, and a few things that perplex me. Thanks for sharing!

    • David R. Henson

      Are you in Georgia/SC? I’d love to sit with you over coffee. Otherwise, we could discuss on facebook?

  • rev angela wright

    Best article I ever read about Pentecost