Praying for the Spirit is a risk poured out on the whole Church. Luke’s account of Pentecost challenges the members of the Church to talk very differently, both to each other and to outsiders. What would the Church look like if we learned to speak and listen to each other in our very different Christian languages?
Acts 2.1-3: Catholicity and Risk
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them.
Pentecost is a controversial topic in the modern Church. Different denominations understand the pentecostal life of the Church in very different ways, almost a spectrum: from the Spirit setting us free into improvised and experimental church life to the Spirit poured out into the Church’s institutional life into which we as believers are incorporated.
I don’t want to go there. Not because I don’t think it isn’t relevant: if this was a post on ecclesiology it really would be. But actually the ecclesiological argument can detract from seriously reading this passage.
The narrative begins with the gathering of the disciples. We saw in Acts 1 that Luke focusses the narrative on Jerusalem and on the group of disciples and early believers gathered together. So, when the day of Pentecost arrives, “they were all together in one place” (v.1). This is important because it is easy, when we mentally place ourselves in the narrative, to project our church or our community into the pentecost narrative, to say that it is people like us who are really living life in the Spirit. Luke makes it clear from the outset that it is the whole Church which is annointed by the Spirit at Pentecost, not a conservative bubble, or a liberal one. Pentecost is an excellent opportunity to be reminded of the catholicity of the Church: the fact that, despite our divisions and our differences, those of us who profess faith in Jesus Christ are in fact one united and worldwide Church. For the Spirit does not fill only one corner of the house of the early believers: “it filled the entire house where they were sitting” (v.2).
The gift of the Spirit is something we are prone to praying for in some parts of the Church. But sometimes it is worth asking ourselves whether we really want the gift of the Spirit to start with. Of course we do! But do we ask in ignorance of what this means. The Spirit comes “suddenly”, not from anywhere comfortable to us but “from heaven”, not with a gentle kiss but “like the rush of a violent wind” (v.2). When you pray for the Spirit, are you ready for what that might mean? Are you ready for what God might ask of you through the Spirit? I have joined with queer people many times praying for the Spirit to move in the Church. It is interesting that we often attempt to channel the Spirit by giving Him names: ‘Spirit of peace’, ‘Spirit of justice’, ‘Spirit of truth’. When we pray for the Spirit to move in power, are we, even queer people, ready for what might result? Are we ready to take the risk of God’s idea of peace, justice and truth might just possibly be different from ours.
Acts 2.4-13: The Challenge of Communication
4All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
5 Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. 7Amazed and astonished, they asked, ‘Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 9Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.’ 12All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, ‘What does this mean?’ 13But others sneered and said, ‘They are filled with new wine.’
But how does this anointing with the Spirit manifest itself? “All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability” (v.4). But why this gift for speaking in other languages? It seems rather odd.
Luke makes a point of noting that there were lots of people, “devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem” (v.5), all speaking different languages on the day of Pentecost. With different languages comes a diversity of cultures, world views and social norms: the people of Jerusalem are profoundly diverse. Luke expresses what happens next in rather colourful language. The crowd are not just amazed: they are “bewildered”, “amazed and astonished” (vv.6-7), but more importantly they are “gathered” (v.6). Although mass outbreaks of effective speaking in living languages is rare in the life of the modern Church, one wonders what challenge there is here for the modern Church that tries to hard to gather people to it.
The challenge to us is to communicate “God’s deeds of power” (v.11) not just in our own language (cf. v.11), but in the language of those whom God wants us to reach. The miracle is not that people hear uneducated Galileans talking in different languages (you might detect in this my suspicion that the modern instantiation of ‘speaking in tongues’ may be missing the point), that they are “speaking in our own languages” (v.11); but rather that they recognise that “in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power” (v.11).
The task of learning a language is not simply to speak the correct words but is also to communicate effectively the substance which you want to get across. It seems that the disciples do manage to do this. In John’s Gospel, Jesus’ proclamation of the Gospel is marked by a sharp krisis (judgment) (cf. John 3.17-18; 12.31) in which people respond in two ways, either wrestling with what Jesus says to them or rejecting him outright. Here the same thing happens: “All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, ‘What does this mean?’ But others sneered and said, ‘They are filled with new wine’.” (vv.12-13). The disciples aren’t just speaking the right words: they are communicating and convincing. I think of St John, who preached in such a way that he gained the surname Chrysostom: Golden-Mouthed. This is speaking in such a way that the hearer stops… and truly hears.
Most queer people in Churches know what it feels like to be preached past, when the Gospel is presented in such a way that it doesn’t really seem to be relevant to you, or in such a way that (though you try) it just doesn’t seem to be in a language you can really understand, internalise, and make your own. I put in that category in my own experience pretty much every sermon I have heard referencing sex, marriage, love, Fatherhood, family and a good deal of other subjects. The collect for Bible Sunday in the Church of England includes a prayer that we might ‘read, mark, learn and inwardly digest’ the scriptures. But in order to do that, the Gospel must be preached to us in our language, in a tongue which will enable us to say, “in our own lanaguages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power” (v.11).
But there are several challenges to queer people as well within this. Since beginning training for ministry, I have had so many requests to talk to this or that LGBT person known by a colleague or friend ‘because you will be able to speak their language.‘ It is like a colleague of mine who was encouraged to work with Chinese students ‘because you are from the same continent’ – my friend is Indian (fail). People often assume that we can talk in a particular way to all other queer people, because we speak the same language and have shared experiences. Perhaps we do, but that very rarely reaches the point at which I don’t have to work to understand the other and consciously speak in a way more useful to them. One of the queer people I was asked to have a chat with was heavily into the BDSM scene… and I am ashamed to admit that I learned a vast amount more from him than he did from me. And boy did he use language around power, consent, love, care and support in a deeper and more profound way than I. His language was far richer in that sense, and I had to learn how to understand it.
Similarly, when we dialogue with straight Christians, we cannot assume that we are speaking the same language. It is not only they who must guard their speech and be self-aware. If we wish to communicate effectively, if we want to see understanding blossom and a better future for queer people in the Church, we must learn to speak the language of those whose speech we find difficult. When my conservative brothers and sisters talk to me about marriage, family, love, sex (and a load of other things), I need to do a lot of work understanding the ways in which they use common words, and particularly how that reveals their concerns and assumptions. Then I need to work out what I am meant to say to them in response. And that takes prayer as well as patience.
Learning to speak the language of others in terms of purely getting the words right is hard work and tiring. Learning to speak the language of others in terms of what the Spirit is leading you to say to them is hard work but life-giving.
Pray for the gift of the Holy Spirit. And do not worry what you are to say (cf. Matthew 10.19). Learn in love and prayer how to talk to others. The Church will be a holier and happier family when half our conversations aren’t lost in translation, when we learn to listen, and truly learn to speak.