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Listening to many tongues

A sermon on John 20:19-23 and Acts 2:1-21

[for an audio recording of this sermon, click here. Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash.]

My dad used to tell this “joke” that I don’t really find funny, but I do find telling.

As the joke goes, a man sees another man on a bridge, preparing to jump. The first man intervenes and tries to talk the jumper into seeing that his life has value. He asks him some questions and learns that the jumper is a Christian.

Not only that, but they share the same overall denomination.

And the same sub-denomination.

And went to the same Bible college.

Then, the first man asks one more question, about a very specific, but controversial theological point… and the second man gives the “wrong” answer.

At which point the would-be life-saver, pushes the other man off the bridge yelling “die heretic scum!”

As I said, I don’t find it funny, but I understand what the joke is trying to do. The most effective humor often leverages the irony in real life that polite society likes to ignore.

Like the irony of how easy it is to make enemies out of people because one difference blots out all that we hold in common.

It was John’s particular style of writing that drew my attention to this irony in today’s gospel.

The author of this gospel is known for the subtly pejorative way he refers to “the Jews.”

This tendency is almost certainly an artifact of his particular cultural and religious context.

This gospel was written right around the end of the first Century, about a generation after the other gospels, at a time when the Christian church was now established as a separate faith, rather than just one sect of Judaism.

There was friction and conflict that had gone into this separation. The Jewish authorities of the first Century had rejected the teachings of Christ’s followers.

So, it was understandable that John might be a little bitter.

But the resulting villanization of “the Jews” as an undifferentiated people group, when John is really meaning the powers that be, leads to unfortunate phrasing that has been appropriated in OUR context by antisemitic groups in really harmful ways.

As a result, when we read from John’s gospel in worship, I usually substitute the phrase “the Judeans,” or I talk about the “religious leaders.” It preserves the actual meaning of John’s story without reinforcing harmful animosity.

But today, I read the gospel exactly as John wrote it… because it makes the irony in this telling of the story so very clear:

“the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews.”

The Jews? Really? All of them? Because, unless I missed something, ALL OF THE DISCIPLES ARE JEWS!

As a result of John’s particular prejudice, he describes the shadowy threat in the story in a way that makes absolutely no sense!

The disciples were actually afraid of the religious authorities who had colluded in Jesus’ execution, and of the Herodians who collaborated in Roman control in Jerusalem, and of the very non-Jewish Roman soldiers who might come looking for Jesus’ followers after the embarrassment of the empty tomb and the need to perpetuate a story about grave-robbing.

The disciples were afraid of people in power who had shown a willingness to abuse that power. They were not afraid of their own people group!

The irony of this phrasing gets even more striking when we consider the context of the day: Pentecost.

This is the day on which we celebrate the dramatic inclusiveness of Christ’s Church.

At the moment when Christ’s promise to his inner circle is fulfilled, and the gift of God’s active and powerful Spirit is received, the very first thing the Spirit does it to make sure that EVERYONE knows they are included in what God is doing.

The message of this day is the rejection of tribalism and prejudice.

It is the celebration of diversity.

It is an embodied image of the joy, and the power, and the community, and the glorification of God that erupts when we make space for EVERYONE.

In other words, it is the exact opposite of what John is doing when he casually sets up “the Jews” as the enemy of the church.

But we all know that John is not alone in these unconscious biases or in his vulnerability to the subtle pull of tribalism.

It’s an instinct rooted deep in human development and history. Our brains are wired to look for similarities and differences to tell us who is “safe,” and centuries of fighting for scarce resources have taught us to put our tribe first.

And just over a week before the primary elections here in New Jersey, the tribalism is a very present reality for us.

From TV ads, to e-mail campaigns, to lawn signs, to social media posts we are being bombarded by appeals to our divisive instincts.

In some ways, this time of year is even more focused than the general election, because we are required to “pick a side” to even participate.

And the motivation of the respective parties is to get us engaged and invested… which is easiest to do when they can get us “scared” of the “other side.”

I am personally very far from immune to these kinds of fear tactics.

I don’t have the luxury of being blasé and rising above the fray, because my family is in the crosshairs of one of the most divisive political issues in our current national debate.

There are currently places in our nation where I could be imprisoned for providing the gender affirming health care that is giving my son the support he needs to help him to grow into the happy, self-assured young man that I am so proud to get to watch mature, and own his story, and make a difference in the world.

I am crystal clear that the kind of people we elect to national offices matter!

AND, I am crystal clear that this personal investment makes me vulnerable to tribalism.

It makes me prone to the kinds of mental shortcuts that John takes in our gospel reading, by categorizing a broad group as an unspecified threat.

And I know that this tendency is NOT Christ’s will for his church.

Christ’s will for the church is for EVERYONE to be actively embraced… for each person to hear words of welcome in the language they most easily recognize… AND for each of us to also hear languages that we don’t know.

Princeton Seminary professor Eric Baretto shared an interesting observation about the scene of the church’s first Pentecost.[1] In his remarks on this preaching text, he pointed out that there was more going on than just each individual person present hearing their own native tongue.

Because, in order for that to happen, each person was also hearing the language that the person next to them had grown up learning.

As a bilingual person himself, Dr. Baretto made the point that he can say things in Spanish that don’t easily translate to English, and vice versa. Because language and culture are inseparable… so different languages call us to see the world from slightly different angles.

And so, when the church is a space that we each get a chance to hear not only our own familiar language, but also our neighbors, it’s a space where we have the chance to turn to that neighbor and ask them for the insight that they have access to in ways that we don’t.

It’s a chance for us to see more of God and more of reality by hearing the familiar story told through the medium of our neighbor’s language… if we are willing to ask them about it.

I think that is the challenge for a Pentecost church in the reality of our current divisive, tribalistic, mutually-suspicious moment in history: the challenge of being willing to listen for what others have to teach us.

Our tendency – according to my dad’s old joke – is to listen for the differences as a way of dividing ourselves… knowing who is in and who is out, who we can trust and who we need to (metaphorically) push off the bridge.

But there’s a different way to listen for differences that can be healing for all of us – for those who have not always been included AND for those who are used to always only hearing the language we understand and expect.

This kind of listening won’t solve every problem.

Me being willing to genuinely listen to the fears of people who push for transphobic legislation won’t magically make my son safe.

But it might help me to understand the humanity of people I want to just despise, and that might help me to share my family’s story in ways that let them see us as human too.

And that possibility gives me hope that there is a way forward from the divisive mess we find ourselves in as a country.

And it reminds me that – whatever people in power might be doing that makes me want to hide behind locked doors – it all pales in comparison to the chance we have to join our voices (AND our ears) to the glorious Pentecost cacophony declaring God’s power to actually save the world.

Thanks be to God.

[1] Keynote teaching at the NJ Synod Ministerium Day on March 14, 2023.


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