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Spirit of Welcome and Truth

A sermon on Acts 2:1-21, and John 15:26-27; 16:14b-15.

[for an audio recording of the sermon, click here.]

There is nothing quite like hearing your native tongue when you are surrounded by people speaking another language.

As many of you know, my family and I had the incredible opportunity to live in Milan, Italy for almost 3 years when the kids were little.

I will be forever grateful for that time, for the chance to really immerse ourselves into another culture, with all the broadened perspective that brings…

I am thankful for the ease of travelling all around Southern Europe and experiencing so many amazing places…

And I know what a privilege it was to have the chance, in my mid-30s, to at least try to learn another language. I definitely was not fluent by the end of our sojourn, but I could carry on a conversation, and I was really proud that I would sometimes even be mistaken for a native speaker in an initial interaction.

But even after a lot of studying and dedication, Italian still took a lot of effort. And it was mentally exhausting to be constantly concentrating on trying to understand what was said every time I left our apartment…

Which probably explains one embarrassingly awkward encounter I had on the sidewalk during our last year in Milan.

I just starting out for a jog outside our building, when I passed a mother and her son, and I heard her say something to him in English… American-accented English.

I quite literally stopped in my tracks, turned around with my mouth hanging open, and blurted out “you’re American!”

As it turns out, Gabriella is only half-American. Her mom is from Brazil, and her husband is Italian (thus them living in Milan), but she speaks to her children primarily in English so that they can have the benefits that come with fluency in a dominant international language.

Gabriella did not, of course, offer me this autobiographical correction after my outburst.

Rather, she smiled and said, “Yes. You too?”

Because she got it. She understood why I had violated all internationally-accepted social rules around not randomly screeching at strangers on the street, and introducing oneself to a new potential acquaintance before making assertive claims about the other person’s identity.

Gabriella – who, on that sidewalk, immediately became a friend – recognized the feeling that lay behind my unexpected outburst.

When you spend the majority of your time surrounded by a people and a language that you have to work to understand, simply hearing words that are as innately familiar as they are out of context feels like coming home… even when the person speaking those words is a stranger.

That feeling of “homecoming” is now part of my associations with the scene of cacophonous languages during the Spirit’s manifestation on the church’s first Pentecost.

I am firmly convinced that the miracle in this story is about more than just spontaneous translation. There is an emotional power to what is happening.

Luke tells us that there were Jews “from every people under heaven living in Jerusalem,” – transplants, immigrants, those who lived in Jerusalem now but had come from other places – and then he explains how, when they followed the sound of the Spirit’s in-rushing power, the heard the gathered believers “speaking in the native language of each.”

And I know what that feels like.

What it feels like, amidst the muffled noise of a place that is home but not home, to hear a word, and an accent, that speaks straight to your heart.

A word that takes no effort to understand.

A word that you can just receive because it belongs to your earliest memories.

And I know that the purpose of this multi-lingual Pentecost was not just to make sure everyone there could intellectually understand what was being said.

The story tells us that this international crowd all lived in Jerusalem. They would have been familiar enough with the Hebrew language to get by, to get the gist of Peter’s sermon without a divine translator.

But there is a deeper kind of understanding that communicates belonging, that communicates the message is explicitly meant to be accessible to you, and that is what happened on the church’s first Pentecost:

God gathered outsiders, people who had to struggle through a language not their own to live in God’s holy city.

God gathered THEM to hear the fulfillment of prophecy about God’s Spirit being poured out on all flesh.

God gathered THEM to hear the promise that “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”

The inclusiveness, the welcome, the homecoming implicit within this scene of each person hearing the word of God in their own language is essential to the message of this text.

On the day the church was born, God made a statement that that church would be home for everyone, embracing and not erasing their differences, affirming the goodness of who they each were even when they were different.

Of course, the early church did not always follow through on this lesson.

Just two weeks ago in worship we heard the story of how God’s Spirit anointed all who were gathered in the house of a Roman Centurion as Peter was preaching to them, and then how the Jerusalem elders tried to call Peter to account for entering the house of a Gentile to give that sermon!

It can be hard to believe the Spirit’s leading when it violates our prior expectations.

And that’s a really important thing to recognize as we consider what the outpouring of God’s Spirit means for us, today, 2,000 years after the first Pentecost.

Because Jesus’s promises about the coming of the Spirit (which we heard today in the gospel reading) are focused on the idea that the Spirit will come to lead us.

In his farewell message to his disciples before his arrest, Jesus tells them that the Advocate, the Spirit of truth is coming.

And he tells them that this Spirit will “prove the world wrong” about sin and righteousness and judgment.

And he promises that Spirit will “guide them into all the truth.”

And this is the kind of promise that can either be incredibly empowering or incredibly frightening…

Because how are we supposed to discern claims that God’s Spirit has revealed the truth about something new?

In 2024, God’s Spirit is not manifesting as a rushing wind, and tongues of flame, and spontaneous preaching in every language known to humanity.

And there are different groups of self-proclaimed Christians each claiming to be teaching God’s truth, but contradicting one another, often vehemently.

And the first Pentecost was this beautiful, blessed gathering of a tremendous diversity of people all brought together by God’s welcoming word, but now diversity just seems to breed division.

So how are we supposed to recognize the Spirit guiding us into truth?

Well, we know that the Spirit does surprise people.

It surprised the gathered crowd in Jerusalem, some people interpreted the miraculous signs as drunkenness instead of God.

It surprised the early church leaders who tried to chastise Peter for preaching to Gentiles, whom they assumed would need to convert and follow Jewish law to follow Jesus.

And when Jesus spoke to his disciples about the Spirit’s coming, he declared that it would surprise and even “prove wrong” those who thought they understood sin, and righteousness, and judgment.

But in all of the surprising, perspective shifting actions of God’s Spirit, there is a consistent theme: it turns more people toward God.

On the first Pentecost, the Spirit’s action made the nascent church feel like home for people from every language.

And in Cornelius’ house, the Spirit welcomed in people that the church leaders weren’t ready to welcome.

And in the truth-revealing work the Jesus promises, the Spirit will dismantle the misunderstandings that have blocked people from trusting Jesus and kept them in thrall to “the ruler of this world.”

The work of the Spirit can be judged by its fruit.

And when I think of the fruit of the Spirit in my life, I think of the feeling of being welcomed home.

That chance sidewalk encounter in Milan that made me a new friend when I heard familiar words in an unexpected place… that was a hint of what home feels like.

But the welcome of God’s Spirit creates a healing, affirming, transforming home that is unlike any other. And that is the welcome that God’s church is called to proclaim… on Pentecost and always.

Thanks be to God.


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