What Does This Mean?

Like those on the day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit was poured out, we ask “What does this mean for the Church today?” Let us keep working to “catch up” to the Holy Spirit’s continuing work of crossing new boundaries and opening up new doors for sharing God’s love and healing, and Jesus’ message of peace and reconciliation with the world around us.

Speaker: Pastor Stephen “Tig” Intagliata
Main Bible Passage: Acts 2:1-21


Pentecost Sunday

We are blessed to have right here in our little church people who speak so many different languages from around the world.  At our Christmas Eve service we had the Christmas story read in 12 different languages!

And some people have been working hard to learn a new languageFei Hung just finished 12 years of Chinese school, and Ryland and Lily are learning Chinese as well.

If you’ve ever traveled in a country that speaks a language you don’t know very well, you no doubt have repeated this question over and over again, “What does this mean?” .  You hear a word or a phrase, and you wonder or you ask “What does this mean?”

And once you learn what it means, it opens a door of understanding for you, it breaks down a barrier and builds a little bridge to the person and the culture you’re trying to communicate with.

Have many of you have learned another language other than your native language?

How was the process of learning it?  Easy? Fast?  Or hard and slow?   Usually hard and slow.  Some are easier than others to learn.  Spanish may be one of the easiest for English speakers, because it’s very phonetic.

The letters and combination of letters always sound the same-

A = ah, E = eh, I = ee, O = o, U = oo.   Probably the hardest thing for people to learn in the Spanish language is the double r.  “erre”.  Difference between pero, “but”, and perro, “dog”.  Let’s try saying perro.

In contrast, English letters can have all different kinds of sounds.  There’s long and short vowels, and combinations like “ough” have about 10 different possible sounds.

Anyway, here on the day of Pentecost, something amazing happens with language.  It happens because there were so many different people from different regions who spoke different languages who were there.

As you may know, Pentecost was one of three major festivals in the Jewish faith where Jews from different parts of the world made pilgrimages to the temple in Jerusalem, their holy city.  The men were required to go, and sometimes their families went with them as well.

These three festivals all corresponded to the agricultural calendar, and so grain and fruit offerings were made at each festival—

The first was Passover, where first fruits of the harvest were offered.

Next was Pentecost, which took place 50 days after Passover; Pentecost literally means 50.  Pentecost was at the peak of the grain harvest.

And the third pilgrimage was made on the festival of Booths, or Tabernacles, which took place near the end of the harvesting season.

The festivals also had their religious significance, commemorating significant events in their history as God’s people in the Old Testament:

Passover remembers the exodus, the escape from slavery in Egypt.

Pentecost remembers the giving of the 10 commandments from God to Moses on Mt. Sinai on stone tablets.

Booths remembers the wanderings of the people of Israel for 40 years in the desert on their way to the land that God had promised them.

So imagine all these people from different places who speak all these different languages converging upon their holy city of Jerusalem.  And then all of a sudden Jesus’ disciples who were “Galileans”, humble people with little formal education, who were quite provincial, they start speaking all these different foreign languages, right there on the spot, the very languages of the people who had traveled to Jerusalem.

And the people who speak those languages wonder “what does this mean?”  Not in the sense of what a word or phrase means, but what does this mean that these people who are not from our part of the world all of a sudden can speak our language without any traveling or training or previous exposure to our language?

It’s like if I walked into a Korean BBQ restaurant and all of a sudden start speaking Korean fluently, and all the native Koreans there turn their heads and wonder, “what is going on, this gringo speaking our language?” (I know Kim Chi, and Bibimbop and now Ososo, but that’s about it).

Something extraordinary, not natural, must be happening when someone speaks fluently a language they don’t know , and on the day of Pentecost, it was a supernatural act of God where the Holy Spirit was given as a gift and poured out upon everyone who was there.

I don’t know about you, but I would have been pretty freaked out if I was there.  I would have been right there with those guys saying “What does this mean?”

And especially in our world today, that is so based on empirical data, where everything needs to have a logical explanation, we are perplexed and suspicious about things of a supernatural nature, things out of the ordinary.

I have found this to be particularly true in Mennonite circles.  We love to talk about Jesus, and are pretty good with God, but we often keep an arm’s distance from the the Holy Spirit

We’ve heard of and maybe even experienced some things that seem like misuses or even abuses of the Holy Spirit, where emotionalism gets a little out of control.

But the reality is that the churches that are growing the fastest around the world and maybe even here in the US are Pentecostal churches, which have a strong focus upon the Holy Spirit and the so-called supernatural gifts like healing, prophecy, and speaking in tongues.

You could experience a Pentecostal church service right here in our building, about two hours from now, when the Iglesia Pentecostal de Restauracion meets.  It might make you uncomfortable, but maybe you could be touched by the Spirit that connects you with God in a way you haven’t experienced before.

And you know, maybe the Holy Spirit is present in the world and in the Church in ways that aren’t so much what we’d classify as supernatural, but powerful nonetheless, in ways that enable the message of God’s love to be shared in new ways, with new people in new places.

I picked up a really great commentary on the book of Acts recently.  It’s a more recent one by Willie James Jennings of Yale Divinity School.

A theme in Jennings’ understanding of Acts is that God and God’s Spirit are always moving forward, always on the forefront, and we humans in the Church are constantly trying to catch up with the Spirit and keep pace with a God who is calling forth what he calls “the new creature in the Spirit….”

Jennings talks about the broad scope of the book of Acts, this book that is about the birth of the Church in Jerusalem at Pentecost, and then the growth of the Church and expansion of the good news of Jesus to places and people farther and farther away:

In the book of Acts, the Spirit seems to always be pressing the disciples to go to those to whom they would in fact strongly prefer never to share space, or a meal, and definitely not life together.  Yet it is precisely this prodding to be boundary-crossing and border-transgressing that marks the presence of the Spirit of God.  (p. 11)

I love the way that Jennings defines the presence of the Holy Spirit being experienced when new boundaries and borders are crossed, barriers broken down and bridges built between people.

This idea ties in well to what happened at Pentecost with the languages spoken in languages that people could understand.  So often language can be a barrier to building relationships with other people.

And we all know how learning to speak a new language can break down the barrier caused by language and lead to building bridges of understanding and friendship.

Karen and I are grateful that before we went to serve the Church in Bolivia, the   MMN sent us to Costa Rica for a whole year to learn Spanish.

This helped us so much in getting to know our neighbors, in communicating the good news of Jesus, and also in being part of a Spanish-speaking church community.

We experienced the Holy Spirit’s presence as the language barriers were broken down and we could all worship and share life together.

Of course the Holy Spirit’s work of breaking down barriers and building community happens in other ways than speaking the same language.

So I’d like to pose this question “What does it mean?” for us today?  What does the barrier-breaking, boundary-crossing, bridge-building work of the Holy Spirit look like for us today?

I’d like to offer a couple of examples from my experience at the Mennonite Church USA delegate session last weekend that I believe can apply to us all.

There in Kansas City, people from all different parts of the country, from many different cultures who have different perspectives came together for conversation.

We sat in small groups at round tables and shared openly and vulnerably with each other, taking the time to listen and hear people’s stories without passing judgment, taking the time to empathize and be compassionate with one another.

As a result, I feel like boundaries were crossed and bridges of friendship were built among us.

I believe that we all came away changed, with greater awareness of the pain that our LGBTQ members have experienced, a greater desire to work for healing, and a greater vision of the diversity that exists within our Church denomination.

I can say that the Holy Spirit who breaks down barriers was present among us.

The second example of how I experienced the Spirit’s presence was through things that were shared in worship and during the open mic times.

In Peter’s sermon here at Pentecost, he quotes the prophet Joel from the Old Testament, who said:

17 “‘And in the last days it shall be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams; even on my male servants and female servants
in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy.

This is a vision of God’s word coming through many different voices, many of which were not expected to be mouthpieces for God, and voices which have been silenced or suppressed in those days and through much of church history—

Voices and dreams of young people, women’s voices, voices of slaves and others who have been oppressed and marginalized by society, including the institutional Church and its religious leaders.

At Kansas City, we heard many of these kinds of voices, their visions and their dreams, their prophetic words for the Church.  There were such a wide variety of voices— older, seasoned church leaders, like a woman named Lois Barrett from Kansas who I’ve seen at every Mennonite gathering for the past 40 years and who has dedicated her life to the Church,

And then young, emerging leaders like Caleb Schrock-Hurst of Harrisonburg, who we had preach here before and who has a leadership position in the Virginia Menn. Conference.

There were words shared by white Christians and also by people of color; by Koreans and Indonesians and other nationalities; by gay and straight, rural and urban folks.

Dreams and visions for the people of God were shared by a wide variety of folks.  We have to continue to do the work of discernment and continue asking “What does this mean?” for us and for our quest to be faithful to God in today’s world.

But it seemed clear to me that the Holy Spirit will use these voices to cross new boundaries and open up new doors for sharing God’s love and healing, and Jesus’ message of peace and reconciliation in the world.

May we as a community of faith here at Daniels Run Peace Church also be open to sharing and hearing God’s dreams and visions for us.

May we keep asking “What does this mean?” What does the good news of God’s Spirit being poured out at Pentecost mean to us , right here, right now, as we face the future?

May we catch up to where God and the Holy Spirit is leading us to cross new boundaries in order to be more inclusive and more compassionate as individuals and as a body of believers where God has planted us here in Fairfax, Virginia.