A Miracle of Understanding

Numbers 11:24-29; Acts 2:1-13     I go back and forth in my mind about whether this account of the Holy Spirit being poured out on Pentecost was a miracle of speaking or a miracle of hearing. What do you think? Was the Holy Spirit enabling a group of Aramaic speaking Galileans to suddenly speak languages they had never studied or was the Holy Spirit enabling a diverse crowd gathered in Jerusalem that day to hear their own mother tongues? The most logical answer is both. That is why I appreciate the comment from one of our church members during our lectionary Bible study last week when she said, “I think it really was a miracle of understanding.” And indeed, it was. The Spirit was poured out and suddenly people could understand the works of God in Jesus Christ in a new way. We don’t know exactly what the disciples were saying about God’s deeds of power that day. I imagine they were explaining that Jesus is the Lord, the Savior, the Son of God who rose from the dead. I imagine they were making it clear to anyone within earshot that Jesus had come to show God’s love for each of them in a new way. I imagine they were praising God and proclaiming Christ as their King.
Prior to this amazing gift of the Spirit, clear understanding among the Jews living in Jerusalem may not have been automatic. People who had grown up speaking another language had to operate in Aramaic or Greek while staying or living in Jerusalem. They would communicate in the local languages to do business, to make friends, to navigate the city, but when it came to language around their faith, I can imagine they went to their “go-to” mother tongue, whether it was Egyptian or Arabic or another middle Eastern language. When they heard the good news of God spoken in their own mother tongue, a comfort level is found that can never be reached with a second language. It is an “aha!” moment, like when a light bulb goes off and those goosebumps have traveled down their spine and tears have welled up in their eyes. It is a miracle of understanding provided by the outpouring of the Spirit. The Spirit is on the loose and there is no controlling it now.
You might say that whenever we reach a clear understanding between people from different life experiences, different racial backgrounds, different language groups, we are experiencing a miracle at some level. We human beings throw up so many barriers to full understanding that finding understanding is a miracle! During my sabbatical time earlier this spring I explored the idea of being an inter-cultural church, not simply a multi-cultural church. We have long prided ourselves at Hunting Ridge Presbyterian in being multi-cultural, a place of welcome for people of many cultures. And indeed, we are. I hope we can continue to deepen our understanding of one another’s life stories so that we might see ourselves more as an inter-cultural church, one that is characterized by a commitment to sharing power, to working for justice for all people, and a willingness to be transformed by our relationships with one another. We can’t just assume that we are already doing those things. It requires being intentional, setting aside the time to better understand the different cultural perspectives that each of us brings to the whole body. It is more than exchanging recipes, but that is part of it. It is more than sharing music, but that is part of it. It is building relationships with persons of a different culture than your own. It is building trust, sharing laughter, asking questions. I hope that we can begin to see ourselves as an inter-cultural congregation that recognizes that we are ALL changed in the inter-cultural process, being transformed by God because we are together as one body.
This past week we have seen sad and ugly reminders of the lack of understanding of and appreciation for one another in our country. Unwillingness to understand and lack of appreciation continues to create animosity and frustration, often feeding anger, hatred and violence. The images of what happened in Minneapolis this past week bring flashbacks for Baltimore to that time five years ago when our own city boiled over in anger and frustration at the death of Freddie Gray while he was in police custody. And now last night those same images were replaying in cities around the country. When something like this happens, we are reminded again that tensions between police and community continue to exist in our own city and in cities around this country. We are reminded that the playing field is NOT equal in this country. And we are reminded again that we are ALL accountable. Remember the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” The unjust treatment of George Floyd in Minneapolis might seem far away from Baltimore, but the issues are not far away at all. If this pandemic has not taught us anything else, we have to learn how intertwined we are in this web of humanity across this entire nation and around this globe. Our actions do affect others. So does our lack of action.
The outpouring of the Spirit means the Spirit is on the loose. That is what happened to the elders who surrounded Moses out in the wilderness. The people were complaining about an all-manna diet, and God promised Moses that meat would be provided. Moses questions God’s ability and God basically says, “I’ll show you what I can do.” For a one-time experience, God’s Spirit rests on the elders, enabling them to prophesy, which means they were able to instruct and admonish the people with an authority that was recognized as having its source in God. They were clearly saying things they had not said before. The most intriguing thing about this story in the book of Numbers is that there were a couple of the elders who were still back in the camp, and they too experienced the ability to prophesy as a gift from the Spirit on that day. When Moses learned that some were questioning the validity of their prophesying, Moses says, “I wish all of God’s people had this ability!” The message is clear: don’t try to control God’s spirit. God pours out the spirit where God will. And when it comes, let it flow!
The Spirit continues to be on the loose today. Blowing in and through us, empowering us to be a people committed to seeking understanding of ourselves, God and others. In the account from the book of Acts, the power of the Spirit gifted more than the people who were in that room. It blew out and touched the world outside, creating a miracle of understanding that had ripple effects way beyond Jerusalem as the church of Jesus Christ was born. Often we think of this Pentecost event as marking the birth of the church. Rev. David Bender encourages us to think it of more like a graduation celebration than a birthday party. This group of Jesus-followers is graduating into a new phase of life, equipped now to use their gifts in new ways, relating to the world as Spirit-filled leaders. We may find that the challenge for us today is to find the spirit within us, to identify the gifts we have been given, and to search for our own ways to use them to foster understanding and connection between the people we share this world with.
At Pentecost the disciples are graduating into a new phase of their lives. We celebrate the outpouring of the Holy Spirit into the world and give thanks that God’s Spirit continues to blow. Clearly the work continues. The words of peace and justice and understanding still need to be spoken. We still need to stand with those who are treated unjustly. We still need to take action in a world that is hurting. We still need to share the good news of God’s mighty deeds so that we can be a part of miracles of understanding wherever we are.
You might say—Lord, I am limited in the languages I can speak. I am too old to learn a new language. I can’t prophesy. How can I help? There are multiple barriers to understanding one another that have nothing to do with actual language. What about the gap between generations? Between urban and suburban lifestyles? Between political persuasions? Between theological frameworks for looking at God, at the world and at ourselves? Between people of different educational backgrounds, different heritage, different race, or different economic level? We need to get better at telling the mighty deeds of God in ways that others can understand. Others come from a different background, carrying different burdens, experiencing different obstacles in life. How do we break through the barriers to understanding what our neighbors are going through? Perhaps we can start in this way: We listen. We don’t assume. We don’t judge. Ooh, those are hard things for human beings to do! We need to welcome the Spirit’s power to blow through us, through our city, through our nation, through our world. Lord, let us be part of miracles of understanding, wherever we are. Amen.

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