Let’s be honest: in our own individual universe, we are the sun. Circling us are the people we choose to bring into our solar system – the inner circle of family, the closest friends. The next circle includes acquaintances and coworkers. The larger but more distant circles are neighborhood, city, nation, world. Our lives are shaped by whom we choose to put in which circles and when we do it, and they are usually in flux. As I get older, people that were so important to me at one stage of my life have drifted away, though their influence upon me remains strong. Mentors, coaches, friends from younger days continue to impact my day-to-day living. If we are also honest on this point, we would admit that we remain fairly narrow in our definition of community. We choose people who are similar to us because it is easier. And we sometimes make the mistake of closing ourselves off to people who could be a strong presence in the circles that define us.
Community is ultimately what Pentecost is about. In our first lesson, we hear how the disciples of Jesus came to speak many different languages, as we did in our first lesson. They have been into the wine, the listeners said. And for certain, many people speaking different languages would have sounded much like our first lesson this morning, a few words made out here and there, but mostly a mumbling cacophony. No wonder the audience was confused.
But like so many other parts of the Bible, the message of Pentecost is not focused on the miracle, or at least the miracle in its literal form. That is, it is not so important that the disciples began to speak in different languages – though it may make us wonder. What is important is that suddenly the words they were saying were understood by the mixed crowd that was present, each in their own language. They heard the word of God, the deeds of God’s power – the new-to-them lessons of honour and justice in the gospel – and they understood it.
God in that moment expands our definition of community. We live in a unique country that we don’t necessarily appreciate every day – a mosaic, as we call it. It’s not perfect, to be true, but it is an attempt at the idea behind Pentecost. It is the idea that a group of people in one place can bring into that place all their different cultures and traditions and languages. And in that place, they can hold on to those things and yet still find a common ground on which to build a nation, or a city, or a faith. In the story of Pentecost, it was not that one language dominated – that one tongue became the conduit for the word of God. It’s significant that each person heard the Word in their own tongue and understood it.
Why should that matter? Wouldn’t it be easier if we all just communicated on the same level? But then we’d be forgetting about our individual circles of community: they would still exist, and we would still be shaped by them differently, no matter how much we shared. And we know that often, while it is challenging, coming from a different perspective can make all the difference in finding solutions to problems. Recognizing and hearing different perspectives – different languages of interpretation – means appreciating the inevitable grey areas of life. And invariably, it makes life much more fun.
Every day, whether or not we say it out aloud, we travel through a world of us and them. Our world is set up that way: rich and poor, managers and employees. We are people of cliques. God doesn’t actually disband those cliques with Pentecost; perhaps God recognized that human beings ultimately need to find a place to belong. It’s why we tell our kids, when they face bullies or feel left out, that they will eventually find a place among people who value and appreciate them, and most of them will look and act a lot like them. So God doesn’t break up the US. What God does is ask us to see the “them” as a group built much like ours upon which there is much common ground in between. As a cluster of individuals the group looks much the same – with the same goals to be loved, to feel purpose, to belong. The same ability, as Pentecost is meant to teach us, to hear the Word of God.
Yesterday Noah and I attended Hanna’s bat mitzvah. This was Hanna’s religious initiation ceremony into her faith as a Jewish girl who had reached the age of religious maturity. It is very similar to our rite of confirmation. In fact, I am quite sure we Christians stole the rite from our Jewish sisters and brothers. Now, I must confess, my Hebrew is not the best. I missed most of what was said. And I am sure I wasn’t alone. But all of us understood why we were there and what was happening in the life of Hanna as she read from the Torah. The Spirit of God was present in that moment. It was a beautiful rite of passage to be a part of. It was even more meaningful to be invited into a Jewish circle as a Lutheran Christian to experience the Ruach of God
So what is the role of the Ruach or Spirit in this push and pull between the community in which we feel comfortable and the communities that God calls us to embrace? We all have different concepts of the Holy Spirit, but one definition that serves on Pentecost is that the Holy Spirit is the glue, the stuff that links us within a circle that includes God and Jesus, law and grace, protector and teacher. The Holy Spirit is inspiration, imagination. Without those two, there is no bridging any communities, no settling of any differences, no opening of any hearts. If we cannot imagine a better world, then we cannot create one.
It is not easy being a diverse community: we argue, we disagree. But the message of Pentecost is that these differences are what make a community strong, if they are treated with grace. If we accept that we may come to this place – to work or to the family dinner table – as individuals who at the heart seek common goals, then we have learned the lesson of Pentecost. And we have framed our sense of community not around who belongs, but, as Jesus first did, by others we might include. Amen.