Summit Presbyterian Church
May 20, 2018
Acts 2:1-21 Pentecost
Who Shall Speak?
I sometimes find it interesting, when reading a story in the Bible, to ask: why did it go that way? what might God have done differently? In today’s scripture, when the Holy Spirit descended, it gave the disciples the ability to speak in different languages; and it gave those pilgrims from every nation the ability to hear in their own language. That was quite a trick, as there were more languages than disciples. It would have been a cacophony, especially when you added the sound of the wind and the tongues of fire. It was, Luke says, perplexing to everyone. But the Spirit didn’t have to have all those languages going at once. It could have chosen one language for everyone to speak and for everyone to hear. It could have chosen Aramaic — the language of the disciples, a language related to Hebrew. It could have chosen Greek: the language of the educated, including educated Jews — the Hebrew scriptures were most often read in their Greek translation. (If you’re wondering why, the Greeks were the previous colonizers of Palestine). Or, the Spirit could have chosen Latin - the official language of the Roman Empire, their current occupiers - making it easier for government bureaucrats. Any of those options would have still been miraculous, but also simpler.
But no. The Spirit spoke, and people heard, languages from every nation under heaven — present and even the past. Scholars tell us some of those nations listed were long gone, their languages, “dead.” So it was wild. Skeptics thought it was new wine speaking — alcohol can give one miraculous abilities! or so it seems to the person who is drunk, at least at first — but Peter assures them it’s a sober crowd. No, Peter says, this is what the prophet Joel said would happen in the last days: God would pour out the Spirit on all flesh. Everyone would prophesy. Sons and daughters, the old and the young, even slaves — men and women. The Spirit would speak through every kind of person and every language — that’s how God’s deeds of power would become known. Through a multitude of voices and a multitude of languages. Beginning that day.
This Pentecost truth has been celebrated by the church, but it’s also been a difficult one to live into fully. The Spirit may have been poured out on everyone, but from the beginning, certain peoples and certain languages have been given pride of place in teaching, in preaching, in liturgy. Greek was the first! The language of the New Testament scriptures and the creeds, the first language of formal theology. Latin was a close second, which became the language of the western church, the language of the Bible, liturgy and academic writing. Indeed, it was the central language of worship in the Roman Catholic church, in the United States, up into the 1960s. In the Protestant world, English and French but especially German become the language in which people listened for the Word. If you went to seminary in the twentieth century, your reading list and the lectures were full of names like Schweitzer and Bultmann, Bonhoeffer, Tillich, Moltmann and Barth; if you wanted to get a doctorate in theology or biblical studies German was your required second language. So although through the centuries the Spirit continued to speak through peoples of every nation, men and women, slave and free; but only a few languages and people were consecrated, so to speak, by the larger, institutional church, considered worthy of universal study and proclamation. Generally speaking, there were exceptions but generally speaking, these languages and people came from the more powerful of the world.
On April 28th, the Rev. Dr. James Hal Cone, the Bill & Judith Moyers Distinguished Professor of Systematic Theology at Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York, died at age 79. His books, Black Theology and Black Power, published in 1969, A Black Theology of Liberation shortly after that and many others, most recently the Cross and the Lynching Tree, 2011, shook up - in a good way - the theological world and the larger church. Now before I go further I have to make a confession. I was a student at Union but I did not take any of his courses. It seemed like I always had scheduling issues; I regret that. I also read only one of his books - a A Black Theology of Liberation, but I read it in 1979, as an undergraduate. I’m going to correct this deficiency, but because of it I’m not going to try and explain his thought. But I did watch his funeral at the Riverside Church, online, and it brought to mind our scripture. Speaker after speaker testified to Dr. Cone’s life-long quest to listen for the Spirit in voices of slaves and their descendants, not just in the voices of their masters or oppressors; as he put it in his 1989 preface to the second edition of “Black Theology and Black Power,” “I wanted to speak on behalf of the voiceless black masses in the name of Jesus, whose gospel, I believed, had been greatly distorted by the preaching and theology of white churches.” He also listened to those who spoke in languages and in places across the globe, teaching and working with theologians from Peru and Brazil, Ghana and South Africa and Korea. He listened to his students, encouraging them to develop their own theological voices rather than becoming Cone disciples. He also knew that learning to listen to the Spirit in all God’s people was a life-long project, no matter who we were: in the preface I mentioned before, the preface to a book he had written 20 years earlier, he said one of the critiques he took to heart was that he hadn’t listened to the Black church tradition when writing about Black theology. He was also embarrassed, he said by its sexist language and patriarchal perspective — he was learning to listen to Black Women’s voices, to Womanist theologians. And listening, as we heard in our scripture, is also empowered by the Spirit. As we said in our Affirmation of Faith, written by Presbyterians in 1983, “The Spirit gives us courage . . . . . to hear the voices of peoples long silenced.”
The Spirit gives us courage . . . to hear the voices of peoples long silenced. Those who have been enslaved (in many times and places), those on the margins of empire (although not on the margins in God’s reign), women, LGBTQ folk, sometimes the old and sometimes the young. It takes courage to listen. Because the Spirit is a disruptive force, in the church and in the world. It shakes us up. It shakes us up for love, it shakes us up for justice, it shakes us up for joy, but it does shake us up. By liberating the oppressed, releasing the captives, bringing good news to the poor. It strips us of our idols — if we let it — even as it binds up the broken hearted.
So I invite you, I invite us, to take courage from the Spirit. To listen for it’s prophesies among all God’s people. That could mean studying theology — and just in case I wasn’t clear, Black theology or Womanist theology or German theology is not monolithic — there’s lots of diversity and disagreement. Discernment is part of listening. But reading academic theology is not for everyone (even if you’re seminary trained) so it may mean listening to different preachers - like Bishop Michael Curry at the royal wedding! How about that? - or listening to different music, or having spirit-filled conversations - like the courageous conversations we had at First Germantown yesterday. For in these days when the President talks about “shit hole” countries (I can’t sugarcoat that) and calls immigrants “animals”; in these days when racism is used as political currency; in these days when there are life-threatening, civilization threatening dangers that we must face together or perish, the gospel will only be heard if we recognize that all peoples have been entrusted with God’s prophetic Word. Of every nation and language, men and women, free and enslaved. May the Spirit give us the courage to hear the Word, the courage to speak the Word we have been given, and then, hardest but most important, the courage to obey.