Pentecost—the tongues of Acts 2

Each one heard the disciples speaking in their own native language; people from all over the known world— Rome, North Africa, Crete, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Armenia, Iraq, Pakistan—you name it. Each one heard the disciples speaking in their own native language; they heard simple people from a fishing village in Galilee speaking their many languages fluently—telling them about God’s deeds of power. That would be like every one of us here breaking out in a different language; a language we’d never even heard of, far less studied.

It’s an amazing event. The curse of Babel Gen 11 was reversed in this moment—the curse of confusion and estrangement was healed by the gift of understanding and community. These Galileans were suddenly able to speak the various human languages of their time. Everyone could understand again. Everyone was included. That’s one of the important messages of that first Christian Pentecost. God is for both inclusion and diversity. There’s no pressure to conform; no desire to force everyone into the same mold. All are invited. All belong. God is for both inclusion and diversity. …

It’s like that in the older Jewish Pentecost too. Shavuot is the festival of the giving of the Torah. But a central text that Jewish people read at this festival last Thursday night was the story of Ruth—a foreign woman who not only received the Torah and so became a Jew. She became the Great Great Grandmother of David; their most revered king. Pentecost; everyone’s in. Everyone really belongs.

At the first Christian Pentecost, God included people by giving the disciples a gift of tongues; so all the visitors to Jerusalem heard the disciples speaking in their own native language. And their reaction? They were bewildered. Some were openly amazed and perplexed. But others tried to belittle what they couldn’t understand.

Many Christians experience a gift of tongues today, but in this case, we’re talking about something different from human language. We’re talking about the tongues of angels—the language of heaven. You’ll certainly be familiar with the expression tongues of angels from the reading we often hear at weddings, 1st Cor 13; the hymn to love. Though I speak in the tongues or mortals and of angels but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. (as in noisy accompaniments of pagan worship)

Tongues of angels. Many people have this gift; many don’t. And there are various attitudes to it. People in Pentecostal Churches value the gift very much. People in Reformed Churches tend to be more suspicious of people’s motives for using the gift in public worship. But if we have this or any other spiritual gift, its value is measured by the way it’s used to build up the community of Jesus; it’s always to be measured by love. Pentecost as we’ve seen is about everyone being in; belonging.

So how do we work with this in a practical way? When we were in India in 2012, Vicky gave a presentation on spiritual gifts to the clergy of the CSI Madras Diocese. It was a controversial topic there. Pentecostal Churches were attracting people away from traditional ones because of their very visible spiritual gifts—particularly tongues, which in some Pentecostal churches is almost an unofficial membership credential. If you can’t speak in tongues in some churches, you’re not really in. This is the exact opposite of Pentecost’s message of inclusion.

Vicky spoke of spiritual gifts in the order of importance Paul attached to them. As we heard today in 1 C 12, the gift of tongues comes last after the gifts of wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miracles and prophecy—but as we know from 1 C 13, none has any value without love. Even though Vicky left tongues discreetly at the bottom of the list where Paul put them, they were the hot potato. In the discussion after her paper, senior presbyters were immediately on their feet trying to put a lid on this nonsense about tongues; they wanted no open discussion of it at all. But privately we had some clergy come and thank Vicky in tears for talking about this issue. They’d never been able to talk with colleagues about their dark secret; that they have a spiritual gift. What does God want here?

The conversation remained very live. Ruben, the senior presbyter who was in charge of our visit took us to Vellore Christian Hospital. In the hospital cafeteria, we talked about the spiritual gifts question again. The waiter overheard us and told me he’d been praying for the gift of tongues for years. I asked if he wanted me to pray for him, and he did. So I put my hand on him, prayed that God would grant him his heart’s desire, and immediately, he began. He was delighted. Ruben was thunderstruck. I should say that I don’t have the gift of tongues, but it’s a most beautiful thing to hear—particularly singing in tongues.

But what are tongues? What’s going on? In Church, if someone speaks in tongues publicly—at the microphone—congregations that are used to this will wait for someone to give an interpretation; to say what the angels’ message is. And then someone else with a gift of discernment is expected to confirm the message. What is given must build up the Church, otherwise it can’t be received. More often though, people with this gift exercise it privately—it builds them up in their faith so that they’re better able to build up the church. But how does this happen?

I believe that in Baptism, the Holy Spirit enters us and begins to pray for us and with us. She knows the deepest needs and gifts of our hearts better than we do ourselves. And in her love for us, she pours them out in prayer before God the Father. The most important process of prayer for us is to learn to hear those prayers of the Holy Spirit and to let her prayers shape our own; let our prayer be nurtured into harmony with hers. We can only receive this as a gift. I believe some people are given the gift of hearing from their own tongues the prayers which the Holy Spirit speaks from their hearts. It’s a beautiful thing; it springs from God’s love, and for that, I can only give God thanks and praise. Amen