Grace Presbyterian Church
May 15, 2016, Pentecost C
The World At Our Window
According to its website, the University of Florida hosts around six thousand students a year, between its undergraduate and graduate programs, who come to the university from countries other than the United States. That’s not uncommon for a university of UF’s size; Ohio State University has over seven thousand international students among its nearly sixty thousand total enrollment. Even a smaller university – like the University of Kansas, my former employer – hosts nearly 2400 international students among its total enrollment of a little over 24,000. Even in my own music history classes I routinely counted students from East Asia – Japan, Korea, and China in particular – as well as the Caribbean, South America, and Eastern Europe.
Of course, those totals are only of students. The international numbers only get larger when one begins to include faculty and staff from other nations – which, at a large university like UF, is going to be substantial – but a number of you know that far better than I do, from personal experience.
A city like Gainesville (or other such university towns like Columbus or Lawrence) is not far distant from the scene depicted in today’s very familiar reading from the book of Acts. It’s a part of the story that is significant as part of the plot, but easy to overlook in all the welter of strange and unpredictable action depicted in it, the familiar part to us.
Much of the story is familiar; the apostles gathered in the upper room in prayer; the sound like a rushing wind, and the strange and disruptive appearance of those things like tongues of fire; the sound of languages they didn’t know; the disciples on the balcony, with the gospel going out in may languages…
But then we might overlook what Luke tells us in verses 7-11. First of all, the nature of the language miracle is made clear; the languages being spoken by the disciples in verse 4 are revealed to be the native languages of the crowd outside, in the city of Jersualem. That multi-national (maybe today we’d say multicultural?) crowd might first have been drawn to the disciples’ building by that sound of rushing wind and what looked like “divided tongues, as of fire” but what got them to stay and listen was the gospel, being proclaimed to each in her or his own language.
And about that crowd… .
There’s something unusual about that list Luke gives us in verses 9-11; not all the references are contemporary – some of them are names of peoples who had lived in regions to the north, east, west, and south of Jerusalem many centuries past, rather than using contemporary terms for those peoples. In both its geographical and chronological diversity, Luke is cluing his readers in on a key point; the world was there, from the four corners of the earth, outside the disciples’ window, waiting for a good word.
Intellectually we know this. Sometimes, though, we don’t do a very good job of remembering this. For example; we do get a good bit of bewailing, in American Christian circles, of how “the church is dying.” If you’re speaking of a specific individual church, or of a denomination, you may not be completely out of line, although fretting about dying seems odd for a church with its very origins in resurrection, as my friend Rev. Ginna Bairby points out in a recent issue of Presbyterians Today. But speaking of the church as dying is shortsighted and maybe a little racist, given that the church continues to grow in places like South America, sub-Saharan Africa, and parts of Asia. The church is there, too, you know.
But in this world and in this town, there is a world outside our window. Persons from many different countries, persons from many different parts of the United States, and persons from every social strata imaginable. Persons steeped in privilege, persons shackled in grinding poverty. And they are waiting for a gospel from us.
The church in this country has gotten pretty good at giving a bad word. The media is always quick to let us know of a church or group of Christians who have been quite insistent about pronouncing a bad word; in the history of Christianity in the US one can find examples of the church, or substantial parts of it, pronouncing a bad word, a word of hatred and exclusion, against: blacks, Irish, Germans, Italians, Chinese, Japanese, Germans again, Russians and other Eastern Europeans, Arabs, Muslims (the two aren’t synonymous, you know), Mexicans, gays, and most lately trans persons, who seem to be the designated objects of hatred at the moment. The church has a pretty long history of pronouncing a bad word, but it seems like it’s been a long while since the world out there has heard a good word, a real gospel, from us. And the world out there includes the world at our window.
Divided tongues of fire or not, the Spirit wants to speak through us as the Spirit did through those disciples. The Spirit even wants us to prophesy – not make lame predictions about the end times, but to tell the truth, to see the world around us and speak truth to it, to speak God’s good news, to speak gospel. Peter doesn’t go out on the balcony and make up something new; he first turns to the prophet Joel, and then interprets Joel’s words through the life of Jesus, bringing in some other sources from the scripture he knew along the way. He pronounces gospel, even if at times it’s difficult.
And that’s what we’re called to do. We are charged by Jesus, and moved and enabled by the Holy Spirit, to speak gospel to the world at our window.
The Spirit really isn’t random; notice that in this story from Acts the Holy Spirit incites the disciples at the moment when there’s a large, diverse audience waiting to hear that good word. Well, that audience is out there, outside our window, so to speak. You’d best believe the Holy Spirit is inciting us to bear that good word. The Spirit may sound like an unusual hymn in which we learn to hear from the church all around the world – all around us – or it may sound like a life unlike any we could imagine, unlike ours, in which we learn to see the Spirit moving among us. But we are called and charged to speak gospel.
Will we follow? Will we listen to the Spirit when it doesn’t sound like what we’ve been accustomed to hearing? Can we speak gospel, no matter the language?
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns, from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal
#289 On Pentecost They Gathered
#287 Gracious Spirit, Heed Our Pleading
#292 As the Wind Song
#853 We Are Marching In the Light of God
#853 We Are Marching In the Light of God
Credit: agnusday.org. I'm with you, kid...