Many Tongues Became One

The Feast of Pentecost

Joel 2:21-end, Psalm 145, Acts 2:1-11, St. John 14:15-31

Many Tongues Became One

My dad was a sprout during the Great Depression.  His family fared better than most.  His dad worked as a superintendent in the Texas Company oil field just outside of town and he remained gainfully employed throughout that dark period.

They lived in West Columbia, Texas, home of the fightin’ Roughnecks, which is just across the river from East Columbia.

When Dad was 8 or 9 it became the custom for his mother to give him a nickel each Saturday night – assuming he had been reasonably well behaved and had tended to his chores.  That nickel would cover both admission to the movies and the price of a candy bar.

Dad would meet up with a couple of his pals and they would head over to the Bijou Theater on the main drag and take in the show.

One summer night, one of the boys had a better idea.  He’d heard about a regular Saturday night event that promised to be a better show.  And not only that, they could keep their nickels in their pockets because it was free.

So the three boys headed for the big tent on the edge of town where the Pentecostal church met.  They held their service on Saturday night because this was the Texas Gulf Coast and the summer days were hotter than blazes.

The Pentecostals also rolled up the bottom edges of their tent all the way around so that any breeze that might stir wouldn’t go to waste.  That gave three puckish boys an opportunity to flop on their bellies and peer inside.

The Pentecostal preacher was a fellow named One-Arm Brown.  He had transitioned from his previous career as a bootlegger after he lost an arm in the course of a high-speed chase.  A revenuer got off a lucky shot that sent the bootlegger skidding off the gravel road and into a tree.

This unfortunate incident limited him to the point that he felt compelled to withdraw from the bootleggers’ guild and move on to the related field of preaching.  He reckoned that both jobs were about making people feel better during those difficult days.

Well, on this particular night as the boys looked on, the praise band got to playing and the preacher got to preaching and before long some of the folks appeared to enter a state of frenzy.  A comely lass of about 17 became so ecstatic that she fell off of her chair and began to roll around in the center aisle.

As she did, the hem of her skirt began to ride up higher and higher.  The widow Jones, who was seated right there on the aisle, reached down to pull the young lady’s skirt back down in the interest of propriety.  Whereupon Reverend One-Armed Brown held up his one arm and bellowed, “Desist, Sister Jones, desist.  And let her glory shine.”

Dad and his buddies were quite faithful in their Saturday-night church attendance for some time thereafter.  The only downside for Dad, I suspect, was that the service at the Presbyterian Church in East Columbia, where his mother dragged him every Sunday morning, got even more boring.

And so as we celebrate the Feast of Pentecost I pose the question: Is that how God the Holy Spirit operates in His creation?

Pentecost is the day on which the Holy Spirit erupted in the creation and breathed out salvation on 3,000 souls in Jerusalem, the day on which God inaugurated the church as we know it and understand it and live it today.

We have our concerns – well-founded concerns – about the state of God’s church in our place and time, but perhaps this is a day to see the glass as half-full.

I read a story recently that provides some perspective.  The 18th century was a time of indifference and even apostasy in England.  A pastor named Samuel Wesley was the father of two sons, John and Charles.

One day he told the one, “Charles, be steady.  The Christian faith will surely revive in these kingdoms.  You shall see it, though I shall not.”

John of course heard of that conversation and he recalled it years later when, standing at his father’s grave, he preached to a great multitude.  England did see revival, and much of the credit for it goes to Samuel Wesley’s two boys, who spooned their gospel tonic into an ailing church in both England and America.  We are reminded once again to walk by faith and not by sight.

If we inhabit an age of the eclipse of the church, so have many others.  But from every eclipse the church has emerged and will emerge more resplendent than before.  If a spiritual gloom has descended upon our own time, it affords us an opportunity to turn up the flame of our faith in God.

This was the way of St. Augustine.

From the time of the fathers the church has seen Pentecost as the reversal of the Tower of Babel.  At Babel, one language became many; at Pentecost, many languages become one.   In the instant the church was born, she spoke with one voice.

This is the power of our God.  In this power – in His power — are our strength and our hope.  In this power – in His power — is the reason we shall not lose heart.  We are His church, and the gates of hell will not stand against us.

At Babel, God confused the tongues of the nations; at Pentecost He reversed the confusion.  At Babel, God scattered the people in judgment; at Pentecost He distributed the people to publish the gospel to all the nations.

At Babel, the people used language to advance a human agenda; at Pentecost, language became a sign to declare the power of God.  At Babel, disunity radiated outward as when a stone causes ripples in a pond; at Pentecost, people flew together as iron filings to a magnet.

Our God is ever merciful.  In the Garden, he drove man out so he could not continue to eat from the tree of life and live forever in his sinful state.  At Babel, He drove man away, delaying judgment on the City of Man and affording His creatures an opportunity of repentance.

Only God could tolerate the sin of His creatures; only God could provide a remedy for it.  After the great flood, when God looked down and saw that sin was once again rampant on the earth, He called Abraham out of Ur of the Chaldees to begin to form a people for His holy name.

Later He would send a man, born of a woman, born under the law, to complete the work.  This man, after His resurrection from the dead but before His ascension into heaven, would commission His apostles, or messengers, to “make disciples of all nations,” going “to the end of the earth” to take the gospel to every nation, tribe, tongue and people.

But wait, He told them, until you receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.  They received that gift on this day, Pentecost, the 50th day after the Feast of Unleavened Bread, which was celebrated at the time of harvest.  In God’s economy the harvest of grain would ever thereafter trigger the memory of the harvest of souls.

Even back in the day of the prophet Joel, God had promised to send His people a Helper.  The Son would pray to the Father, and the Father would send this Helper.  Of course, not everyone is astute enough to recognize a helper when the Father sends one.  I recall one soul who did.

This woman received a call at work informing her that her daughter was sick.  On her way to the school, she stopped at the pharmacy to get medicine.  When she got back to her car she found that in her haste she had locked her keys inside.

She spied an old rusty coat hanger on the ground.  She had heard of using a coat hanger to pop the lock, but even as she picked it up she thought, “I have no idea how to use this.”

She bowed her head and asked God to send a helper.  In less than five minutes a beat-up old motorcycle pulled up. The rider wore a scraggly red beard and a do-rag.  He got off of his motorcycle and asked if he could help.

The woman said: “Oh, yes, please, my daughter is sick. I’ve locked my keys in my car. I must pick her up. Can you use this hanger to unlock my car?”

The biker said, “No problem.”  He walked over to the car, and in less than a minute the door was open. The distraught woman hugged him and through her tears of gratitude she said, “Thank you so much! You are a very nice man.”

The biker replied “Lady, I am not a nice man. I just got out of prison yesterday.  I was in for car theft.”

The woman hugged him again, sobbing, “Oh, thank you, God!  You even sent me a professional!”

Now, that’s discernment.

One thing the Holy Spirit would teach us is that there is no true unity among men if not through God.  The vertical relationship must always precede the horizontal. The Holy Trinity is the model for all relationships.

Each of its three Persons has a role and the roles harmonize perfectly.  Even when one submits to another – as when the Son does the bidding of the Father even at the cost of His life – none becomes less than the others.

Instruction of this sort defies human understanding . . . and it is the way of ordering all relationships in our once and future state, in the garden and in glory.  It seems so foreign to us because we dwell today in the City of Man, and man’s government looks nothing like God’s.

God imposed it on His creation, when Jews from all points of the Diaspora, or dispersion, had assembled in Jerusalem to celebrate the feast.  It arrived with the force of a “rushing mighty wind.”  Not for the first time did God act by way of a wind.  Not by chance is the word for “breath” and “wind” and “spirit” the same in both Hebrew and Greek.

At Pentecost, the “mighty rushing wind” and “divided tongues, as of fire” — do you recall the burning bush? — brought God’s remedy for the rifts between man and God and man and man that sin produced.  Man dedicated the Tower of Babel, the house sin built, to the premise that man can unite with man while freezing God out.

The Psalmist would refute this notion:

“Unless the LORD builds the house, they labor in vain who build it . . .” (127:1).

But by the day of Pentecost sin-stained contractors,  their languages still confused, would be erecting myriad towers in the hope of ascending into the heavens of their own might or bringing God down to serve them in their realm.

The church God inaugurated on that day is His gift of a halfway house for His people, a shelter from the anarchy of the City of Man while we await communion in the City of God.  This is where St. Augustine can abet our understanding.

In the fifth century Alaric led the Goths in the sack of Rome, by this time the capital of a Christian nation for more than a hundred years.  The barbarian invader appeared to be pulling a vast darkness down on 11 centuries of civilization and culture.

Pagans and even nominal Christians attributed the catastrophe to that upstart religion called Christianity and predicted the ruin of the entire world.  Augustine, instead of joining in the cacophony, sat down to compose his classic “The City of God.”

This city of the Christian church rises out of the ruins of the civilizations of this world and survives all manner of chaos and tumult.  One day, her King will return to take up His throne and rule over an eternal realm of perfect justice and peace.

Meanwhile, we who are the subjects of this King have the privilege of looking upon this City of God with the eyes of faith and glimpsing our future home.  We have the further privilege of serving our King in preparing the world for the transfer of the City of God from heaven to earth, of proclaiming to the nations separated at Babel the solution God effected at Pentecost.  Augustine wrote:

“If pride caused diversities of tongues, Christ’s humility has united these diversities in one.  The Church is now bringing together what that tower had sundered.  Of one tongue there were made many; marvel not: this was the doing of pride.  Of many tongues there is made one; marvel not, this was the doing of charity.”  So wrote Augustine.

In Jerusalem, the Jewish authorities had prohibited certain prayers, including the Shema – “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one” — in foreign tongues.  Now the Jews of the Diaspora hear the praises of God sung out in the languages of the territories whence they came.

In Old Testament times, when the Spirit of God took control of a man, he prophesied.  Here, in like manner, the people prophesy, but in tongues.

This is not the ecstatic utterance Paul will address in 1 Corinthians but known languages spoken by those to whom they are unknown.  And those who prophesy are not Jerusalem sophisticates but a rabble from the back woods of Galilee.

Three thousand of the visitors will take their testimony to this mighty act of God back to their own lands and launch the process of disseminating the gospel throughout the nations and to the very end of the earth.  These are the firstfruits of the church . . . not a church for the Jew only but for those of every nation, tribe, tongue and people.

By the power of God, disunity has become unity, chaos has conceded to order, darkness has shriveled before the light.

Why, then, do we look out today upon the gathering gloom?

Robert D. Putnam is a scholar who studies American culture and who focuses his work on communities.  He wrote a book titled “Bowling Alone” that describes a sociological phenomenon in which more and more of our countrymen are bowling alone.

What was once a social game, to which people congregated in leagues, is turning into a solitary activity.  Bowling, of course, is not Putnam’s real concern.  His interest is in the disconnection that characterizes our culture more and more.  He notes that it has invaded the church as well as the bowling alley.

His observations appear more faithful to the reality we see around us than the notion of a church that is “one, holy, catholic and apostolic,” as we recite each Sunday – with emphasis on the “one.”  In an age of proliferating denominations, epidemic divorce and families rent asunder, how can we find the unity of the promise of Pentecost?

We will see it if we look through the eyes of Samuel Wesley, who peered beyond his own demise and saw an England restored to worship . . . if we look through the eyes of St. Augustine, who stood with feet firmly planted in the City of Man and caught the vision of the City of God.

We will not stumble if we walk by faith and not by sight, if we walk not in our own strength but in the power of the Holy Spirit. The Lord has built this house, His church, and the Lord does not labor in vain.  Amen.


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Love Indescribable

The Sunday After the Ascension

Isaiah 33:5-6, 17, 20-22; Psalms 21:1-6, 24; 1 St. Peter 4:7-11; St. John 15:26-16:4

Love Indescribable

Kairos is a program in which a team of Christians enters a prison on consecutive days, hauling in mountains of fried chicken and barbecued beef and pizza and apple pie and chocolate cake – items that are not staples of an inmate’s diet.

They spend a Saturday and Sunday serving up this feast . . . but it is not the only nourishment they bring.  They pack in the love of God as well.  A Texas pastor described an experience on such a visit:

“A young man I will call Ernesto wanted to talk more about forgiveness,” the pastor said. “Inmates can request one-on-one counseling with the pastors on the team.   Ernesto told me that he felt that God could forgive him, but he did not think his family could forgive him.

“Ernesto was so ashamed of his crimes that he cut off all contact with his family.  He sent their letters back; he would not see them if they came to visit.  He had not had any contact with his family for more than 10 years.

“I asked Ernesto, ‘What makes you think your mother would not forgive you?’

“He said, ‘Because she raised me better.  My mom is a Christian woman; she went to church all the time and took all of us kids to church.  She taught us right. That’s why I am so ashamed.  I knew better; she taught me right.  I don’t have a leg to stand on.’

“I asked Ernesto, ‘What if I showed you something in the Bible about forgiveness?  Probably some scripture that you mother often reads.’

“We said the Lord’s Prayer together, and after ‘amen,’ I showed him the next two verses in Matthew 6, verses 14 and 15:

“’If you forgive those who sin against you, your heavenly Father will forgive you. But if you refuse to forgive others, your Father will not forgive your sins.’

“Ernesto said, ‘But I do forgive them,’ and I said, ‘Ernesto, I am not talking about you; I am talking about your mother.  This scripture applies to her, too.’

“Ernesto looked at me kinda puzzled.  I said, ‘Ernesto, if your mother is a Christian like you are telling me, she forgave you a long time ago.  I bet she has been praying for you every single day since you got incarcerated.’

“Ernesto remained uncertain.  He said, ‘You really think so?’  I said, Ernesto, ‘I feel almost certain.  It doesn’t mean she approves of your mistakes; it just means she forgives you.  I also feel certain she has been praying that you would also change your behavior . . . but that’s up to you.’

“Then it happened. Suddenly, inexplicably, Ernesto was able to believe in the love and forgiveness of God.  And he began to weep.  He was a mess; I wondered if he was having some sort of nervous breakdown.  In hindsight, the Holy Spirit had moved into his heart

“It took a while, but he settled down.  And almost like it was right out of Acts chapter 2, he asked me, ‘What should I do?’

“I said, ‘Ernesto, it’s time to repent and ask God to forgive your sins, and to change your ways.’  He prayed.  Then we prayed together, and he was halfway laughing with joy and crying at the same time. He was slobbering and snot was flowing!

“I said, ‘It’s time to get back to our table and tell all your brothers in white (the other inmates) that you are becoming a man of God.  And you need to tell your cellmate, and you need to write your mother tonight, and tell her God has saved you.  All of this, Ernesto, is an answer to her many, many prayers.’

“And we went out to see the other inmates.  I saw a guard coming up to our table, and I heard him tell Ernesto, ‘You have a visitor.  Come check out with the chaplain and you can go see them.’

“Ernesto said: ‘Who is it?  I don’t get visitors.’    And the guard said, ‘It’s your mother.’

“All I could get out was, ‘Praise God!’  I wish I could describe his face to you.  He was overcome with joy and astonishment and . . . it was just indescribable.’”

Love – God’s love — will cover a multitude of sins.  Long before Ernesto stumbled upon this indescribable truth, St. Peter revealed it in his first letter to the persecuted and scattered Christians of the first century.

We are now six Sundays removed from Easter.  Since that highest holy day of the Christian year, our gospel lessons have led us into a growing awareness of who Jesus is as Christ and our epistle lessons into a deepening understanding of how we must live in response to His crucifixion and resurrection.

Just last week, we celebrated His ascension as well.  In the collect for Ascension Day we prayed that we who believe in Christ’s ascension “may also in heart and mind thither ascend, and with him continually dwell . . .”

We now look ahead to the advent of the One who will empower us to live in such a way that we may ascend in heart and mind and dwell with our Lord in His heaven.  The kingdom of heaven is open for business this very day . . . open to those who make Christ’s sacrificial life the pattern for their own.

One week from today, if the Lord does not return before, we will celebrate Pentecost, the coming of the Holy Spirit.

This morning we prayed in our collect to the “King of glory” who has already exalted His Son “with great triumph into thy kingdom in heaven” to “leave us not comfortless but send to us thy Holy Ghost to comfort us and exalt us unto the same place whither our Saviour Christ is gone before . . .”

We hover today in the warp between the ascension of the Son of God and the condescension of the Spirit of God.  Peter wants us to know that love covers a multitude of sins.

But we mustn’t get ahead of our story.  The apostle begins our lesson for today by raising the alarm: The end of all things is at hand.

The sky is falling!  The sky is falling!  We must go and tell the king.

And Chicken Little is off, soon to be joined by Henny Penny, Cocky Locky, Ducky Lucky, Drakey Lakey, Goosey Loosey, Gander Lander and Turkey Lurkey.

They must escape the clutches of Foxy Loxy.  Or is that Foxy Woxy?  They must go and tell the king.

But . . . no.  That wasn’t the sky falling, after all, but an acorn landing on the little chickie’s head.  Oh dear, oh dear.

The end of all things is at hand!  The end of all things is at hand!  Is St. Peter’s hair on fire?

And now here we sit, today, 2,000 years later, looking forward to our lunch.   Birds chirping, kids playing . . . The end of all things is not near.  Never was.  Those gullible Christians.  They’ll swallow any old yarn.

It is undeniably true that the early church – including its leading lights such as Peter and Paul – expected the Lord to return in judgment within their generation.  Peter had watched his Lord ascend from the Mount of Olives until He vanished in a cloud.  He had heard angels repeating Jesus’ pledge that He would return.

Some seem to have expected Him in weeks or months.  And so we ask: How near is near?  Were the apostles nervous Nellies?  Do the mockers have a case?

We must say three things in response.  First, in a real sense these apostles had seen the end already.   Christ had brought it with Him.  In Him, all Old Testament prophecies were fulfilled.  The age of man’s thrashing attempts to justify himself under the law was over.

God’s solution had arrived.  In Christ, eternity invaded time.  We may watch the clock and consult the calendar but by God’s reckoning Christ ushered in the day without end.  As His apostles died off, the demise of the last vestiges of the Lord’s life on earth passed away.  The end was near.

Second, since the Christ’s ascension, no one else has exited this world so gracefully.  The apostles and all who have followed have met physical death.  So in that sense, for you and for me, for every one of us, the end is near.

Third, and perhaps even more to the point, is Peter’s comment in his second letter.  God is not slow to keep His promises; He is allowing the reprobate ample time to repent and follow the Lord.  “But, beloved,” he writes, “do not forget this one thing, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day” (3:8).

The apostle’s point is that the Christian life enfolds an urgency of giving our best for God today because tomorrow – be it the day of our death or of our Lord’s return – is so very near.  The rich farmer in the parable filled his barns, put up his feet and took his ease.

He ate, drank and made merry.  He did not heed the caution: “This night your soul will be required of you” (Luke 12:20).

It bears noting as well that our soon-coming King is with us today in the Person of His Holy Spirit . . . and therein lies another motivation to a life pleasing to Him.

In the previous passage, Peter has given instruction on how not to live as Christians in time of trial.  Now he posits the positives by way of contrast:

Not drunken debauchery and licentiousness but sobriety, clarity of mind, self-control.  Not lust but love.  Not orgies but hospitality.  Not exploitation but ministry.  Not the pagan life but the life of  prayer.

Clarity of mind and self-control are necessary for prayer, which the Lord had prescribed for His disciples in times of crisis.  In the Garden of Gethsemane He had commanded Peter to keep watch and to pray.  Instead, Peter slept.

Now the apostle counsels his disciples to keep a clear head and a tight rein on their emotions. He is counseling them to hold on to their sanity, to keep things in perspective.  Do not hurtle pell-mell into enthusiasms of the moment – do not amuse yourselves to death — but remain grounded in eternal truth, and prayer.

For Christian unity, prayer is a non-negotiable.  What shall we pray?  “Thy will be done.”  Sober, clear-headed prayer seeks not the Christian’s fallible will but his Lord’s perfect will.   As we watch the world around us fray this day, what shall we pray?  “Thy will be done.”

In a loose translation of Proverbs 10:12, the apostle declares that “love will cover a multitude of sins.”  But whose love?  It is God’s love that covers a multitude of sins.  We cannot love passionately enough to save ourselves from our sins.  Only God can.

Forgiving, transforming love of this sort puzzles us sinners.  Like Ernesto, we sentence ourselves to a prison enclosed by the razor wire of unforgiveness; we cling to our guilt and squeeze our eyes shut against the truth of the mercy of God – and His people.  Until someone comes along to speak the gospel into our lives and we let down our guard . . . and the Holy Spirit rushes in to fill that God-sized hole inside us.

Peter goes on: Gifts are for service, not self-aggrandizement. Our Lord Himself commanded His followers to practice hospitality: “I was a stranger and you took me in” (Matthew 25:35.

The literature of the early church is replete with exhortations to open homes to traveling apostles, preachers, teachers, evangelists and bearers of letters.  Inns were few and far between and money scarce.

The “Didache,” or “Teaching,” a document of the church that dates to the first decade of the second century, sets out specific regulations for offering hospitality to travelers.  And while this instruction is intensely practical, we must not assume that it is not also spiritual.

Yes, there’s a Day’s Inn just down the road but its presence does not cancel the Christian’s obligation to exercise his gift.  Pointedly, Peter tacks on an admonition to do so “without grumbling.”  The “Didache” passage also spells out proper conduct for guests.  The authors may have been anticipating the Italian proverb: “A guest is like a fish; after three days he stinks.”

Peter is teaching on relations within the church.  His instruction on “speaking the oracles of God” applies equally to those who are preaching to the flock or ministering to outsiders. He may have in mind his own experience, described in Acts ch. 10, of witnessing to the gentile Cornelius and his family, upon whom the Holy Spirit descended in like manner of His anointing of Peter and the other Jews in ch. 2.

The preacher’s opinions matter only insofar as they align with God’s opinions.  Otherwise, he can stuff ‘em.  I must tell you that it requires a learned discipline to avoid wandering away from the text and interjecting one’s own philosophies into the sermon.  Those are not the “oracles of God.”

To have a spiritual gift – and every Christian has at least one – is to be a steward of the grace of God.  Do not treat it as a trifling thing.  God works by means – often human means – and that gift He has awarded you is to be put to work for the benefit of others and the glory of the Giver.

Only if we minister using God’s gifts and His strength will we give Him all the glory.  If we operate in our own capacities we are serving ourselves.  And when such a “ministry” finds what looks like success, that “success” may in fact be God’s judgment.

I think of the TV hucksters who promise healings . . . with all major credit cards are accepted.  The joint’s rocking, the choir’s singing, the “love” flowing.  And as Paul teaches of idolaters in Romans 1, God gives them up to their “vile passions.”

There’s a lesson here for those who are sincere in ministry as well.  Church-planting strategies and church-growth methods are not wrong in and of themselves, but those who use them must exercise caution.

When they appear to work, it’s all too easy to credit one’s own cleverness and rob glory from the One who gives the increase.

The apostles had once squabbled about who would be most exalted in the kingdom of heaven.  Now this post-Pentecost Peter acknowledges it is by God’s grace that he can bid a lame man walk and preach the gospel with conviction and power.  He is seeking glory not for himself but for his Lord.

Only when reading Peter and John among writers of New Testament letters can we compare their impetuous and immature words and actions when they were walking with Jesus to their knowledge and wisdom after the Holy Spirit descended upon them at Pentecost.

How – now — could they fail to see that it is only by God’s grace communicated by His Spirit that they could accomplish any meaningful work?

Beloved in the Lord, you and I did not tread the dusty roads of Palestine with Jesus.  We were not there to witness His ascension and we were not on hand at Pentecost when the Spirit came down and poured out salvation and blessing on His people.  But we have this same Spirit in no less measure than they.

We are equipped with His gifts to serve God in ways great and small and the humility to give Him the glory.  These attributes are present within us because the Holy Spirit is present within us.  Our job is to get out of His way and let Him do His miraculous, life-saving work through us.  Amen.


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