Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning.”
Nine in the morning is when the Spirit struck the hour of Pentecost, sounding out through many tongues, the birth of the Church. And to some, it sounded like folks were misbehaving.
It began with a crowd: Parthians, Medes, Elamites, you get the idea. Visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs.
It’s an ancient story from the Acts of the Apostles, one that lives today whenever and wherever the Spirit goes to work. A story of one room opening onto the world, one language giving way to all languages.
I confess I would love to have been there. Not so much to witness the fire and the wind, as to hear the wild chorus of all those words transcending their speakers.
I have a lifelong habit of tuning my voice to the sound of whoever I’m talking to. Without knowing it, I’ll begin speaking in a British accent to someone from England. Or what I imagine is a German accent to someone from Heidelberg. I’ll swing my voice toward Paris if I’m talking to a Frenchman. Mind you, I’m only the one who enjoys this wayward tendency.
I love listening to foreign films, too, snagging the subtitles while trying to take in the lovely sound of another language. And sometimes while I’m listening, I’ll take my eye off the subtitles and try to sound out the spoken words not knowing what they mean. I do this alone. I’d never ever do this in a crowd. I’d be afraid of letting anyone know how much I love sounding like somebody else.
Years ago, I watched The Blue Angel, a German film featuring the great Marlene Dietrich. She sang, memory tells me, but truthfully every word she spoke in German was music to my ear.
Near the end of the film, completely immersed in the alien sound of it, my phone rang. It was a landline, though back then we called it a home phone. No caller ID, just a ring telling me someone was calling.
So, I paused the movie on my VCR, and answered, Hallo?
I hadn’t meant to sound like Marlene Deitrich. And I probably didn’t sound like Marlene Dietrich. But I also didn’t sound like me.
On the other end of the line, my next-door neighbor, said, Lauren? Is that you?
(Start having fun and you, too, might find yourself an action away from embarrassment. For whatever reason, the memory of answering that phone has always had a Pentecostal ring for me.)
I couldn’t decide if I should hang up quickly, make my neighbor think she’d dialed a wrong number, or go ahead and lean into it.
Hey, I answered. It’s me.
And what I’m wondering today is whether the Spirit of God is just playful enough to call us toward holy embarrassments, toward risking being known in a new way.
Under the force of God’s love, the disciples spoke in a new language, seeking not so much “to be understood” as to express the power of God. They weren’t communicating on their terms. They were communicating on God’s terms, completely under the sway of the Holy Spirit.
The love of God sent them out into the streets. And the crowd gathered there said, Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? – like saying, How is it we understand them? and how is it they seem to understand us?
I’m guessing those Galileans felt odd sounding out the voweled nonsense of another language. Or at least odd seeing all those strange foreigners bob their heads as if they understood every word they said.
Pentecost marks an ecstatic moment. And tells us the Spirit works that way, landing us outside ourselves. It’s like falling in love – losing yourself in order to give yourself away.
I’m guessing everyone felt strange that day. Under the influence of Spirit, the followers of Jesus staggered into a block party at nine in the morning, where everyone was welcome because God made it happen and because ordinary people opened their hearts to God.
That’s what Pentecost is after: not to drown you in drink but to drown you in God, the way Baptism does: in Christ, drowning you to old selves, raising you to new selves. The danger is believing God means to drown you without raising you. By way of the Holy Spirit, baptismal life empowers you for new adventures and intends to give you courage.
Yet, in the words of theologian Frances Young, “Too often the Gospel of grace is [itself] drowned out by [things like] shame, inferiority, embarrassment [resulting from] our less than perfect reactions or responses in everyday encounters [with other people.]”
So, let’s be clear: the disciples weren’t aiming for perfection at Pentecost. They gave up self-conscious worry to give themselves over to God. To the onlookers, it looked like they were misbehaving. But, you see, God was making something new.
Perfection is a deadly practice. It’s not the same thing as sanctification. Perfection is thinking you yourself are righteous or can be. Sanctification is losing yourself in the righteous love of God and allowing the Spirit of God to empower you for his service.
This morning, in prayers said at the Altar, there’ll come a time when we’ll ask God to “sanctify us also that we may faithfully receive his body and blood.” And at that moment, it’s customary to make the sign of the cross over your own body. In this way, one marks the Spirit at work among us, through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.
So, when you hear those words today, if you want to, you can follow that practice with me and make the sign of the cross over yourself. It’s a way saying, Come, Holy Spirit, and strengthen me to receive the Body of Christ and all that gracious gift intends for my life.
If that’s not your practice, though, don’t worry about it. On the other hand, if you’ve always held back from making the sign of the cross because you feel self-conscious or worry there’s a right way to do it, I encourage you to go ahead and do it.
The Spirit calls you to new life, and new life always feels a little awkward.
For the love of God, Pentecost invites you to risk your self, share your life, shake off embarrassment, and allow the Spirit to move you in a new direction.