Updated: Jul 31, 2022
Feast of Pentecost
Acts 2:1-21; Romans 8:14-17; John 14:8-17, 25-27
The Rev. Cameron Partridge
June 5, 2022
Almost exactly thirty years ago in the spring of my first year of college, I had an odd exchange with my French professor. Coming into the year, I had decided to take French for my language requirement, having studied it before. Amid the juggling of adjusting to this new life chapter, living far from home, more fully figuring out who I was, and navigating increased academic rigor, I hoped that studying this particular language might not put me over the edge. And indeed it didn’t, but mostly because I coasted. I did not put as much effort into it as I could have, and over time the professor found ways of letting me know. Her message wasn’t “you’re doing badly.” It was worse: “you could be doing very well.” A professorial versions of the age-old demand: apply yourself! And also: “I’m disappointed in you.” I can’t quite remember how she conveyed this sentiment to me—was it in written comments on my papers or tests?—but it intensified, much to my discomfort. One morning before class, I made my way to the restroom. Just as I was pushing the door in from the outside, someone else was pulling it from the inside. Our simultaneous efforts caused the door to slam open with a bang. There I stood in the doorway, face to face with my professor. In the awkward pause before I continued into the restroom, she declared, “it’s a good metaphor for our relationship, isn’t it?” I remember thinking, what?! It is? Some weeks later, at the close of the required oral exam, she told me I had done fine but that the next year, were I to go on to the intermediate level, I would not be able to do as well. “You would be a dead duck,” she intoned, “dead in the water.” I did not continue with French the next year.
In his commentary on the Acts of the Apostles, theologian Willie James Jennings reflects upon the hearing and speaking of languages across barriers in our first reading this morning. Noting how all manner of people in our story are able unexpectedly to understand one another’s speaking, even without knowing the languages, he takes a step back to ask how people learn languages in addition to their mother tongues in the first place.
There comes a crucial moment in the learning of any language, if one wishes to reach fluency, that enunciation requirements and repetition must give way to sheer wanting. Some people learn a language out of gut-wrenching determination born of necessity. Most, however, who enter a lifetime of fluency, do so because at some point in time they learn to love it. They fall in love with the sounds.
From there, they shift to the things those sounds signify, the particularities, the meanings. Jennings continues, “they come to love the people – the food, the faces, the plans, the practices, the songs, the poetry, the happiness, the sadness, the ambiguity, the truth…” The learning of languages invites a sharing that goes way beyond mere words and grammatical patterns. It is an invitation to inhabit new worlds with profound respect, a vocation to be changed by that learning. It is, Jennings underlines, a call to love.
Our passage from the Gospel of John runs with this connection. Philip is pressing Jesus, “show us the Father and we will be satisfied” (John 14:8). But Jesus is incredulous: “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me?” (14:9) Philip might well have wondered, what? I don’t? And this responds to my query how? Jesus is speaking from the nexus of language and relationship. He and the Father, the Parent, are one, and when Jesus speaks, he expresses this union: “The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own” (14:10). He does not speak on his own. He speaks out of profound relationship, of union, from what would come to be named as the Triune mystery that we officially will celebrate next Sunday. “Believe me,” Jesus says— that is, believe in the reality of this divine union, this abiding that generates shared language. And if belief in this process proves too challenging, too abstract or nonsensical, then pay attention to what he calls the “works themselves” (14:11). The miraculous works dramatically shared in John’s gospel are enacted not only in the divine abiding he has just described but somehow also with us. The heart of that sharing, that abiding, is love. Love that came into our midst, that profoundly joined us, in the life and ministry, the death and glorious, joyful resurrection of Jesus. Love that returns to us again and again in the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit whose descent we celebrate today.
Our reading from the Acts of the Apostles dramatically narrates this descent. The disciples are gathered in one place on the day of Pentecost when they hear an approaching sound, a “rush of violent wind.” In the first chapter of Genesis, you may recall, creation began to emerge as “a wind from God swept over the face of the waters” (Genesis 1:2). Now that same wind returns, filling the house and preparing the way for “divided tongues, as of fire” to alight over the heads of the gathered people (Acts 2:3). They all began to bear witness to “God’s deeds of power” (2:11) And somehow, even though they could not speak one another’s languages – or thought they could not – they were able to hear one another, to speak and to share. As Willie James Jennings notes, this is a moment of and a call to profound joining: “What God has always spoken to Israel now God speaks even more loudly in the voices of the many to the many: join them! Now love of neighbor will take on [Spirit-filled, Spirit-led] dimensions. It will be love that builds directly out of the body of the resurrected Jesus.” The Spirit urges us to speak out of this abiding, dwelling love that Jesus bore witness to with his very life. And in fact, the Spirit joins with us in this speaking, as Paul describes our baptismal crying-out, in our second reading (Romans 8:14-16). Together in community, in this collective we call the body of Christ, the Spirit lends a groaning wind to our speech as we struggle across barriers of language and perspective, in loss and weariness, in the midst of life in all its flux. The Spirit bears us up in love even when we have no words for what we have seen or experienced, praying to be renewed in and for the work God gives us to do.
In these Great Fifty Days at St. Aidan’s, the Spirit has very much been about that work. In preparing the video we’ll see just before our closing hymn, I was struck by that love flowing among us and taking us out into the world. I experienced it in our vestry retreat earlier in Eastertide as we planned for the year ahead. I have observed it in the Good News Gardening in which Deacon Margaret has continued to lead us, even as recently as yesterday, with sunflowers seedlings planted on the hill. I have seen it at the Food Pantry, which has some new afternoon volunteers, and in Diamond Diners which has begun enjoying lunch together outdoors in the driveway. I felt it at the Amber Drive Habitat for Humanity building project, where we came together with people across faith traditions to help create more affordable housing in our neighborhood. I felt it yesterday at the Diocesan Confirmation where Roya was one of eighty-eight people who were confirmed or received at Grace Cathedral. And I have felt the Spirit’s joining inspiration across languages, earlier this season at the Faith in Action citywide meeting, where translators assist those of us who are monolingual to connect with one another, to hear one another’s stories, to engage our call to new creation.
In this moment of continuing deep pain in our country, this creative, loving accompaniment of and by the Spirit is more important than ever, challenging us even as it beckons us into deep renewal. As I have recalled my French professor over the years, I have wondered at the intensity of her comments to me. I believe now that they came from a place that saw language learning as a call, a practice of disciplined, devoted re-creation that she wanted me to love as fiercely as she did. I fell short of that love. Yet even now, that call continues. Even now, the Spirit urges me, urges each of us in and through languages of all kinds to join the process of being knit afresh, being made new. We are called to this work with one another, to become ever more authentically the people of God sent out into this world. May we answer that call, that fierce joining, together.