On Pentecost Sunday, Christ Church Cathedral and many other congregations across the world will surreptitiously plant readers across the nave, who will stand during the Acts 2 lesson and begin reading loudly in a variety of languages. The intention behind this exercise is twofold. First, it jars congregants into a heightened awareness that something extraordinary happens on Pentecost, namely, the arrival of the Holy Spirit. Second, it attempts to contrive what actually occurred upon the Spirit’s arrival among the followers of Jesus on the first Christian Pentecost. Luke tells us in Acts 2, “All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.”
Some (i.e.-me) love this addition to the Pentecost liturgy. Those who do not point out that the cacophony of noise created during the Acts reading is actually the opposite of what the Pentecost hearers experienced in the first century. They remind us that Acts 2 goes on to say that the international crowd gathered around Jesus’ followers wondered, “How is it that each of us hears in our own language? In our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.”
In other words, though the disciples speak in several tongues, the real miracle is that all those gathered hear in their own native language. They are given ears to hear words of grace that they can understand and thus receive.
This morning I worshiped at St. George’s Anglican Cathedral here in Jerusalem, where my friend Hosam Naoum is the dean. The congregation was a latter day iteration of the international crowd gathered on the first Christian Pentecost. I personally met people from Palestine, Israel, England, Canada, Germany, Australia, and the United States, and I know other nationalities were present.
In his sermon, Hosam prepared us for next week’s arrival of the Holy Spirit by rehearsing what John’s Gospel has taught us during this Easter season about the nature of the Church. Primarily, the Church intends to be that place and people where and among whom, when gathered, the presence of God becomes palpable. And that presence is manifest as love.
Though Hosam did not say so, the implication is, of course, that if the presence of God manifest as love is not present, then regardless of the building’s edifice, the flashing sign out front, the number of people gathered, or the claims of the preacher, it is not the Church.
Early in this morning’s worship service at St. George’s Cathedral, the congregation began to recite the Gloria in excelsis. As soon as the words began, it was Pentecost! Arabic, German, English, and other languages rang out “Glory to God in the highest, and peace to God’s people on earth!”
For a split second, it was a cacophony, but then the noise was transfigured into the song of angels, understood by every ear, proclaiming that God was present and that God is love. There was no need for contrivance. The Holy Spirit arrived in this conflicted land a week early, and we became the gathered Church.
I was amazed and perplexed, blessed beyond measure, my ears filled with words of grace.