Sermon June 4, 2017
“Speaking in Tongues – Hearing Praise of God”
Stephen Soderland, guest preacher
Scripture: Acts 2: 1-12 When the day of Pentecost had come … saying to one another “What does this mean?”
And now Stephen will tell you what this means.
Carol likes to call this the All Music Sunday,
[chanting] But if this were truly an ‘all music Sunday,
Then I suppose that I would have to ‘chant the sermon.
But I think that ‘all of you
Would find that somewhat ‘tedious.
So let’s just call this an almost all music Sunday as it says in the bulletin.
This music Sunday happens to fall on Pentecost, so when they needed someone from the choir to preach the sermon, I couldn’t resist. I was worried that I wouldn’t have enough energy to preach. In Bible Study we found that what the Holy Spirit does is fill us, give us strength, and make us preach boldly. Works for me.
Pentecost is an important day for me. It’s the birthday of the church. You might think that church started on Easter, but even after Easter the disciples were still hiding behind locked doors, afraid that the police would round them up. This was even after they encountered the risen Christ. About 50 days after Easter they were suddenly transformed. I don’t know what happened on Easter or what happened on Pentecost, but something powerful happened that transformed the disciples from being cowardly or at least cautious, to going out in the streets and proclaiming the new way of looking at God that Jesus taught. They even welcomed being arrested as a chance to testify about the Jesus way.
A casual reading of the Pentecost story might give you the impression that there was a mighty rush of wind; that tongues of fire rested on the disciples’ heads; and that Peter and the other Galileans started speaking foreign languages. Actually it says that there was something like a rush of wind or tongues of fire or “seemed to be” or “as if”, depending on the translation. When you come across “as if”, it is an indication of an inner vision. The same phrase is used in the transfiguration where it was as if Moses and Elijah appeared in a cloud. The vision of Ezekiel has the same “as if” description. When describing a powerful inner vision, someone might say, “I can’t really describe it – it was as if my head was on fire, as if there was a rush of wind.” It doesn’t mean that other people would have seen the fire or heard the wind.
What did the writer of Acts mean by including that list of nationalities, Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and so forth? The writer gives this as representing all the nations under heaven. I think he meant that the Jesus way was not limited to Israel. It would spread to all the world. The choir goes even further than the writer of Acts. We have anthems from Latin America, from two different regions of Africa, from the Arab world. And we even have hymns written in North America! We go way beyond the understanding of the writer of Acts that the Jesus way has indeed spread to all the nations under heaven.
I’ve always been troubled by the idea that Peter and the other disciples were speaking Parthian, Elamitic, and that whole shopping list of languages. It says that they were speaking in tongues. I the two other stories in Acts of people being filled with the Holy Spirit and speaking in tongues, it’s clear that this was ecstatic speech. It would sound like nonsense syllables to anyone else. Paul writes quite a lot about speaking in tongues. When he is feeling poetic, he calls it speaking in the tongues of men and angels. It’s clear that he means ecstatic speech. He advises the church in Corinth not to have people speak in tongues a church unless there is someone who can interpret tongues. Otherwise, it doesn’t inform anyone else. It is satisfying to the person speaking in tongues, but not to anyone else. Instead of chanting the sermon, I thought about speaking in tongues for 20 minute. Ann Hopkins was going to interpret the tongues, but she decided not to.
Actually, I do speak in tongues. But not in church. I sometimes have done it in small groups. About two years ago, when Noyuri was diagnosed with cancer, we laid hands on her and prayed in Bible Study. Words just weren’t enough to express what I felt, so I prayed in tongues. Speaking in tongues can express feeling beyond what words can do.
What about the speaking in tongues on Pentecost? It doesn’t say that Peter and the others were simultaneously speaking in more than a dozen foreign languages. It says that the foreigners heard them speaking in their own language. When the disciples were speaking in tongues, it was the same ecstatic speech as elsewhere in Acts and the letters of Paul. The miracle was that, instead of nonsense syllables, the foreigners heard this as praising God, as telling the mighty deeds of God, as if it were in their own language. I threw in the “as if”. This makes more sense to my rational mind.
Here today, you are going to reenact this Pentecost miracle. The choir is going to sing
[fervently] Bonse aba mu pokele la.
[prayerfully] Imbakwa mo yo.
This sounds like nonsense syllables to you. Actually, it sounds like nonsense syllables to the choir as well. None of us are on speaking terms with Swahili, and I don’t think any of us had even heard of the language Chibemba from Zaire. So, we might as well be singing in tongues. Actually, it is singing in tongues. But if you listen, you will hear the choir praising God. I hesitate to add “as if in your own language.” Perhaps. So, you’re going to experience the Pentecost story. At least more or less.
I’d like to try something with you that I don’t know whether it will work or not. Several years ago I did something with a Junior High Sunday school class on Pentecost. I first got each student’s permission, then we all laid hand on the student, we called them by name and said “Receive the Holy Spirit” – “Emma receive the Holy Spirit”, “Joel receive the Holy Spirit”, “Barbara receive the Holy Spirit”, …
Very simple, but powerful. They knew that I was serious about it, and so were they. I felt that it may have transformed some of their lives. I don’t know if this will work with you – you are more sophisticated than eleven or twelve year olds.
I’d like you to do this by rows. If there are only two in a pew, join with the pew in front of you or behind you. Make sure you have permission of someone before laying hands on their head or shoulders. Only do this if you mean it seriously. Otherwise, it’s fine to just say “I pass” or “No thank you”. Call the person by name (make sure you know the name if you are sitting near a stranger) then say “Receive the Holy Spirit”.
I’ll join this pew over here. Let’s begin…
Come Holy Spirit, come. Amen.