How many people here either have been trained or know how to speak more than one language. And, don’t worry. Keep your hands up if you’ve had to use that language in a situation involving a native speaker. I’m amazed and impressed by people who come to this country and learn how to speak English well because it is not an easy language to learn. My second language is German, although it’s been years since I’ve had to use it. In seminary, I took some Greek, Latin, Hebrew, and Spanish; and yet whenever I couldn’t think of a word in any of those languages I would insert the German word that I could think of, which, you can imagine, led to some very confused looks on my Greek, Latin, Hebrew, and Spanish teachers. Yet, I’ve never personally been to a country that has German as it’s first language. The closest I’ve ever been was in Israel. I got frustrated with the English speaking masses because they weren’t English speaking. Often times, they would have elements of Vietnamese, Spanish, and Latin involved. I just wanted to go to a normal mass so I found those harbingers of laws and rules, the Germans.
In Jerusalem there is a church called the Dormition where Mary is supposed to have slept before being taken up body and soul into heaven. It’s run by a group of Benedictine Monks from Germany so my curiosity was piqued when I heard about it. I went there one weekend for mass and discovered that, like any good Benedictine Abbey, they also did Morning and Evening prayer together. So, I attended those whenever I could and kind of became accustomed to praying in German. One day, as I was leaving, I was approached by one of my fellow mass-goers who began speaking in rapid fire German to me. I can only imagine what the confused look on my face must have looked like to this poor gentleman as I tried to think of how to say, “bitte, langsam.” Or Please speak slower. He smiled and said he was the mayor of Munich in English and we walked and talked in a mix of English and German until we had to part our ways and, all along, I kept thinking about how intimidating it must be for people to come to this country and speak our language even if they have had plenty of training in it.
I think there’s a parallel between my experience in Jerusalem and the Apostle’s experience in the upper room and it’s not just location. I mean, as I walked with the mayor we did walk past the traditional spot of the upper room but that’s not what I mean. The Apostles, in this upper room, were locked away from the rest of the world. They have been told by Christ to evangelize but to wait until they receive a sign. When the sign comes, it’s a powerful wind that, basically, forces them out into the world. In what most commentators believe to be the reversal of the experience of Babel; the Apostles speak in the native tongues of the people around them to unite them in God. In the process, the Spirit unites these believers into the church and lights the fire of evangelization under their complacent hearts. The core of the church, the supreme driving force that doesn’t allow us to turn inward, therefore, is the Spirit. It’s a force for reconciliation in the world. Jesus said it best in the gospel when he said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.”
That’s what I found ironic about our use of the term “spiritual” in today’s society. I’ve been asking around this week about what people mean when they say they are “spiritual” but not “religious”. Some people say that religion is a series of rules and laws while being spiritual is more freeing, more personal. Some seem to confuse the term “spiritual” with the term “loner” or “pensive”. To be truly spiritual, you need to be both. There’s a necessity for the Henry David Thorough moments of being alone with God but, as in the first reading, those moments will ultimately drive us into an encounter with the world through the Spirit. Most of the time this happens, it happens because of gifts the Spirit gives to us to equip us for ministry. We here at St. Thomas have begun a process of helping people discern those gifts in their own lives since, most of the time, we don’t have a Pentecost type experience that makes clear what our gifts are. Most of the time, we learn what our gifts are by someone we know and respect telling us that we do something well. We pray that this program will help all of us, you and I, to learn what our gifts are and how we might better utilize them.
Yet, in the end, we shouldn’t confuse the gift with the giver, a fact that any of us who have ever given a terrible gift on Mother’s day treasure. The Spirit drives us outside of ourselves to speak to those that intimidate us to tell them about Christ. It forces us to reach out in a spirit of forgiveness to those who have wronged us. And it will be the agent that gives the sick among us strength through the laying on of hands and the anointing. But, ultimately, it is the Spirit of God of which we speak, the Spirit that makes us the church and through whom alone we can Jesus is Lord because he unites us to the Father through the Son. On this Pentecost Day, we not only give thanks to God for the gifts of the Spirit but especially the gift that is the Spirit that makes God accessible to us.