"The Miracle of Understanding"

Acts 2:1-21

I Corinthians 14:13-19


“But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed the people…”

You know that I generally don’t talk a lot about myself in my sermons, but please bear with this exception for a few minutes.

With Pentecost I first found my voice as a preacher.

During my second year at Divinity School I took a course titled “Exegesis and Preaching.” It was taught both by a professor of New Testament and by Peter Gomes, the minister at Harvard’s Memorial Church. This was before Peter Gomes “became” Peter Gomes, before he became regarded as one of the best preachers in the English language, before he became the author of a number of books beloved by many, including members of this congregation, one of which is simply, if imposingly titled: Sermons. It was before all that, but even so, he was a formidable presence.

As an aside, I should say that Peter gave the class some good suggestions about preaching to a congregation filled with imposing and formidable people that grew out of his preaching to people at Harvard. It has been helpful advice for preaching to this congregation.

In later years in order to get into his preaching class students had to have his approval. Fortunately for me, that wasn’t needed at the time. I just signed up.

The teaching in this class was, well, spotty at best. It was mostly: “Here’s a biblical text—now preach a sermon.”

Now, I majored in speech communications in college. Public speaking was something I knew about and enjoyed.

But preaching a sermon was—and is—different from other speaking.

I meekly and feebly preached two sermons that clearly showed I needed a little more instruction. While meeting with Peter to review one of my attempts at a sermon, he told me: “You seem like you needed a shot of something.” Just what that something might be he didn’t venture, although those people in Jerusalem on Pentecost were pretty sure some new wine could be of help to those who preach.

For my final sermon in this class, I was assigned the story of Pentecost from the Acts of the Apostles, the text that we heard again this morning. My first task was to get a better understand of what Pentecost was. Having been raised in a mid-twentieth century Evangelical United Brethren and then United Methodist congregation, I didn’t really know. Pentecost—the third great festival of the church after Christmas and Easter—wasn’t really celebrated when I was growing up. Or maybe as a kid I just wasn’t paying attention.

But I quickly learned the importance of this day that marks the Spirit of God, the Energy for Life, coming upon the early feeble followers of Jesus, giving them power, giving them courage, giving them the ability to speak.

And somehow, in reading this text, in meditating upon it and upon its significance for the church, I, even I, found power and courage and ability. As is the case with most sermons for most people, I don’t remember what I said. But when I stood up in the pulpit to preach that final sermon I was filled with fire, filled with the Spirit. After I sat down, Peter said with what seemed to be a mix of surprise and wonder: “Well, now we finally have something to talk about.”

I had demonstrated one important aspect of Pentecost—the ability to speak, to tell others what is on your mind, what is on your heart.

Acts tells us that the followers of the risen Christ found themselves able to speak about “God’s deeds of power.” But I am convinced that anytime someone finds their voice it is a holy occasion. Anytime someone speaks up for themselves or for others, it is a reason to celebrate. Anytime someone is able to speak the truth in what has become our nation of lies it is a time to give thanks.

Honest speech, bold speech, humble speech is sacred speech.

But Pentecost is not simply about speaking.

It is also about understanding.

Parthians and Medes, Elamites and all the rest of that great community gathered in Jerusalem for the Jewish festival of Pentecost not only heard the speech of the followers of Christ, they understood what was said.

The miracle of Pentecost is a miracle of understanding. It crosses gender and generations. Men and women might talk with each other. Young and old have things to say to one another. Pentecost gives us the hope that we might yet hear one another.

The poet, W.H. Auden, says of this event: “The gift of the Holy Spirit on that occasion is generally called the gift of tongues, but it might easily as well be called the gift of ears…As human beings, we cannot…understand each other unless we are first prepared to listen. Of all the gifts that the Holy Spirit is able to bestow, the one for which we should first and most earnestly pray is humility of ear.”

This was both Paul’s hope and his concern when he wrote to those early Christians in Corinth in the middle of the first century. Some of the people in the church there were speaking in unknown, ecstatic languages. But what good is this, Paul asks, if there is no understanding? What is the value of an engaged spirit if the mind is cut off?

Paul’s solution is: “I will pray with the spirit, but I will pray with the mind also; I will sing praise with the spirit, but I will sing praise with the mind also.”

I love those words.

But as much as I hold those words dear, what Paul asks next is even more important and of more value for us today. “If you say a blessing with the spirit, how can anyone in the position of an outsider say the “Amen” to your thanksgiving, since the outsider does not know what you are saying?”

Understanding. The great concern here is understanding—and more specifically, the understanding of the “outsider.”

Understanding is difficult across generations. Between those born after World War II and their parents was the legendary “generation gap.” The worlds of the two generations were so vastly different that there seemed to be no continuity, no communication. And, Boomers discovered that, while the “gap” is not so wide, generations after us see things differently yet again.

We in this church do well to keep this in mind.

The words one generation finds comforting, another generation can find incomprehensible.

As new people join our congregation, it can sometimes seem to older, long-time members as though Parthians and Medes and Elamites are in our midst. We need to train our ears and our hearts to hear new words, new ways of speaking about the ways of God in our lives. In this way the Spirit helps us gain new understanding for our life together. It can seem like chaos.

While mulling this over in recent weeks I remembered hearing once that: “A multigenerational congregation is a healthy congregation, though not necessarily always a comfortable congregation. But it is a healthy congregation that: Is receiving new members, is passing on the faith, is in earnest dialogue about what is important.” That starts to describe some of the reality and some of the challenge for Congregational UCC pretty well.

One indication of the challenge we face:

Many in our congregation have been talking a lot about what is important, about what our goals from the coming years should be. But when we gathered a few weeks ago to move this conversation along, well, it was a pretty grey haired room—among those of us who still had hair. When we talked together, we heard no voices under 60. And because we had failed to think about childcare during that meeting—I had failed to think about childcare during that meeting—we had excluded generations of voices.

Who are the insiders? Who are the outsiders?

With Pentecost, I’d learned how to speak. My prayer is that with Pentecost I might yet learn to listen so that I understand—and equip others to do the same. May prayer is that with Pentecost, we might yet learn to listen so that we understand.

What makes an intergenerational congregation so important and so interesting is also what makes it so uncomfortable at times. Different generations work from different value systems. The more fully a congregation includes new generations in its membership, community life, and leadership the more it is contributing to its own discomfort. This is normal and healthy, not a problem to be solved.

And there is good news in all of this:

When there is confusion and bewilderment, the Spirit is present. Or maybe we could say when the Spirit is present there is confusion and bewilderment.

John Calvin said that faith is the principle work of the Spirit. But faith should not be confused with certainty. It even has been said that the opposite of faith is not doubt but certainty. And so, in doing the work of bringing faith on Pentecost the Spirit also brings confusion, doubt, and uncertainty. The way we have always done things is called into question.

And so it has been suggested that we should invoke the Spirit when we are uncertain, when we do not know, when we are facing new situations.[i] In such times—especially in such times—we might say that we have the Spirit with us.

In a time like our own, when new situations seem to present themselves every day, when old answers have stopped making sense, it is important to cultivate an awareness that just at this time God's Spirit is at work in us and among us.

And so we continue the openness of Pentecost as we seek to listen and understand.

We find one another as we speak and as we listen. Slowly we come to understand the hopes and fears of each other. Slowly we find a common voice and vocabulary so that we might work together. Slowly we realize that we are members together of the one body of Christ.

If the miracle of Pentecost is the miracle of understanding as well as speaking, the gift of ears as well as tongues, then we are called to a new Pentecost in these days.We are called to open our ears to the “outsider”—to hear the words of those whom we don’t always know, those whom we don’t always see, those with whom we don’t always agree in order to create a common future of shared good.

Understanding one another is a difficult task.

Mutual understanding takes energy.

Mutual understanding requires time.

May the Spirit of God come upon us—even now—opening our ears, our hearts, and our lives to the new possibilities of Pentecost.


[i] Krister Stendahl, Energy for Life, pg. 43, 44.