When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
5 Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. 7Amazed and astonished, they asked, ‘Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 9Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.’ 12All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, ‘What does this mean?’ 13But others sneered and said, ‘They are filled with new wine.’
14 But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them: ‘Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. 15Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. 16No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:
17 “In the last days it will be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams.
18 Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
and they shall prophesy.
19 And I will show portents in the heaven above
and signs on the earth below,
blood, and fire, and smoky mist.
20 The sun shall be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood,
before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.
21 Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”
This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
The word “unity” has been a word I’ve seen a lot of in the past few months, particularly after the 2020 election season. Calls to put aside our differences, to embrace our common humanity, to quit with the angry tirades towards one another, and to just start getting along. President Biden spoke of this in his inauguration address to the nation: “Now it is time to turn the page, to unite, to heal.” (“Biden calls for unity and healing after Electoral College certifies his victory,” by Christina Wilkie,
Published Mon, DEC 14 2020.) And it’s a word I’ve always thought about a lot when I approach this text from Acts 2, the text for Pentecost Sunday, the birth day of the Church. “They were all together in one place,” the text tells us. Surely this is a text calling us to unity.
But I think it’s worth troubling the narrative a bit on this word “unity”. Because, historically, this word and concept has actually, at times, been weaponized by people who are in the privileged class to silence oppressed communities. I remember reading about the organization of the first Women’s March in 2017, which I participated in myself. I learned some time after the march that trans women, women with disabilities, and women of color had been rightfully raising critiques about the ways they were not included or recognized in the planning and implementation of that first march. In response to this criticism, they were “condescended to and chastised, generally by white women” who had largely left the concerns facing these marginalized communities out of the conversations for planning the march. (“The Women’s March and the Difference Between Unity and Solidarity”,
January 27, 2017 by Zoe Samudzi.) These beloveds on the margins were told to get on board with this “sisterhood” as white women organizers had designed it, a call to unity that suppressed a rich dialogue that might have ensued had it been taken seriously in those early days. Not always, but often enough, calls for unity, especially when made by people with power, serve to squash the dissent of people being left out. The message to marginalized communities ends up being something like this: “Get over the injustices this country has done to you, stop fighting with us, and get on board with our idea of ‘returning to normal’ – a normal in which you have always been a colonized people, a normal in which you are being disproportionately murdered by the police, a normal in which the climate crisis can be addressed incrementally because it’s not my community that is threatened most directly by rising sea levels and toxic waste sites. As writer Zoe Samudzi puts it, “More often than not, ‘unity’ serves as a powerful silencing tool.”
Which is why I find it so interesting that, if we really interrogate what the Holy Spirit does on this Pentecost day in Acts, a movement of unity is not exactly what we find. Yes, these believers were all gathered in one place together when the whole mighty wind and tongues of fire stuff happened. But what’s fascinating to me is that they don’t all get the ability to communicate with each other because the Spirit makes them speak one language. Rather “all of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability… each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.” Professor of Theology Gilberto Luiz puts it this way: “What we witness… is the Holy Spirit validating difference and working through it, not erasing difference and working despite it.” (Gilberto Luiz, “Commentary on Acts 2:1-21”.) This is not a unity, a oneness in which individual identities, histories, and dialects are wiped out so that everyone can now get with God’s top-down program. Instead, the Spirit’s first act in making God’s people into the Church is to empower them to speak in the language of the other.
Who here has ever seriously tried to learn another language? I’ve only dabbled in this, but the experience that comes most to mind right now is the two months I spent living in Bethlehem, Palestine in the home of a Palestinian Christian host family before my senior year of college. During the week, I worked at a Palestinian youth center, right next to an area where many Palestinian homes had been bulldozed to make way for Israeli settlers and occupying military forces. And between my volunteer shifts, I took classes to try and learn Arabic. And, as many of you have probably experienced – it is one thing to learn to read and write in another language. It is another thing entirely to practice speaking that language out loud, full of new, unfamiliar sounds and tonalities. I’m ashamed to say that I stopped going to Arabic class, not because I couldn’t handle the reading and writing part of the learning, but because the exercises where we were asked to speak out loud in practice with a partner in class made me feel so vulnerable, embarrassed, and completely out of my comfort zone, that I just couldn’t bring myself to continue. Willie James Jennings, my favorite commentator on Acts, puts his finger right on the nose of what made me feel so vulnerable: “Anyone who has learned a language other than their native tongue knows how humbling learning can actually be. An adult in the slow and often arduous efforts of pronunciation may be reduced to a child, and a child at home in that language may become the teacher of an adult.” (Willie James Jennings, Acts: A Theological Commentary on the Bible (Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible), pgs. 29-30.)
I believe that the word for what the Spirit is doing in this passage, in empowering God’s people to enter into the vulnerable experience of speaking the language of another, is not unity, but solidarity. They are not the same thing. Unity, on the lips of the powerful, says “I want you to come where I am and get with the program I invented.” Solidarity says, “I’m going to leave the comfort of what I know and come to where you are even though I’ll be uncomfortable while I do it.” Unity keeps us safe because it attempts to draw people into our own orbits and agendas. Solidarity, on the other hand, costs us something. Solidarity pushes us to take risks in concert with the needs of another. Speaking in the native language of the other is an act of solidarity because it is vulnerable, it can be scary, and it means going to where that person is, with humility, before you might feel ready. It isn’t just a learning of words on a page. It’s a deep yielding to the other person’s story, their wounds, the things that have shaped everything about their language. And most importantly, speaking the language of another puts us smack dab in the middle of that wild and windy place where the Spirit delights in returning to us what the forces of empire and top-down hierarchies have stolen from us: our connection to each other.
“All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, ‘What does this mean?’” What a great question from our text for us to ask each other on this Pentecost Sunday, looking ahead at who we are called to be in these wild times. In this moment, I believe one invitation God has for us is to move beyond unity to solidarity with others. Risking ourselves for another and taking action with those who are suffering, in a way that costs us something. We speak another language every time we open ourselves to new learning and listening to others who aren’t like us. Starting Wednesday, everyone is invited to join a class exploring what our LGBTQIA2S+ siblings our facing today. Don’t know what all those letters and numbers stand for? Feel out of your element in trying on a new way to think about gender identity and human sexuaility that’s unfamiliar to you? Think of this as a genuine attempt to speak another language, empowered by the Holy Spirit to go somewhere you’ve never been before in solidarity with siblings who have faced oppression for so long. In June, all our staff, elders, and deacons will join together for a 4-part series about the challenges of antiracism, and you are invited! It’s another opportunity to act in solidarity with communities of color, entering into the stories of others and listening deeply to the wounds causing them harm today, so that those of us with white privilege can learn what it looks like to act to disrupt the structures that are killing our BIPOC siblings. Risky acts of solidarity won’t make us popular. Onlookers might even sneer at us, saying that we’ve had too much wine to drink. But as the flame above each and every head that day reminds us, the Spirit has been poured out on all flesh, even flesh like mine that wants to sprint out of Arabic class because I’m afraid to look like a fool. And, as the prophet Joel told us, that Spirit will give us dreams and visions we never could have imagined before, empowering us to build a community where we can really hear each other in the language closest to our hearts. May that mighty wind blow through us today so that our lives might be aflame on this birth day of the church with the radical love of God. Amen.