Have you ever been in a foreign country where you didn’t speak the language? It can be at times frustrating, challenging, or even comical. You feel pretty helpless, unable to convey even the most basic messages and make the simplest request. And the fact that you don’t speak the local language definitely sets you apart from everyone else.
Before I entered seminary, I taught English as a Second Language for a couple years in an area high school. So, I was (trying to) teaching English to high school students from all around the world whose mother tongue was a language other than English. Some of my students knew a few words in English when they first came to school, but many knew virtually nothing. So at first, the Burmese students would all stay in one group, the Vietnamese in another, the Rwandans in other, the Hispanics in another. But, being teenagers, they were curious and fairly social, and if they wanted to communicate with someone outside of their own ethnic group, they had to speak English. It was interesting to see them trying to communicate with each other in their halting English, and they would start to pick it up surprisingly quickly.
We are all familiar with the Old Testament story of the Tower of Babel, when the people of the world gathered together to build a massive tower to heaven out of pride, because they wanted to be gods. And, as the story goes, God confounded their ability to communicate with each other. Because they suddenly couldn’t communicate, they were unable to complete the tower. God thwarted them in their pride and prevented them building their tower. This is an ancient Semitic story that seeks to explain why human beings all don’t speak the same language. But more importantly than that, the story sought to convey a spiritual message: that human pride is the source of division and conflict. The inability to communicate was and is a big source of division among people. Sometimes even when we speak the same language, we struggle to communicate and understand one another. And not being able to communicate can lead to huge misunderstandings and even conflicts.
Today we hear the counterpoint or maybe better yet the resolution to the division and conflict that began with the Tower of Babel. Today we celebrate the feast of Pentecost, which originated as a Jewish feast to celebrate the covenant that God had entered into with Moses and the Israelites. On this feast, which takes place 50 days after Passover, faithful Jews were instructed to make an offering of grain from their harvest as an act of gratitude to the Lord and a sign of trust in Him. And when the Temple in Jerusalem was built, that is where faithful Jews would bring their offerings.
Although Jesus had ascended into heaven ten days before, his disciples remained in Jerusalem, because that is what Jesus had instructed them to do. So on the feast of Pentecost they were gathered together in the Upper Room where 50 days before Jesus had celebrated Passover for the last time with his twelve apostles, when suddenly there was a sound like a strong driving wind, and the Holy Spirit descended upon them in the form of tongues of fire. And as the reading relates, “They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in different tongues, as the Spirit enabled them to proclaim.”
We don’t know exactly what happened next: did the disciples suddenly rush out into the streets? Did they stay in the Upper Room? What exactly were they saying? Were they praising God, or were they proclaiming the Gospel message? What we do know is that, whatever they were saying, and wherever they were, Jews from all around the vast Roman Empire who were themselves in Jerusalem to celebrate the feast of Passover, and who spoke many different languages, heard them and were able to understand what they were saying in their own language. In contrast to the people who were constructing the Tower of Babel when suddenly they could no longer understand each other, the Jews gathered in Jerusalem could suddenly understand the disciples of Jesus, in their own language. This is a sign that through the power of the Holy Spirit, the division in the world that comes from human pride and sin can be overcome in ways that are simply beyond human power.
And who is this Holy Spirit, the third Person of the Trinity? We can imagine God the Father, at least somewhat, because we all have some understanding of who a father is. We can imagine God the Son because he became man, Jesus Christ. But it is harder to imagine God the Holy Spirit, because we don’t really have a frame of reference for the Holy Spirit. Jesus had promised his disciples that he would send an Advocate – i.e. the Holy Spirit. The word “advocate” comes from Latin, literally meaning “to call towards”, or to call to one’s side. The Greek word for advocate is “Paraclete”, another name often given to the Holy Spirit. The background of this word is from the Ancient Greek or Roman courtroom. An advocate, or Paraclete, “was someone who could provide legal help and assistance to a person in a trial setting: give counsel, plead that person’s cause, intercede with the judge” for that person. This term was given to the Holy Spirit because of its role: the Holy Spirit serves as a counselor or guide. It comforts one in the face of persecution or difficulty. The Holy Spirit dwells within one, deepening a person’s faith, leading him to a closer relationship with Christ.
Jesus promised that, after his ascension into heaven, he would send the Holy Spirit upon his disciples. And when he did so on Pentecost, the Holy Spirit came to dwell in them and transformed them: they went from being afraid and fearful, gathered together in that Upper Room in Jerusalem while the feast of Pentecost was being celebrated, to boldly proclaiming the Gospel to Jews and Gentiles alike. Following Pentecost, Jesus’ disciples began to disperse from Jerusalem, beginning to travel to “all the nations” – some went to India, others to Africa, others to Armenia, others to what is now Turkey, and to Greece and Rome. Jesus’ apostles – all of whom are characterized at one point or another in the Gospels as flawed and weak men – suddenly assumed their role as leaders of the fledgling church.
At baptism and at confirmation, we too receive the same Holy Spirit. The same Holy Spirit who came upon Jesus’ disciples at Pentecost also comes to dwell in us, to serve as our advocate, our counselor, our guide, our comforter. We need the Holy Spirit in order to grow in faith and to live out this faith. And the Holy Spirit also unites where there is division and brings peace where there is conflict.
Just as we have a hard time conceptualizing the Holy Spirit, I think it’s also easy to forget about the Holy Spirit – the forgotten Person of the Trinity. But if you have been baptized, you have already received the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit dwells in us – although its power and its life in us can be diminished by sin. We must remember to call upon the Holy Spirit, to ask the Holy Spirit to dwell in us, and to unite us as members of the Church, the Body of Christ.