“When you make the effort to speak someone else’s language, even if it’s just basic phrases here and there, you are saying to them... I see you as a human being.” [Trevor Noah, Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood (New York: Random House Publishing Group, 2016), pg. 148] Those words are from the memoir, Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood, by comedian Trevor Noah.
There are eleven official languages in the nation of South Africa, and Noah talked a lot in his book about the challenges and gifts of language in his childhood, growing up as a bi-racial boy in the days of apartheid. At home, the Noah family spoke Xhosa, a native South African tongue. When it came time to pray though, they always prayed in English. Trevor’s grandmother asked him to pray, because his English was the best. “The Bible is in English,” she told him, “so English prayers get answered first.” [Born a Crime, pg. 148]
That line is funny - Trevor Noah is a comedian after all - but I can imagine how his grandmother came to that conclusion even if no one ever explicitly said it. She first heard the Bible in English. She saw white, English-speaking people in their comfortable lives, without the curfew or travel restrictions that she and other black South Africans faced. She prayed, certainly, but God must have been busy answering English prayers first.
Of course, we know that the Bible was not written in English. We know that, intellectually, but I can’t help but worry about whether we, whether I, have carried on the hurtful assumptions that were taught to Trevor Noah’s grandmother. Are we still making the same mistakes as James and John, imagining English speakers at the right and left hand of Jesus? Have we been saying “God Bless America” for so long that we’ve forgotten that God blesses other nations, too? Deep down, do we think our prayers are answered first?
God must have thought of those questions before the church even came to be. God saw our failures coming, saw our pride and limited worldview, and pre-answered our questions in the form of a drama.
The apostles are gathered in a house, praying and waiting for God to make the next move. A violent wind fills the house, a wind that is unmistakably God. The Spirit moves them outside the house to preach of God’s power, and a crowd gathers - Jews from every nation. I imagine it like a scene from Trevor Noah’s book, a street full of people speaking eleven languages. When the apostles start speaking, everyone hears the words, all at the same time, all in their own native tongues.
On that first Pentecost day, the Spirit could have come with any miracle under the sun; the apostles could have been miraculously healed of their ailments, or lifted off the ground, or given a power that any superhero would envy.
But instead, the Spirit gives them the gift of communication across languages. If those first apostles found themselves tempted to think that God answered their prayers first, the Spirit burst on the scene and blew their assumptions out of the water. God will pour out the Spirit, the scripture says, on men and women, young and old, slave and free, that all will prophesy and all will be saved.
That’s the thing about the Holy Spirit:
She does not have patience for the structures of our world.
She does not care who holds the cards, who has allies in powerful places, who signs the paychecks, or who lives paycheck to paycheck.
The Spirit is a leveling power, and the wind blows where she chooses.
“When you make the effort to speak someone else’s language,” Trevor Noah wrote, “you are saying to them... I see you as a human being.”
The miracle of the Spirit on the first Pentecost was to let us hear and therefore see each other. The miracle of Pentecost was to bless our diversity and solidify our unity, as one global church born of the Holy Spirit the first Pentecost day. This is the good news of the Pentecost story: the Spirit understands all our prayers. The miracle is when we understand each other.
In case anyone ever comes back to listen to this sermon down the road, in case this recording winds up in a digital time capsule someday, let me be clear about the context in which I’m preaching. The year is 2021. It has been a year and a few months since the word “COVID” became a part of our daily vocabulary. With much gratitude to both God and science, and with a vaccine in my arm, I think I can say that we are on the tail end of a global pandemic.
We say those words so often now - “global pandemic.” They just roll off the tongue. But as Christian people whose God speaks every language, we can’t just breeze past the word global. Over the past year and a half, COVID has touched every corner of this planet and nearly every life upon it. If we ever tried to deny how connected our world is, this pandemic has shattered any argument we might have made.
We have shared a common human experience this year, one of grief and fear, and yet also of hope and gratitude. We learned once more that we have to protect each other - that my health depends on your health, your well-being on mine. We wouldn’t choose to go through this pandemic again for any reason, but that doesn’t mean we didn’t learn something along the way. We learned just how connected we are.
I live in Atlanta, and in Atlanta, we fly Delta. It has been over a year since I flew anywhere, and I can’t wait to get back to traveling. I love to fly. I like to check in early, partly so I can get through security smoothly and partly because the airport has a Cinnabon. I think the little cups of soda they serve on the plane are just the right size, and pretzels taste better at 10,000 feet.
One of my favorite things about flying is the little instruction video they make everyone watch. Airlines have gotten creative with that in recent years; some of them work in the jokes or songs or even celebrity cameos. My favorite, of course, comes from Delta. At the end of the safety video, after they’ve told you to secure your own oxygen mask before assisting others, a pilot appears on the screen in his crisp blue uniform. “Delta isn’t flying to over 300 places just to connect us,” he says, “but to show us we were never that far apart in the first place.”
We were never that far apart in the first place. Maybe that’s what Pentecost was meant to show us, too. Over the last year, a tiny little virus made its way across the globe and is still leaving destruction in its path. That virus was able to touch every corner of the world because we are so incredibly connected. What if we used that incredible connection for something incredible?
Imagine if we spread something besides a virus across the world in the next year, something that would bring healing instead of heartbreak. Imagine if we committed ourselves to spreading something other than germs, to following the Holy Spirit wherever the wind may blow. Imagine if we channeled all the energy we had to put into curbing this terrible pandemic into growing something wonderful. Imagine if we listened to each other, if we had compassion for each other, if we remembered that what affects you affects me.
Imagine if we spread empathy.
Could it spread as quickly? I think so. Empathy is highly contagious.
Could it travel as far? If a virus can get a plane ticket, I’m sure empathy can, too.
What if we’re immune to it? No one is immune to empathy. It just takes a little practice.
If we’re not sure where to start, perhaps we could think back once more to our Pentecost story.
Friends in Christ, our God speaks every language and understands every prayer. The miracle happens when we understand each other. Amen.
Now, let us pray.
Come, O Spirit, as you did that first Pentecost day. Ignite your church with the fire of compassion, and teach us once more to hear our neighbor’s prayers. Amen.