June 9, 2019

Turning Barriers into Bridges
Acts 2:1-11

It’s a simple question with a simple answer, but the answer may not be as simple as you think. Here’s the question. What language do you speak? I suspect most of you would say “English,” and of course you’d be right. But do you really speak English? Let’s do a little test to find out. I’m going to give you three sentences and you tell me what each sentence means.

First sentence: “I went to the jumble sale today and a quid got me a Mackintosh.” The answer: “I went to a yard sale today and bought a raincoat for a dollar.”

Second sentence: “Saw a wee one in her pram, and when she began crying her mum brought out a nappy and gave her a dummy.” The answer: “Saw a baby in her stroller and when she started crying her mother got out a diaper and gave her a pacifier.”

Last sentence: “What’s wrong with your anorak? Looks like somebody took a brio to it.” Answer: “What’s wrong with your jacket? Looks like somebody marked it up with a ball point pen.”

Yes, the sentences you just heard were English, but not the English we customarily speak. They were British English, a language that, at times, is quite different from our own.

As you know, Pat and I like to travel to different countries and as we try to get to know the people, one of the greatest barriers we face is language, even if that language is English.

When you stop to think about it, language is the bridge to relationship. Through language, we connect with others. It is language that allows us to share our lives, our hopes and even our love with another person. And nothing can be quite as frustrating as trying to communicate with someone whose language you do not share. It’s awfully hard to have a meaningful relationship without crossing the language barrier.

Perhaps you don’t know it, but today is a special day in the liturgical calendar. It’s Pentecost Sunday, and throughout the world fellow Christians will remember the coming of the Holy Spirit, and once again tell how God’s Spirit crossed the language barrier so all people could come to the gospel.

Listen, as I read that story from today’s text found in Acts 2:1-11.

When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as the Spirit enabled them.
Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken. Utterly amazed, they asked: “Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language? Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own languages!”

Yes, in Jerusalem, on the day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit crossed the language barrier by enabling the disciples to preach the gospel in the language of every person gathered there that day.

Now a little background is in order here. The word “Pentecost” comes from the Greek word for fifty. In Jesus’ time, on the 50th day after Passover, Jews would gather to thank God for the harvest. They called it the Festival of Shavuoth, or the Festival of Pentecost.

During that festival, Jews (and Gentiles) from all over the world make the pilgrimage to celebrate Pentecost in Jerusalem. Everywhere you went in Jerusalem you heard people speaking a foreign language. The writer of Acts gives us a sampling of that multi-cultural setting. He states that there were Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea, Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and Libya. Yes, on the day of Pentecost, Jerusalem was awash with the cacophony of various languages.

Jesus’ disciples were also in Jerusalem during Pentecost, but were staying out of public view for fear that the Jewish leaders who killed Jesus might come for them next. In fact, Jesus had told them to stay secluded, not do anything until the Holy Spirit came upon them. Of course, the disciples had no idea what would happen when the Holy Spirit came, but they figured they would know it when it happened. And when it happened, they had no question about it.

While gathered in one place, the disciples heard a loud wind sweeping through the room; and then each of them sensed a power they had never sensed before. It seemed like they were on fire, on fire for God. Suddenly, each disciple felt compelled to go out into that massive Pentecost crowd and share the gospel of the risen Christ. No more hiding. No more fear of being captured, because they were now on fire with the Holy Spirit.

But seemingly there was a problem. For the most part, Jesus’ disciples were uneducated people. They spoke Aramaic and maybe a little Greek, but they didn’t know a word of Parthian, or Phrygian or Egyptian or Libyan. So how were they going to preach the gospel to people whose language they did not know?

That’s when the Holy Spirit did his miraculous work. As these Spirit-filled disciples began preaching, all of a sudden they began preaching in languages they did not know. All of a sudden, Peter found himself preaching in Parthian; James in Phrygian; John in Egyptian, and Thomas in Libyan. At the end of the day, everybody in Jerusalem had heard the gospel in their native tongue and about 3,000 people, from all over the world, became followers of Jesus Christ.

So what happened when the Holy Spirit came on the day of Pentecost? When the Holy Spirit came, he tore down the language barrier and replaced it with a bridge to the gospel, a bridge that enabled every man, women, boy, and girl to discover the love of Jesus Christ.

Now, while the events of Pentecost certainly seemed unique and miraculous, the spirit behind Pentecost was really nothing new. The Holy Spirit was doing what Jesus had already done. You see, the entire time Jesus was on earth, he spent his life breaking down barriers and building bridges so that all people could come to know the love of God. Of course that kind of ministry got Jesus in trouble. Yes, the Pharisees crucified Christ because they abhorred the idea of bringing unworthy people into God’s kingdom. The Pharisees promoted a religion of barriers, not of bridges, a religion that kept people out of God’s kingdom instead of making a way to usher them in.

If you were a Gentile or a Samaritan, you couldn’t get in. If you made some blunder in keeping the Sabbath, you couldn’t get in. If you didn’t give the required tithe, you couldn’t get in. If there were questions about your sexuality, you couldn’t get in. And if you were a tax collector, an adulteress, a Roman or even a woman, you ran face-first into the barrier erected by the Pharisees, a barrier that would not let you in to the loving Kindgom of God.

So you can see why the religious leaders of Jesus’ day were not happy when Jesus came building bridges instead of erecting barriers. Jesus would say, “I don’t care if you’re a Gentile or a Samaritan, here’s a bridge for you to come in.” “So what if your sexuality is suspect, here’s a bridge for you to come in.” “Yes, I can see that you’re a woman, but so what. Here’s a bridge for you to come in and become a leader.” “So you’re a tax collector. That’s okay; I’ve made a bridge for you to come in, too. Yes, Jesus spent his life building bridges over the barriers erected by the Jewish leaders so that everyone could come to know the love and grace of God.

So Pentecost really shouldn’t surprise us. Because, on that day in Jerusalem, the Holy Spirit of Jesus Christ did what Christ had been doing all along. He torn down the language barrier and built a bridge to all people so that everyone could to come to know the love and grace of God.

Several years ago, Pat and I were visiting in Beijing, China. One day, we decided to take the Beijing subway to get to another part of the city. Once we bought our ticket, we walked down the terminal area to board our train, but as we looked at the route map, we weren’t sure which train to board.

In China, it’s not uncommon to find someone who speaks a little English, so I decided to approach a friendly-looking man who was standing by us at the route map. I pointed to our destination on the map and ask him if he could help us. As I spoke to him it was obvious he didn’t know my language, and though I could tell he wanted to help, I realized I’d likely need to find someone else.

Then he started motioning for Pat and me to follow him. Perhaps, we were a bit naïve but I sensed he would do us no harm. Finally, a train arrived and he motioned us to follow him on to the train, and we did. After a couple of stops, he motioned us to follow him off of that train and we did. Then he motioned us to follow him as we boarded another train. After a few stops more stops, he pointed to the sign in the subway car that showed we had reached our destination.

I couldn’t help but appreciate the man’s kindness, but soon I realized that his kindness was much greater than I had imagined. Instead of leaving the subway at that stop, the man walked over and got on the train that was headed back to the station from which we came. This man had gone out of his way, simply to help two American strangers. Yes, this friendly, caring man, who couldn’t speak English, found a way to breakdown the language barrier and build a bridge of care.

That’s exactly what the Holy Spirit was doing on the day of Pentecost. He was breaking down the language barriers so that people all over the world would know just how much God cared.

As followers of Christ, as people filled with the Spirit of God, we, too, need to be breaking down barriers and building bridges. Like the man on that subway train, we need to go out of our way to make sure people know how much God cares.

Granted, many of the religions swirling around us today are barrier religions, religions quick to say, “You can’t come to God until you speak our language, or fit into our finely crafted religious mold. You can’t come if you’re Parthian, Phrygian or Muslim. You can’t come if you’re transgendered or you’re gay. You can’t lead if you’re a woman. You can’t have God, heaven, peace or salvation until you learn to speak our religious language and say the words we tell you to say. And so there’s a world of people who believe that God just doesn’t care for them.

But you and I need to usher in a new Pentecost. We need to be on fire with the love of God. We need find ways to speak the language of love in a tongue that all people can hear, tearing down barriers and building bridges that open up the way for all to come to God’s love.

In fact, that’s exactly what our Strategic Planning Committee will be recommending a few weeks from now as it makes its final report to the church. Many of the action plans listed in the report are attempts to tear down barriers and build bridges to the people of this community so that all can know of Christ’s acceptance and love. I hope God will open all our hearts to embrace theses efforts.

Perhaps, on this Pentecost Sunday, we should pray the prayer written by B. B. McKinney, who said,

Holy Spirit breathe on me,
Fill me with power divine.
Kindle a flame of love and zeal,
Within this heart of mine.

Almost 2,000 years ago, on the day of Pentecost, God’s Holy Spirit broke down barriers that separated people from the love and grace of God. May you and I do the same as we keep Pentecost alive and on fire today.