2When 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.
5Now 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.”
14But 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.
What does it feel like to suddenly hear your native language? Many of us hear our native language all the time and may not think about it that much, but if you’re someone who’s spent time in a place where your native tongue is not spoken, or only rarely spoken, then you know the sudden relief and delight of hearing deeply familiar words when you didn’t expect them.
I lived in Japan for a while after college and my Japanese was dreadful to non-existent. For the first seven months I was there, I lived in a tiny coastal town where very few people spoke English. Sometimes I’d go for days without being able to communicate with the people around me, and it was a strange sort of silence that would descend. I wanted to talk, and people tried to talk to me, but I felt trapped in the silence of my own language. One day I was at Aeon, the local Target equivalent, looking for some foundation. I was struggling with all the labeling in the make-up section because I could tell that most foundations included skin whitening ingredients and I really didn’t want that, but I couldn’t read enough to find one that didn’t. Then an employee a few years older than me approached and said with complete fluency, “Hello! Can I help you find something?” and I just about fell over. “You speak English!” I said. “Yes, I speak English. What are you looking for?” It turns out her name was Etsuko and she was a pharmacist in town for a few months working odd jobs and we went on to become good friends. But at that moment I was simply amazed and perplexed.
So I can only imagine how the crowd in Jerusalem felt, especially because they weren’t just hearing about make-up. The people who were speaking were the very beginning of the church. The Book of Acts picks up where the Gospel of Luke ends and continues the same story, so this was just barely after Jesus and people were beginning to gather in a small Christian community called The Way. The author says it was about 120 people. Then these 120 people have this incredible experience with the Holy Spirit, where it sounds like a windstorm and it looks like fire, and then they begin to speak in the languages of everyone in the city. And people begin to gather because it’s noisy, and because they’re having that experience of suddenly hearing their own native language. It doesn’t say exactly what everyone was saying, just that they were “speaking about God’s deeds of power.” Maybe they were talking about the Exodus when the Israelites were freed from slavery, or about Jesus’ resurrection and how it means that death doesn’t get the last word, or quoting from the prophet Joel that Peter quotes in his speech about the Holy Spirit making the young people see visions and the old people dream dreams. Whatever they were saying, the crowd heard it with double amazement, as familiar words and as words of grace.
Hearing words of grace has a similar effect on us to suddenly hearing in our native language. They both make your heart skip a beat a little, make you think “Oh, that’s what I’ve been longing to hear but I didn’t expect.” I can think of times in my life when I’ve been caught of guard by grace in someone else’s words, and at that moment that person was the sign to me that Milosz asks for in the poem, someone who I both see for themselves and who causes me to marvel at God. There are some words of grace that we probably all share, but I also think we each have our own. These are the words that we most deeply long to hear, and the ones that speak God’s grace the loudest to us. I’ve realized that my word is “welcome.”
I know it’s a common enough word. You can find it on doormats or coffee mugs or hear it when you walk into a hotel, but I don’t mean like that. I mean when someone really means it. Because then, “welcome” is a vulnerable word and a remarkable one. You’re telling someone, usually someone you don’t know very well, that there is a place for them, just as they are, in your life or your community. That’s a risky and a grace-filled thing to do! I can think of a few times when that’s happened to me. One was when I was just starting to work as a receptionist at Central Lutheran and at the time I was pretty quiet about being gay because I wasn’t really sure how that would go over in a church. So one day another staff member there was in the office and he said something offhandedly about being gay. So I gathered up my courage and said, “Yeah, me too.” and he turned to me with this giant grin, swept me into a huge hug and said, “You are?? That’s wonderful! Welcome!”
Or there was the time years later when I was in grad school and I needed to find an internship site here in Minneapolis so I could be near my fiancée at the time, Maggie. But I went to school in Chicago and the local school here had taken all the internship sites. So my school started just calling around to churches to see if any of them would consider an intern. There was one place that said that they hadn’t had anyone in years but maybe they could work something out. So I was really nervous because I felt like this was my one shot to be near my fiancée. I went to go interview with the pastor there and when I showed up at the church, she flung open the door with a big smile and said, “Welcome! We’ve been praying for you!” And I was amazed, and a little perplexed.
Maybe “welcome” isn’t that word for you, but there’s another word you long to hear. One that makes your heart skip a beat and you think, “Oh, that was what I was longing to hear, but I didn’t expect.” Maybe you haven’t heard it in a long time, or not from the people who most needed to say it to you. But when you do, suddenly there is God’s grace reflected back at you. Because you know it’s something God would say, but sometimes we need visible signs.
And maybe, the other way, you know of words that need to be said; words that a person or a place in your life longs to hear. It could be your partner or your friend, or your workplace or congressional district. What words of grace do they long to hear? And could you, even just for a minute, be that visible sign of God’s grace to them?
I know it’s a little cheesy, but this evening I want to share my word with you: welcome. Welcome to this new little faith community. We don’t know exactly what it will look like yet, and we may not know each other very well, but there is a place for you here, and there are more than enough words of grace for all of us.