June 8, 2014 – The Day of Pentecost: Whitsunday
Acts 2:1-21; 1 Corinthians 12:3b-13; John 7:37-39
© 2014 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon is available here.
The first time I heard someone speaking in tongues, I thought a classmate of mine was being murdered in the seminary chapel. It was late at night, and I was walking along the quad at Ridley Hall, on my way back to my room. As I passed by the chapel, I heard a bloodcurdling scream bellow from within. It stopped me in my tracks. I paused for a second, and I heard it again—an unintelligible wailing with trills and ticks that soared from a high pitch, sliding all the way down to a deep bass rumble. Over and over, the screams continued. I went over to the chapel—the door was locked. But all of us had a key, so I opened the door and walked into the narthex and looked through the windows down the aisle. There, kneeling at the front of the chapel, was a friend of mine—hands held high in the air, eyes clenched shut, a pained expression on his face. His voice rose again, and, although I could not understand what he was saying, it was clear to me that he was engaged in a form of prayer deeper than any I had ever witnessed before.
As the weeks went by, I recognized that, for my friend, praying in tongues was a daily practice. It seemed so strange. I was fascinated. Why did he pray in tongues? How did he get started? How long had he been doing it? Did he know what he was saying? How did he know he was saying anything at all? Would he let me pray with him? For weeks, I joined him in prayer—not every day but regularly. We would meet in the chapel early in the morning for an hour. During that time, he prayed, but I just moved my mouth. I practiced the same sorts of trills and ticks and bellowing sighs, but I always knew that there was no Spirit speaking through me. I prayed for that gift. I prayed that if the Spirit wouldn’t give me the gift of tongues that it would at least enable me to interpret the earnest prayers of my partner with whom I shared those early mornings in the chapel. But I got nothing. I did have a dream once in which I was praying in tongues. It was a strange moment at a baseball game when I knelt down in the middle of the aisle and started praying in a language I could not understand, but that was as close as I got.
To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues.
The problem with people who exhibit the gifts of the Spirit is that they’re usually pretty strange. At the very least, by definition it isn’t normal, and it’s often downright weird. That’s because the Holy Spirit usually works in ways that we don’t understand. Sure, there are some Spirit-filled people whom we admire—like quirky authors and exuberant preachers—but lots of them just scare us. Have you ever had a stranger come up and offer to lay hands on you? You know those guys who walk down the street talking out loud to Jesus? Does anyone really enjoy the bullhorn-prophet who calls the world to repent? What are we supposed to make of people who claim to have the Spirit working within them when it seems to be working in a way that we don’t like?
One of the challenges that the apostle Paul routinely confronted were false prophets—those who claimed authority in the early church but really worked to lead people away from the truth. While he travelled from one community to another, he had to keep in touch through his letters. He wrote to communities like the church in Corinth, reminding them to hold fast to the truth and only follow those who preached the real gospel of Jesus Christ. But, in the passage we read today, it seems that the problem wasn’t reminding his readers to stay away from quacks and pretenders but encouraging them to give the diverse range of Spirit-filled Christians a place in the community. He writes, “No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit.” No one. “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone.” In other words, as strange as they might seem, we’re all in this together.
No one can say “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit. But how much effort does that take? That’s as basic as it gets. The earliest Christian confession was to acclaim Jesus as Lord. That’s not complicated. That’s not much of a litmus test. But that’s the point. Anyone who says that Jesus is Lord has the Spirit working within him. He might sound funny. He might do things that make us uncomfortable. And we might even disagree with what he thinks the Christian faith is all about. But the Spirit’s work is to take a wild diversity of people with a tremendous range of gifts and ministries and unite us all under one Lord, who is Jesus Christ.