Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Tongues or Tongues?

At Pentecost, the Holy Spirit came down and gave power to the disciples to speak in the languages of all the people who were gathered together in Jerusalem: "Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs." Everyone marveled--the disciples, the crowd, and those who read the story. "How is it possible," the people asked, "that these Galileans know how to speak in all of these languages?" Clearly, God was at work. The Holy Spirit enabled the good news of Jesus Christ to be proclaimed across the known world. The rest of the Acts of the Apostles is a testament of the Holy Spirit's work in taking that good news out from Jerusalem to everyone and everywhere else.

Nowadays, some Christians celebrate the Spirit-given gift of tongues, but, in almost all cases, this means the glossolalia or indecipherable tongues that individuals utter when praying to God. Rarely do people speak of the Holy Spirit giving them the supernatural ability to speak Urdu or Mandarin. In part, it feels disappointing that the tongues that the Spirit inspires are primarily for personal prayer and not proclamation, but I want to celebrate this contemporary manifestation of the gift of tongues for another reason.

I am sure that there are some isolated languages in remote places into which the Bible has yet to be translated, and the Spirit-inspired work of bringing the good news to those places is commendable. Most of us, however, will never have a need to speak in those languages, but all of us who follow Jesus need to be filled with the Spirit's power so that the good news of God can reach the ends of the earth. This time, the barrier isn't a spoken language but a cultural one.

Actually, I don't want to celebrate the angel-speak that some Christians perform, and I certainly don't want to suggest that those who do not have that gift are not truly baptized by the Holy Spirit as some charismatic branches of Christianity proclaim. But I do want to proclaim that the Holy Spirit's power is as important in the twenty-first century as it was in the first. And I want to look for perplexing, startling, awe-inspiring manifestations of the Spirit that are just as clear and other-worldly as the Galileans speaking in all of those languages.

What does that look like? I don't know. But I think that our discomfort with the Spirit's power is standing in the way of the gospel's work. Look at the reaction of the crowd: "Others sneered and said, 'They are filled with new wine.'" What would it mean for present-day Christians to be so filled with the Spirit's power that some might even consider drunkenness as a possible explanation? There is nothing polite, cautious, or seemly about the Spirit's work in Acts 2. Maybe the strangeness of tongues is an invitation to pursue not simply angel-speak but the Spirit's power.

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