All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. Acts 2:4
Today we celebrate Pentecost, the birth of the church, that miraculous day when God’s blessings poured down upon the apostles and the church tasted God’s goodness. But before we get too romantic about Pentecost, let’s try to take a street view of what actually happened. At least 12 apostles and likely up to 120 disciples, all started speaking different languages at the same time. What a mess! How did they understand each other? How could they work together? Can you imagine around 120 people speaking different languages at the same time? I can, it’s called the annual Diocesan Assembly of the Armenian Church! Or can you imagine twelve people around one table speaking different languages all at the same time? I can, it’s called the St. Hagop Parish Council meeting!
I am joking; it’s not that bad. But if we do expect that everyone will be on the same page within the Armenian Church, because we share a common cultural heritage, we might be in for a shock when we get a closer look at how things work. The fact is we aren’t always speaking the same language with each other. Sure sometimes we are literally speaking different languages; Armenian mixed with Turkish, with Russian, with English, with Arabic. But more often we are all speaking English (not always proper Boston English), but we still having a hard time understanding each other, because language is more than words; it reflects different cultures and ways of thinking and living. For example: He speaks and thinks and acts in the language of business, while she speaks and thinks and acts in the language of a non-profit. She speaks and thinks and acts in the language of American equality, while he speaks and thinks and acts in the language of traditional Eastern hierarchy. These different languages often lead to arguments in the Diocesan Assembly about bylaws. They lead to arguments on our parish council about anything from budgets to buildings. After a while serving in the church, you can’t help but wish that we could all just get along, be more alike, speak the same language.
Well we should all get along, and we basically do. But being more alike, uniform and speaking the same language? That doesn’t seem to be how God has made this world. And in today’s Feast and readings recalling the story of Pentecost, we get a sense of how God sees our differences. Simply put, diversity is one of God’s greatest gifts to the world. At Pentecost, God does not erase our differences but instead gives his Spirit to speak into them, preserving the diversity of his people even as the Spirit uplifts them. First, a quick recap. In the lead up to today’s readings, Jesus’ followers are trying to discern what their life looks like after Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension. They are holding on to Jesus’ promise that he would grant his followers the gift of the Holy Spirit; the miraculous gift of Pentecost. Suddenly tongues of fire descend from the heavens, and as the disciples proclaim God’s glory, everyone hears God’s word in their own native language.
Now I don’t think Pentecost is about God waving his magic language wand one day over his followers. Bible stories are always more than stories of one day, they relate how God always is, and how we are to be. And notice what the sending of the Holy Spirit reveals about God; it’s first effect was not to unify people by everyone speaking the same language. To the contrary, it empowered the Apostles to speak about Christ in the myriad and diverse languages to the ends of God’s created world, including Armenia. What it says is that there is no Holy language, tradition or culture on high that God imposes; rather God meets us and transforms us in whatever way we speak, think and act. And despite the miscommunication and division our differences of gender, language and culture can cause, God does not do away with these differences. Why not? Well perhaps it is God’s challenge to us. A ‘Pentecostal’ challenge to grow big enough in the Spirit of long-suffering love, that our seemingly opposed differences, become complimentary.
What would it look like if our church became more ‘Pentecostal’ in this way? First, on an international level, I think it would make our church a little more open to the diversity of Christians that exist alongside us. While officially the Armenian Church is ecumenically active, in practice we are much less so. I find our church to be quite inward looking when it comes to cooperating with and learning from other churches (they’re not as old as us, not as orthodox, we have bad history with them, they steal our people, etc.). Instead, a truly ‘Pentecostal’ Armenian Church would be more outward-looking. Proud, yes, that God blessed the Armenian Church to have something to offer the rest of the world, but also humbled that there are 300 other major Christian traditions whom God has blessed to offer something to the Armenian Church and the rest of the world. On a parish level, the lesson of Pentecost, I think, is that no church, no family no two people will ever totally be on the same page, speaking the same language. We can’t change this, and why would we want to change what God has left this way. What we can do, is see the challenge God gives us in our differences, to grow in patience, love and forgiveness toward our brothers and sisters. For on Pentecost we recall that God speaks any and every language, to any kind of person, even someone completely opposite of you, even to your enemy, and it is in God’s Holy Spirit alone that we achieve unity in our diversity, now and always, amen.