One hundred and eleven years ago, in Los Angeles, California, in an abandoned AME church in downtown, the one-eyed son of former slaves led a revival that would ignite the whole world. The people involved believed they were experiencing a last-days outpouring of the Spirit, signified by their speaking in unknown tongues. Most egregiously, these revivalists had integrated worship services, black and white worshiping together in the era of Jim Crow. They said that “the blood of Jesus washed the color line away.” The papers were skeptical, describing what they saw as chaos. The LA Times, describing the noise of the unknown tongues, titled their front page story on the event “Weird Babel of Tongues.” Yet, these revivalists rooted themselves in another biblical story, calling themselves “Pentecostals.”
The biblical story of Pentecost happens in the second chapter of the Book of Acts, St. Luke’s sequel to his Gospel. Jesus has returned to his father in heaven and left instructions with the eleven to go and wait. Go, wait in Jerusalem, and Jesus will send them power from on high. The same Spirit who animated the ministry of Jesus will come upon them so that they may continue to carry out the work that Jesus started. So, after selecting a replacement for Judas, they go back up into Jerusalem and pray and wait.
So it came to what we call “the Day of Pentecost,” what the Jews knew as “the Festival of Weeks.” This festival marked seven weeks, or fifty days, from the time of Passover, when God secured Israel’s release from the captivity of Egypt, until Mt. Sinai, where God gave Moses the 10 commandments. God was about to give his people a new law, but instead of writing it on stone, he would write it on their hearts.
Then, they hear the sound of a rushing wind. As I like to point out, the word for “spirit” in Greek and in Hebrew is the same word as “wind” and “breath.” And it is the wind of that first blew over the void and made the heavens and the earth, the wind that blew over the Red Sea and made a way when there was no way forward. This same breath breathed life into Adam and Eve and made them into living creatures. This same creative force blew once again, making the world again.
Fiery tongues came and sat on each one of them. Fire was a sign of the presence of God, as it was on Mt. Sinai at the giving of the law when fire and smoke surrounded the mountain where Moses ascended. A fiery tongue itself in Isaiah represents the judgment of God against those who would commit social injustice. So this event is both a judgment against the way things are in the world and it is the grace to recreate the world as it should be.
Finally, there was speaking in other tongues. This is not the same kind of gift that we see over in Paul’s letter to the Corinthian church. Those tongues required someone with a spiritual gift of interpretation. These tongues were immediately understood by those who were traveling from other countries. They were speaking not some angelic language, but the language of real people, of travelers.
And when we speak of a world divided by language, we speak of the Tower of Babel. So, the LA Times was right to connect Pentecostalism to Babel, but not in the way they thought. In Genesis 11, mankind is judged by God for its hubris. Man unified and built a building that they believed that could reach the sky, climb the heavens. The judgment was not against the building itself, but against a kind of sinful unity, against the human monolith were human uniqueness is squashed.
So by changing their language and scattering them, God judged them but also offered a gift: the opportunity to know one another as other. To love one another in our differences.
But like many gifts, human sinfulness found a way to turn it into a weapon. So that these differences, our differences in language, our differences in places of origin, are bent into weapons of war. So today, we see a world overtaken by nationalism, an idolatry that claims that human differences are more important than the image of God in each of us.
Pentecost is a judgment against that. God judges nationalism, not by destroying our differences, not by making everyone speak the same language, giving one language priority over others and erasing our different histories, but by allowing them to understand each other in their different tongues.
So the theologian Stanley Hauerwas once preached,
“Attempts to secure unity through the creation of a single language are attempts to make us forget our histories and differences rather than find unity made possible by the Spirit through which we understand other as other. At Pentecost God created a new language, but it was a language that is more than words. It is instead a community whose memory of its savior creates the miracle of being a people whose very differences contribute to their unity.” (Hauerwas Reader 148-149)
Therefore, at Pentecost, God does not collapse all of our histories into one. He doesn’t create a new people by destroying our history. God allows us to see one another, to love one another, in our difference, not our sameness.
The real sign of the presence of the Spirit, the real sign of a Pentecostal life, is our ability to love each other in our differences, in our otherness. So, in 1 Corinthians 12, when faced with people who want to prize certain spiritual giftings over others, Paul says that it is the same Spirit who gives all of these gifts, so they are all equal. God works through all people differently, yet the same God works in all. Paul goes on to say in the next chapter that it is not any of those gifts that after all show the power of the Spirit in our lives. It is love, charity. The power of the Spirit, the power of the Spirit, is to hear one another, to love one another, to understand one another, in our different tongues, not collapsing them one into the other.
All of this, of course, is easier said than done. The Pentecostal movement did not maintain its unity. Eventually, it succumbed to the societal pressures of the world and fell back into worldly, racial divisions. A lot of pain and hurt happened in the process. The church that was born from the Azusa Street movement ultimately split into the mostly white Assemblies of God and the mostly African-American Church of God in Christ.
In 1994, the two Pentecostal groups separated by race gathered in Memphis to “recapture the initiative of the Spirit.” They wanted to return to the radical vision of racial unity found in the early days of Pentecostalism.
After signing a statement, one white Assembly of God pastor declared that God wanted him to wash the feet of a black pastor as a sign of repentance. As he washed the feet of Bishop Clemens of the Church of God in Christ, a wave of weeping washed over everyone in the place. They said later that God’s Spirit approving of the action. This event became known as the “Memphis Miracle.”
But this outpouring of the Spirit and the act of contrition did not fix all of the racial problems of the world. It didn’t even do so for the Church of God in Christ and the Assemblies of God. It didn’t erase all of the years of mistreatment. It didn’t fix all of the structures of the church that would allow them to become one church again.
Yet, in this, we see what it looks like when the Spirit is at work. The Spirit is at work when people who were not a people are unified not by allegiance to the same flag, not by the color of their skin, not even by similar views of economics. We know that the Spirit is at work when the only explanation we can give for these people joining together is that something divine is at work.
Loving one another is a miracle. Wherever we can truly listen to each other and hear each other is a miracle. It is the work of God. More than tongues, more than signs and wonders, there can be no greater sign of the Spirit than whenever we can hear each speak in charity. In these times of division, may the wind of Pentecost roar again and open our tongues and ears so we may hear each other in our otherness.