Rev. Dr. David D. M. King
Pentecost. It’s one of the major religious festivals in Jerusalem, celebrating the first fruits of the grain harvest. The population of the city explodes as Jews from all over the known world, and even some Gentiles, flock to the holy city for the festivities. For many of them, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime event.
It’s been fifty days since the last major festival, the Passover that celebrates the exodus of the Hebrew people from slavery in Egypt centuries before. Some pilgrims have stayed here in Jerusalem the whole time. Among them are a group of Galileans who came into town following a traveling holy man called Jesus of Nazareth. He was arrested and executed by the Roman governor, and now his followers claim he has been raised from the dead and has ascended into heaven in a cloud of glory.
Early in the morning, there is a strange sound. People begin to pour out into the streets to investigate what’s going on. And as they do, they are surprised to see a group Galileans preaching about God’s deeds of power. But what’s even more remarkable is what language they’re speaking.
Remember that people had come from all over the world. Most everyone would know a little Greek, and that’s the language that they would use to make their way in this foreign city. If you wanted to address a crowd in the city of Jerusalem, Greek was the language to use.
But this diverse crowd from around the world doesn’t hear the message of God’s power in Greek, they hear it in their own home languages. Literally hundreds of languages were heard that day. The barriers of language and culture were broken down and God’s mercy was shared directly.
But the news wasn’t taken well by everyone. You see, these words of God’s glory were being spoken by Galileans. The city of Jerusalem had a sort of romantic appeal as the site of the temple. And other provinces and nations—Babylon, Persia, Greece, Rome, Egypt—were centers of culture and learning. But Galilee, Galilee was a backwater. The people there were rough, uneducated, and uncivilized. Galileans couldn’t even speak proper Greek without revealing their ignorant-sounding accent. How could they possibly be expected to speak the great languages of the rest of the world? How could they possibly be vessels of the wisdom of God? How could anything good come out of Galilee?
The people gathered on that first Pentecost almost missed the liberating message of God because they didn’t believe that someone like a Galilean could possibly have anything worthwhile to say. And I wonder if we too aren’t sometimes missing good news, aren’t missing valuable wisdom because we are too skeptical of the messengers. I wonder if we are missing out on God’s action because there are some people in our world that we don’t think have anything worthwhile to share.
As you probably know, Methodism, like all mainline Christian denominations, has been declining over the last several decades. We haven’t been very good at spreading the good news of new life in Jesus Christ. We haven’t been planting many new congregations. As the American population has become increasingly diverse, our predominantly white denomination has failed to increase its diversity at the same rate.
A few years ago, I was serving as the chair of the Conference Outreach Committee. As part of my duties, I was a member of the Conference Hispanic Ministries Council. I remember hearing a very interesting story. The church had been in ministry with Hispanics in a particular city in Idaho for quite some time, doing various kinds of outreach and charity work. But, for quite a while, that was all we doing: outreach and charity. After a while, though, that began to change. Slowly but surely, the United Methodists there stopped seeing the members of the Hispanic community as only a group that needed their help and charity, and they began to listen. And when they began to listen, they found out that those people they thought needed their charity had a great deal to teach them about spreading the good news of Jesus and about our own Wesleyan heritage. But for far too long we had failed to listen because we thought that no one could know better than we did.
Maybe the real miracle of Pentecost wasn’t that a group of backwater Galileans were able to speak in other languages. Maybe the real miracle was that people were able to hear them. And maybe that’s the miracle we should be looking for too. Maybe it’s time for us to expand our expectations. Maybe it’s time for us to listen in a way we haven’t been able to before. Maybe it’s time for us to look for the power of the Holy Spirit not just in ourselves, but in the people we think need our help. Because if the Spirit of God can come from a bunch of uneducated Galileans, it can come from just about anywhere.