You can’t help but notice that Luke struggles to describe this event. He uses words that come close but aren’t quite it. “A sound like,” he writes, “tongues as of fire.” It was sort of like wind, but not quite; it was kind of like fire, but that wasn’t it either. It is an event that goes beyond description, beyond experience almost.
But the something that happens has an effect. It leaks out into the street beyond. And passersby are caught up by the sound that they hear. Voices and words—what they hear is wrapped in the language of home. That is what makes them stop. I imagine in a cosmopolitan city like Jerusalem it is difficult to keep the noise down at the best of times. So, overhearing would be a common experience. But this experience was different. People were drawn by the familiar language that they heard. It made their hearts stop for a moment as they tuned their ears more carefully to the words.
There is a story of an American tourist in Germany. The tourist had no knowledge of German whatsoever and had wandered off the tourist trail and found himself in a small village where he was having trouble making himself understood. He was about to panic when he was caught in a sneezing fit. A passerby smiled and nodded at him and said, “Gesundheit!” The American rushed after the man and declared, “O good, you speak English!”
We all long for a familiar sound, for the language of home. We long for a connection. That was what was heard on that Pentecost morning. That was what the languages offered the passersby. So, they stopped and listened. Some wondered and, I suspect, hoped. Others scoffed, being of a cynical bent. “They must be drunk!” they shouted. If there is an alcoholic beverage that allows you to speak in foreign languages, I’m going to get some.
You would have thought that Peter’s defense might have been, “Drinking teaches you languages? Intelligible languages, that is? Nonsense. You’re the ones talking crazy!” But that wasn’t his defense. Instead, he went with the “it’s only 9 a.m.” defense. It’s too early to be drunk! Or as Bishop Will Willimon said in a sermon about the Pentecost event - “Peter said, we’re not drunk . . . yet.”
The tongues that were not quite like fire and not really like tongues either, but some visible manifestation of an invisible presence, were making connections. It was one, divided and settling on each, says Luke in his struggling for words. It was one presence, one sound, and it was heard by each, who then echoed the sound so that more heard. It wasn’t an experience to keep to one’s self, that much is plain. It was meant to be shared. It was meant to be community building.
So, whether it was a birthday, the beginning of the church, as some argue; or a broadening, the opening of the doors of the church to include all, either way it was a building of community. It was making connections. It was building up the body. Pentecost is about the church being the church. Pentecost reminds us that this is a small world, and wherever we go we are likely to find members of our family gathered around the living Word and the winds of the Spirit; a Spirit that is poured out. And this family is as diverse as the crowd that gathered around the sound that poured down from the room where the disciples were gathered. The words were heard by those from the Middle East and from Africa and from the edges of the known world. This is the family; this is the body upon which the Spirit is poured out—not just those who look like us, not just those who speak our language, but a multicolored, multilingual worldwide body of Christ ready to hear and to receive.
Peter’s example shows us that once the Spirit is poured out on you, you can’t be quiet. You can’t stay still. You’ve got to move and share and make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.