Sunday was Pentecost, the Birthday of the Church. If there is any day we say, “Here is the church, here is the steeple, open the door and see all the people!” with the same gusto as we sing “Happy Birthday,” it’s today.
That’s not only because a church isn’t its building but rather its people; it’s also because this is basically the meaning of the main scripture for the day – Acts 2:1-21.
After Jesus ascends to the heavens to sit at the right hand of God forever, the Holy Spirit (the Spirit of God that lived fully in Jesus while on earth) explodes upon the earth like a tornado resting upon the heads of all of Jesus followers, as tongues of fire, giving them the miraculous power to talk about God, and with perfect effectiveness, in a variety of different languages.
While this is all very exciting, inspiring and true -- “church” comes to life when everyone steps up and enthusiastically speaks out – and that’s the best message to preach to one’s congregation on its institution's birthday – I must say that as a pastor the time I most wince when asking a lay person to read scripture is…
I know, scripture reading is one of the best ways to include the congregation in worship leadership. As Protestants, it’s certainly the most integral symbol of our roots as “the priesthood of all believers” to have our sacred text publicly proclaimed by everyone (and especially those who aren’t officially priests).
And it’s especially appropriate for a layperson, maybe many laypeople, to read the foundational text of Pentecost – Acts 2:1-21 – because this text is all about how a variety of “regular folk” are suddenly enabled to speak boldly about God. Better than Temple authorities ever.
However…Acts 2 is just about the trickiest text in the lectionary for present day "regular folk" (who, unlike pastors, probably don't have their noses in Bible commentaries and Greek dictionaries 24-7) to read aloud and, hence, proclaim boldly.
Why is that?
Names in the Bible are almost always weird and hard to pronounce; from my experience, many lay people, already afraid they'll mess up a public reading of the Holy Bible, especially cringe when asked to read texts with a bunch of Biblical names (even if such references may have been as easy-as-pie for the ancients to trip off the tongue....)
And in the Acts 2 text...BAM! The names of the peoples to whom the apostles are suddenly able to speak are endless, foreign and, invariably, strike the reader as "Greek to me": Parthians, Medes, Elemites, Cappadocians plus those from Phrygia, Pamphylia, Pontus… and more.
Those tongues of fire from the twister end up unleashing quite a few tongue-twisters!!
How ironic…hilarious really…is that??
And is it just a coincidence that this text is so hard to proclaim, or might there be some deeper, and clever, agenda here?
Perhaps the vast strangeness of the names and sounds emphasizes the expanse across which the Holy Spirit was now able to be communicated…to places so exotic you can hardly pronounce them.
Perhaps this overwhelming feast of phonetics also emphasizes the fact that each apostle was given the ability to miraculously speak one new tongue with perfect effectiveness, but not every. And if the apostles weren’t enabled to ably talk about God in all languages on that Pentecost Sunday, why should we think we can? Maybe bumbling over the geographical list makes that important point even more memorably. Overachieving and grandiosity (and perfection) are not what God's people are called (or equipped) to provide....
Perhaps this also also emphasizes that what took place on that day of Pentecost sounded to the crowd, for the most part, like gobbledygook. It allows us to better appreciate why dubious Temple brass witnessing the goings on accused the apostles of being sauced. Even if it was only 9 o’clock in the morning! (And not during NFL season, when 9am inebriation is certainly plausible.)
You may come up with other possible, poignant, and amusing reasons.
In any case, may the Comic Lens suggest to pastors and worship leaders that when Pentecost rolls around next year, encourage your scripture reader (be they of the cloth, or just wearing red) to freely balk, bump and bumble through the text. Especially when it comes to all those dreaded names. Have a ball trying to comically cover up the flummox you so obviously feel.
Make all this comic discrepancy at the service of your Pentecost 2016 sermon!
And another reason the Bible is funny! Especially when the Church – filled as it is with flawed but well-intentioned and called folk – becomes fully drenched in the Spirit and, hence, fully alive...warts, wounds, wonders and all. Make it one more great opportunity for Christians to laugh at themselves and with the institution that often takes itself way too seriously.
And after all is said and done (well or not-so-much), enjoy a real Pentecost treat: The Church's Birthday Cake! This year she is 1982 years young! May the Spirit enable the people to speak about the Divine as in days of old; in words, imagery (and humor!) as fiery -- and sweet and spicy -- as Hot Tamales!! :)