Over the last few weeks the gospel readings have guided us through Jesus’ long and poignant goodbye speech, as recounted in John. Knowing that he will soon be leaving his disciples after three years of teaching and leading and prodding them, Jesus makes time for a proper farewell: ‘Where I am going you cannot go,’ he tells them. ‘But do not worry – I will send you another companion, the Holy Spirit, to guide you the rest of the way.’ This “farewell speech” occupies nearly a quarter of John’s entire gospel, which leads us to believe that Jesus’ absence posed a serious threat to the community of followers he was about to leave behind. Would they survive without him? Would the message of grace that Jesus preached survive without him? Would they carry on the good work of Jesus in his absence, or would they return to business as usual? Everything depended upon that Holy Spirit, which Jesus promised would come to them – eventually.
It took fifty days for the Spirit to finally come. This Sunday – Pentecost Sunday – we will read the story of its arrival and its powerful effect on the earliest Christians. Luke tells us that when the Spirit finally came it blew the doors off their little church. With something like tongues of fire, it spread through their ranks and touched the heads of each person gathered inside; and all at once, they were each given to speak in a different language – languages that were otherwise foreign to them – so that anyone who was listening outside, from every land and every background, would hear the message of Jesus Christ and believe.
Because the Holy Spirit came upon them, the followers not only survived in Jesus’ absence, but thrived. It meant that Jesus’ message of grace would not be lost. The church grew mightily because the people shared that message in ways that the rest of the world could hear and understand. Instead of expecting the world to adapt and conform to their own voice, those early Christians adapted their voice to the unique and diverse needs of the world – and the world listened and believed.
As a parent of teenagers I have learned this much: just because my lips may be moving does not mean my kids understand what I am saying or, for that matter, are even listening to me. But if what I’m saying is important enough to be said, I must find a way to say it so that they’ll understand.
So it is in the church. But let me remind you: if you want to find the way to be heard and understood, move your lips a little less, and listen a little more.