I grew up in a pentecostal church, which meant that Pentecost was one of the few days on the liturgical calendar that we celebrated, although it often came out of nowhere and I wasn’t sure why we it was a big deal. My church experience has changed a lot since then, and that change began while attending a UCC church during my time in college. It was the minister there—Harold Bussell—who first preached about the idea of the Spirit controlling our tongues; that when the Spirit descended on Pentecost, the Spirit came in to our lives and began changing the way we speak.
That idea grabbed hold of me then and has never let go.
So this idea is not mine. But it is a very intriguing way to think about Pentecost and the idea of proclamation. With no further adieus….
I’ve heard of a marriage counselor that can predict in one session if a marriage will last or not. When he sits down to chat with the couple—whether they are already married or if they are engaged—he pays relatively little attention to what issues they are talking about–be it finances, in-laws, the kids, work, intimacy, whatever—and homes in on the way they are talking to one another. If there is any contempt in the exchange, he predicts that it will be an uphill battle at best for the relationship to last. Whether or not you agree with him, he’s on to something given his track record of prediction. How we talk to one another—how we make use of our tongues to communicate—is of vital importance to our relationships.
Tongues are funny things. They are, we’ve been told, one of the strongest muscles in the body. They control our speech, what we say, how we form our words. With the words our tongues form, we can do amazing things. And with other words formed by that same tongue we can destroy one another.
In his epistle, James writes about the tongue. He says, “A bit in the mouth of a horse controls the whole horse. A small rudder on a huge ship in the hands of a skilled captain sets a course in the face of the strongest winds. A word out of your mouth may seem of no account, but it can accomplish nearly anything—or destroy it! It only takes a spark, remember, to set off a forest fire. A careless or wrongly placed word out of your mouth can do that. By our speech we can ruin the world, turn harmony to chaos, throw mud on a reputation, send the whole world up in smoke and go up in smoke with it, smoke right from the pit of hell. This is scary: You can tame a tiger, but you can’t tame a tongue—it’s never been done. The tongue runs wild, a wanton killer. With our tongues we bless God our Father; with the same tongues we curse the very men and women he made in his image. Curses and blessings out of the same mouth! My friends, this can’t go on.” (From James 3, The Message Bible)
In the movie “How to Train Your Own Dragon,” the protagonist, a teen aged Viking named Hiccup, tries desperately hard to fit in with the other Vikings of his village. But he’s scrawny and weak, and while he tries his best to be a dragon hating person like them, he just can’t. Instead, he befriends a dragon that has been hurt and takes care of him like a pet. When his father, the chief of their village, learns that Hiccup’s been taking care of a dragon, he is overcome with rage. At the end of an angry diatribe, he looks at Hiccup before storming out and says, “You are not my son.”
He is crushed, of course, this teen-aged boy who longs for the acceptance of his father. As are any of us when someone spews angry words at us. No matter how many times we may repeat that rhyme from childhood, words hurt a lot, and often more than sticks or stones, because the damage can last a lifetime. I’m sure some of you can either recall words spoken to you, or words that you gave voice to, that you now wish you could remove from existence.
When the Spirit comes on Pentecost, isn’t it remarkable that after the rush of wind and the flames of fire alighting on the heads of all those there, the very next sign is that the disciples begin to speak in other languages as the Spirit prompted them. The Spirit controls their tongues. Immediately they begin to speak in other tongues, not unintelligible words, but they speak in the languages of each group gathered there, as the Spirit guided their tongues. They proclaim the message of God and God’s work of salvation in the world.
Proclamation. That’s what this day—this last day of the Great 50 Days of Easter —is about. Proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ. And that good news can be summed up in one word: transformation.
But we cannot make these proclamations about how Jesus Christ transforms us if our tongues aren’t under control. We cannot be a messenger of Jesus’ good news if we are constantly spouting off at our mouths, saying why this person or group of people upsets us, or how ridiculous they are, or how that person is really just an idiot.
If we want to truly be a part of the kingdom, then we must allow the Spirit to control our tongues. And that means major transformation on the inside as well.
A friend of mine a couple of years ago underwent significant change in his life. He changed old habits and took on new ones. When I spoke with him about this, he wondered why it had taken him so long. “If I had known what a difference this would make in my life, I would have started so much earlier,” he said to me.
“Yes,” I replied. “But thank God that you began now.” What I was trying to say to him was this: Don’t shame and guilt yourself in the ways you have failed in the past. Deal with them, yes. Recognize why you did certain things. Learn from the past. But don’t beat yourself up because you didn’t have the courage to tackle them earlier, and didn’t ultimately trust then that God could bring about the change you so desperately needed. Rather, relish in the fact that God is working now. Take joy in the transformation that is going on now. Be joyful for the years ahead, now that you are changed and continue to be changed.
Transformation. That is the work of the Triune God. To break down the barriers of sin, to offer forgiveness, to shower us with mercy and grace. To help us become the people we are called to be, and to bring our tongues into alignment with that call as well. People that share the love of Jesus Christ with a broken world. People who are about the work of the kingdom of God.
And the question is this: Do you want the Spirit to bring transformation to every part of your being—to your tongue, your heart and your mind? Do you want to be about the work of the kingdom of God? Don’t worry about what you haven’t done up to this point, or how you might have been able to do more, or whatnot. What can you do now? How can you allow God to move in you? How can you more faithfully become a disciple of Jesus Christ?
We cannot become those who have visions or prophesy or dream dreams if we are always spouting off at the mouth. We cannot be the church unless we allow the Spirit to move in us and through us and to bring about change in us. And I would argue that our tongues—the very first thing the Spirit takes over in those disciples on that Pentecost Day so long ago—are where many of us need the Spirit’s leading, transformation and healing.
Perhaps you need to make amends with a family member or a friend over something you said to them that you now regret. Maybe you have hurt your spouse or children with words said out of spite. Perhaps you need Jesus to bring healing to a wound inflicted long ago when someone hurt you with their words. Possibly you’ve been feeling prompted by the Spirit to say something to a hurting co-worker or neighbor, but haven’t spoken to them because you are nervous about how they will respond. Or maybe you need to seek forgiveness from God because your words have been filled with contempt, especially toward those you live with and love.
If we are to be a vital part of Jesus’ kingdom work, then we must invite the Spirit to work in us and through us. To be counted among those of the kingdom, then we need to open ourselves up to the Spirit’s transformative power. When we do so, when we become willing to the Spirit’s leading, then we too can be like Peter, James and Mary and all the rest on that day who shared the message of Jesus with all those gather there, so that these others might also call on the name of the Lord, and be saved. That is the true gift of the Spirit. May we be empowered to proclaim the good news. Amen.