By Katie Harmon-McLaughlin
Spiritual Formation Ministries
And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each... “And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?”
If anything, this Pentecost has to remind us of our collective breathing: breathing life together into new worlds and other ways of living. For we either breathe together or no one will breathe at all.
Pentecost is a moment of birth. It was the birth of the early church, a great coming together, breathing together, listening together into the wild Spirit that was and always is drawing us toward union.
The sprawling diversity of the early church is represented at the beginning of the book of Acts. How would followers of “The Way” spread the message of Christianity in many languages to many cultures amid the socio-cultural and political realities of class differentiation, slavery, patriarchy, and the oppressive rule of the Roman Empire?
Radically alternative currents of Spirit were bursting the seams of “normative” religious and cultural expressions. As expressed in the Women’s Bible Commentary, women were in leadership in the early chapters of Acts. They:
...were present at the moment of Pentecost, translating the new imperial message into languages from Mediterranean North Africa, western Asia, and southern Europe alongside the men. Peter explains the outpouring of Spirit as a gift of God regardless of gender, class, or age.
The presence of marginalized populations as bringers, and not just witnesses of the good news, was a powerful counter-cultural statement. In Acts 2:17–18 NRSV, daughters and women are specifically named as prophesiers and bearers of the Holy Spirit as a sign of of what author Richard B. Hays calls “eschatological reversal, of God setting the world right by deposing the powerful and lifting up the lowly” (The Moral Vision of the New Testament: A Contemporary Introduction to New Testament Ethics).
Queer Biblical interpretation suggests that Pentecost was both a moment of unity and a resistance of assimilation. “In this regard,” writes theologian Thomas Bohache in The Queer Bible Commentary:
The Pentecost story is paradigmatic, for it shows the believers gathered together in one place, receiving the Holy Spirit as a group, and yet manifesting the same Spirit in different and diverse ways in order to advance God’s one, unified Reign of inclusion and unconditional love.
This interpretation of Pentecost is powerful as we consider what it truly means to follow Jesus, the peaceful One, in our own contexts today!
Pentecost was not a moment of translation to a language of sameness. Rather, the power of the Spirit enabled each to hear the other in their own language. This is significant because language is more than vocabulary. Language is, according to Juan Francisco Martinez, “much more than a (mechanistic) tool that humans utilize for communication. It is a complex system that weaves perceptions, meanings, and imaginations into a ‘system of representation’” (Churches, Cultures, & Leadership: A Practical Theology of Congregations and Ethnicities).
Language was a powerful affirmation of diversity and indigenous interpretation of the gospel as it made its way throughout cultures and nations. It was a de-centering moment that affirmed the work of the Spirit in the contexts and religions outside Jerusalem.
Bohache also notes:
The first disciples ministered in multiple languages to people of many nations of different colors practicing various religions. Yet together they felt God’s presence and power, and the Spirit gave them ability without distinction to glorify God in their very diversity. Can we do any less in today’s world?
Reign of God Depends on Diversity
There are moments when I work with our phenomenal translations team to facilitate multilingual, multicultural groups that I wish for such a time of common understanding! At the very least it might be more efficient!
Yet, my sense is that this substantial moment at the “birth” of the church was about more than simply understanding one another more effectively or efficiently. The reign of God actually depends on diversity. The more we can widen and deepen our awareness of where the holy is at work among us, the more possibilities become reality for the peaceable kin-dom to come near.
Sometimes this work of deepening understanding and stretching our perceptions is the opposite of efficient. But it is worth the effort because we are talking about the dream of our hearts, initiated and fulfilled by our God. Sometimes we are tempted to confuse our own experience of “normal” with being faithful.
The Pentecost experience reminds us that God always is willing to break up and expand our perception of the norm to welcome every blessed variety of God’s beloved creation. The more we can hear, see, and experience the Spirit at work in the incredible diversity of our world, the more we receive the deep invitation to full life in Christ.
We are re-centered in God’s love as the ultimate “norm” for all life, and we begin to see the world anew. When we truly are baptized into Christ, we become “part of a new creation” (Doctrine and Covenants 164:5).
What might it look like today to experience the Spirit of unity by hearing each other in our own languages, our own ways of being and living in this world, to see through the lens of each other’s perspectives and experiences? Can you imagine what it would feel like—whatever your life experience—to be truly heard and understood? This signals a deeper kind of unity that is expressed in Doctrine and Covenants 165:3c–e.
c. You do not fully understand many interrelated processes of human creation. Through its wonderful complexity, creation produces diversity and order.
d. Be not consumed with concern about variety in human types and characteristics as you see them. Be passionately concerned about forming inclusive communities of love, oneness, and equality that reveal divine nature.
e. Oneness and equality in Christ do not mean uniformity. They mean Unity in Diversity and relating in Christ-like love to the circumstances of others as if they were one’s own. They also mean full opportunity for people to experience human worth and related rights, including expressing God-given giftedness in the church and society.
The church in Acts was creating itself amid a pluralistic, diverse, economically unjust, politically charged environment. People were bringing their own cultures, worldviews, languages, even religions into conversation with the Christian message for the first time.
Community of Christ today is in a global religious landscape that also looks and feels like a time of re-creation of the church in an increasingly diverse, pluralistic context. Though we carry centuries of tradition and history, this moment feels wide open, gloriously uncertain, and fresh in possibility.
This does not mean “anything goes.” Wise and careful discernment is required, as is perseverance in faith. The early church was prophetic in its critique of injustice and faced the violence and persecution for not assimilating quietly into the “norm” of the Roman Empire. Incarnation, God among us, continues to happen in our lives today, and the Spirit will take form beyond our expectations.
This may require repentance from cultures that historically have been dominant and oppressive, squelching the life-giving Spirit that seeks to come to expression among the oppressed and forgotten of the Earth.
Attune Our Hearts to Pentecost
Who has been neglected, ignored, cast aside, or rejected? Where have we missed the power of the Holy Spirit seeking to birth a new creation in these very people and places? We are invited to attune our hearts to every place where Pentecost is happening now, where people of differing life experiences and ways of seeing the world are being called together into a new creation centered on the life and love of Jesus Christ.
Where is the unruly, barrier-breaking Spirit of God at work in our world today, singeing our norms with transformative tongues of fire, opening us to ways of seeing and understanding the world that have the power to articulate the gospel anew?
Give us, O God, the ability to speak and hear in the “language” of the refugee mother, to see the world through the eyes of the transgender child, to feel in our hearts the hopeful ache of the indigenous grandfather advocating for the land.
May the gift of your Spirit burn and breathe through us to break down the dividing walls between political parties and warring nations. May we, bewildered and astounded, hear and see the Spirit as holy fire burning away our false separations, drawing us into the width and warmth of your Oneness.
How is the Spirit of the resurrected Christ at work in this movement of Spirit, pouring forth in every corner of creation? How is the ongoing promise of Pentecost a time of birth and re-creation for God’s beautifully diverse people in the circumstances of our world today?
We need urgently to awaken to this powerful vision and reality of oneness in our distinctiveness. Make of us your new creation for the blessing of all, is our deep hope and prayer.
About the Author
Katie Harmon-McLaughlin (she/her) lives in Independence, Missouri, USA. In addition to ministering as a high priest, she works for Community of Christ as a Spiritual Formation specialist and is the Spiritual Formation Team lead. She has a master’s degree in religion from Community of Christ Seminary, is a doctoral candidate at San Francisco Theological Seminary, and serves as a trained spiritual director.