I’ll never forget the first time I ever heard the Lord’s Prayer spoken in a different language. Growing up, I was used to hearing everyone saying the same thing, all together in English. I grew comfortable with the rhythm—everyone in unison, even pausing at the same time, almost as though keeping everyone the same was an expression of the Holy Spirit.
But when I was in high school, I invited a friend to church with me—a foreign exchange student from Germany. Toward the end of the school year, I learned he was Lutheran, and I was excited because there weren’t many Lutherans in East Texas. And he’d been living with a family that belonged to a different church, so I thought he might enjoy something familiar. Maybe there would be something there for him. Could this be the work of the Holy Spirit?
I’ll never forget when we said the Lord’s Prayer, and I could hear him next to me PRAYING IN GERMAN. I had never heard anything like it. I knew he knew what was going on in the service, but he was SAYING DIFFERENT WORDS. Or WERE they different words? Was he really saying the same thing I was saying?
The rhythm was different, the pauses were in different places, and suddenly the whole congregation was not in unison anymore. Was this chaos? Was it safe? Was this the work of the Holy Spirit? Could I trust in God enough to stand next to someone speaking a different language? Is it more important that I understand every word in someone’s prayer, or trust that God understands every word? It was my own tiny Pentecost moment.
The story of Pentecost is so much bigger, so much more chaotic with the sound of rushing wind and the tongues of flame on each head and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon the disciples at Pentecost, giving them ability to speak in multiple languages, to tell the story of God’s deeds of power in Jesus Christ.
I’ve often thought about how amazing that must have been from the inside, from the perspective of the disciples who suddenly have new language abilities. But what was it like from the perspective of people on the outside? Who was in the crowd that gathered? There were people who came to Jerusalem to worship, from so many different places and different language groups, who maybe didn’t expect to encounter their own home language or who didn’t expect to hear about Jesus connected to the mighty deeds of God through the Holy Spirit.
In a city full of people from many places, hearing your own language would get your attention. But it’s the message of Jesus Christ, the love of God and the power of healing, that tells you: there’s something here for you. It’s the reminder of the prophet Joel’s promise that God’s Spirit will be poured out upon all flesh, so if you look down and notice that, hey, you also have flesh, then you notice: there’s something here for you.
This is the strategy of the Holy Spirit, according to Thomas Bohache, pastor in the Metropolitan Community Church and theologian advocating for the belonging of GLBTQ peoples within the Christian tradition. Reverend Bohache writes that the Holy Spirit allowed every person to hear the Good News in their own language, or “perhaps more accurately, as they needed to hear it. This is the way the Pentecost story becomes queer: it testifies that God’s message of inclusion and wholeness will be heard in diverse ways through diverse messengers; it is one truth that is able to be shared in many different ways according to the hearer’s individual needs.”
In other words, this isn’t about the believers on the inside, looking outward and attracting people to them with their message. This is about the Holy Spirit standing with people on the outside of the tradition and telling them, “Look here—there’s something here for you.” Reverend Bohache writes that the book of Acts has much to say to queer readers, and he writes, “We much be willing to boldly place ourselves in the story,” not accepting whatever crumbs of toleration Christians are willing to throw under the guise of welcome. Bohache writes that this story of Pentecost is where GLBTQ people “must locate ourselves if we are to remain Christian.”
The story of Pentecost is the story of bringing diverse people together, and Reverend Bohache is saying to queer people, this story is for us.
In The Queer Bible Commentary, Thomas Bohache says this beautifully:
“Thus, the diversity in the GLBTQ community(ies) reflects the very Spirit of God. As part of our Christian legacy, we are entrusted and empowered to bring the Good News of God’s love and Christ’s liberating power to every corner of our world, in different words, through differing scenarios, in various costumes, and with multiple props.
“Accordingly, the Spirit is heard among gay senior citizens who seek to live together in a retirement community. The Spirit is seen when young queers transgress the boundaries of gender and sexuality and refuse to be categorized. The Spirit is described in the language of leather and S/M, in the hilarity of drag shows, and in the solemnity of same-sex weddings. Queer persons individually and collectively open their mouths and proclaim spiritual truth ‘as the Spirit gives them ability’ in whatever venue they find themselves—bar, bathhouse, women’s space, 12-step group, synagogue, church, mosque, ashram, sex club, rodeo, book group, coffee house, university or seminary classroom.
“And our warrant for doing so is Peter’s explanation of the Pentecost phenomenon as fulfillment of the promises God made through the prophet Joel: (Acts 2: 17-18, paraphrasing Joel 2: 28-32) ‘In the last days, it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh; and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young shall see visions, and your old shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy.’
“God does not declare here that only some flesh—straight flesh or monogamous flesh or celibate flesh or ‘decent,’ acceptable flesh—will receive the Spirit. God says all flesh; this means flesh that is gay, lesbian, bisexual, heterosexual, transgendered, omnisexual, asexual, differently sexual, conservative and progressive, monogamous and single and polymorphously perverse—each encountering the divine in our circumstances and hearing the Spirit in our own language, leading us into the inclusive Reign of God through Christ.
“Nor does God declare that the Spirit will only be manifest among rich white men in positions of power. On the contrary, God’s assurance is quite specific that the Spirit will be poured out on men and women, sons and daughters, male and female slaves, young and old, dreaming dreams and seeing visions, prophesying about the divine presence in this world. 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?”
For those of us inside the church, for us who are well-acquainted with the voice of the Holy Spirit, can we trust God enough to help us recognize the power of the Holy Spirit and where the Spirit is active in the world outside the church? The Spirit isn’t following the boundaries we set. God didn’t ask our permission to pour out the Spirit on some flesh, but on all flesh.
And over the centuries, plenty of people inside the church have worked hard to reinforce their self-made boundaries and keep entire groups of people out, including LGBTQ people. That’s why a specific welcome is so important, and more than saying “we’ll tolerate you,” we want to say, “there’s a place for you here, and we need you to better understand the depth and breadth of God’s love through the Holy Spirit.” It’s worth remembering that Pentecost isn’t just one festival day, but this work is ongoing, through Pride month and beyond.
Today we join in the joyful sound of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit—those of us gathered here in the sanctuary will sing together, for the first time in…over a year? I hope we haven’t forgotten how to sing. Perhaps we’ll need some practice to feel strong again. But no matter the language in which we sing, the Holy Spirit binds us together.