If you were to look up the dictionary definition of privilege, there is a very good chance you would find my photo. I acknowledge that I am a white, cis gender, heterosexual, middle class, university-educated male, born in one of the wealthiest nations on the earth. This is not to say that I haven’t had my own stories of struggle and suffering, but it is to name that in most moments in life the cards have been stacked in my favour.
I have never been sexually abused, assaulted or exploited.
I have never been vilified for my ethnicity or worried that someone would kill me because of the colour of my skin.
I have never been afraid to go on a date with my wife or that we might be attacked for holding hands in public.
And even though I have been deeply anxious about the spread of COVID-19, I have no doubt that there will be an ambulance and a hospital bed waiting for me should I get sick. I will not have to demonstrate that I have enough money before the paramedics help me.
I am an insider who has benefited from a system designed for insiders by insiders…
So, it was deeply humbling and disruptive for me to go and live in another country where the people spoke in a tongue that was not my own.
It was confronting and ground-shaking to walk through life each day not fully understanding what others were saying and feeling insecure in my ability to be understood.
And while the people of Spain were very gracious to me, I discovered something which many of you know as a daily occurrence: the feeling of being an outsider.
The feeling of not belonging.
Which is perhaps why God helped me hear this passage in a new way this week.
Every year we listen to the story of the Spirit’s arrival at Pentecost, and join in the celebrations of the miraculous: of tongues of fire falling from the sky; of disciples gifted with the ability to speak new languages and prophesy; and of 3000 people becoming followers of Jesus in one day.
But none of this is what struck me as the good news for us today.
Instead, I found my imagination captured by the reaction of the crowd.
This year, rather than being in the upper room with the disciples as the Spirit fell upon my head, I was surprised to find myself dragged outside, into the street with the crowds of ordinary people.
I heard their questions and their awe.
I saw their confusion and doubt.
I smelt the burden of their exhaustion and their hope.
And then, out of the corner of my eye, I noticed the frowns and the sneers of some among the crowd. I heard their whispering and muttering grow into jeers, until at last one yelled out: ‘go home, you’re drunk.’
By a miracle, the disciples of Jesus were speaking all the languages of the known world, and the crowd’s conclusion is that they’re drunk. It doesn’t make sense.
It doesn’t make sense.
If you have ever been the one among the many; if you have ever moved in circles that don’t speak your dialect or understand your stories; then you know that hearing someone speak in your native tongue is as life-giving as water in the desert. It is refreshing. It is healing. It is good news.
So, it didn’t make sense to me that those who were visiting Jerusalem from Parthia, Media, Elam, Mesopotamia, Cappadocia, Pontus, Asia, Phrygia, Pamphylia, Egypt, Libya and Rome, and heard the language of home spoken to them would react like this.
It wasn’t gibberish they were hearing. It was their own, real language.
So, why would they assume that the disciples were drunk…
And then I realised: they didn’t.
I don’t think it was those who had to travelled to Jerusalem that were grumbling.
I think it was the locals.
The locals who expected these outsiders to fit in. The locals who didn’t understand what was being said. The locals who feared perhaps a joke was being had at their expense.
And because they feel exposed and helpless, perhaps even embarrassed and afraid, they do what those of us on the inside always do when we are made to feel like outsiders: they sneer.
They sneer because its far more comfortable to react with anger than it is with honest vulnerability.
They grumble and mock because they have been disturbed, displaced, and discomforted by something they do not understand.
But here’s the problem. It isn’t the disciples who are making them uncomfortable. Nor is it the crowd of outsiders, who have suddenly turned up for worship because they heard their name being called.
No, they are uncomfortable because God’s Spirit has arrived.
The Spirit has arrived, and it has come speaking the tongues of outsiders.
The Spirit has come speaking the tongues of outsiders.
And, if you know what its like to be an outsider – if you have ever been outcast and excluded just for being you – then this is the good news of this passage: the Spirit speaks your language.
The Spirit speaks to the experience of rejection and denial, vulnerability and suffering known by those on the margins because it is the very Spirit of Jesus himself who was whipped, stripped, and hung out to die as the victim of a system which violently represses difference.
It is the same Spirit that throughout the book of Acts speaks over and over to those who have been told they are not worthy to be children of God, with the words ‘you are loved, you are saved, you belong.’
The Spirit that is building a community in which even eunuchs and gentiles have a place.
But while this is good news to those on the margins, as a person who has known privilege all his life, this story makes me deeply uncomfortable because it suggests that if I want to hear the voice of the Spirit – of God’s own Spirit – speaking, I might need to shut up and listen to those on the outside.
For while the Spirit’s words come as a healing balm to those who long for their voice to be heard; they afflict those of us who don’t want to listen.
And our very lives may depend on how quickly we learn.
We are living in a scary time – a time of existential angst and bad news.
The issues we face now – global pandemic, environmental destruction, societal and economic collapse – can only be addressed by a united humanity: in fact, by all of God’s creatures in shalom with each other and the world.
Yet, at the very moment we most need harmony and cooperation to face challenges we have never seen before as a species, we are witnessing the resurgence of violent tribalism, factionalism and ultra-nationalism to a degree not seen since the end of the second world war.
There are groups openly declaring themselves as Neo-Nazis and Fascists, like the desire to destroy your neighbour is something to be proud of.
And while most of us do not and, I pray, will never go that far, we do retreat to our echo chambers in a desire to keep ourselves safe from ‘them’ that don’t look like us, or act like us or think like us.
We do set boundaries and build gates so we can continue to benefit from a system we have found ourselves on the inside of.
And, in so doing, we fail to love our neighbour, and our enemy, as ourselves.
BUT, by the grace of God, we do also have the gift of the Spirit that comes speaking the tongues of outsiders.
The Spirit that speaks healing words to those our society has harmed and humbles us to hear their voices as never before.
The Spirit that is forming us, as the church, into an alternate community of hope for our world, where strangers worship together irrespective of our differences: rich and poor, black and white, farmer and urbanite, gay and straight, slave and free, local and foreigner, male, female, transgender, intersex and none.
No matter our language. No matter our tongue. With no regard for traditional boundaries and distances.
The Spirit at the heart of our church is the very Spirit that speaks grace to the excluded in the tongues of the rejected. May we, the Church, have the courage to hear its voice. Amen.