Holy Spirit Ears

Proclaim Sermons
Homily: Pentecost
May 23, 2021
Reproduced with Permission
Proclaim Sermons

Summary: Experiencing the Holy Spirit is a community event, not a moment of private spirituality. Communication requires community participation, both of speakers and listeners. Speakers need listeners if they are to be understood.

A gentleman approached the table at an outdoor food pantry, producing a folded piece of paper, and with a flurry of Spanish handed it to the English-speaking volunteers. It was clear he wanted to know what the English words on the paper said. The volunteers, with a combination of a few Spanish words and a lot of gesturing, managed to tell him that the note was from a doctor and explained a recent visit. He nodded with understanding, but no one was sure if his question had really been answered. He took some food and smiled and said he would be back next week. He came every week, and often had papers from his employer or his doctor for volunteers to read to him, and each time this game of charades took place to help him understand what his papers said. He had formed a bond of trust with these volunteers who cared enough for him to give him food and to spend an extra 20 or 30 minutes searching Google translate for the right words to help him with whatever presented itself that day.

Learning to speak a language someone else can understand is a difficult thing. Even when a common language is shared, communication is not always assured. In the last year, we have witnessed people who speak the same language talking past each other on social media, in the news and even in our immediate families. Speaking clearly is not easy. Listening thoughtfully is not easy. These are learned skills that take hours of practice and patience and require a great deal of trust for meaningful communication to happen.


On the face of it, the most miraculous thing about the Pentecost moment would seem that people suddenly found the ability to speak languages they did not previously know. In truth, the real miracle is that the sounds of the Holy Spirit drew others in to patiently listen and hear their language being spoken in the cacophonous uproar. Almost anyone can learn to speak a new language, especially if they start young enough, but what difference does speaking make if there is no one to listen? Will fluency matter without a conversation partner? Do words have the same meanings without anyone to react to them?

Generally, the Holy Spirit does not come in a quiet, private, personal moment of devotion. The Holy Spirit flies into the room with the volume turned all the way up, descending into a space full of people. The Spirit’s arrival produces a cacophony of noise and an astounding flourish of light and heat. Often, the descent of the Holy Spirit is a communal event where there need to be speakers and listeners, givers and receivers.

The volume of speakers

The last several months have been very loud. Voices from every angle have sought center stage for their message. Scientists, politicians, educators and activists have all seemed to speak at the same time, each message as urgent as the last in a great clash of megaphones. It has been a confusing time with so many voices speaking at once that the sound has been deafening. It has been so emotionally draining that it is tempting to not listen at all. The daily strain has taken its toll.

In addition to the many voices competing for our attention in our village square, we’ve all been urged to keep a distance, a literal physical distance, from each other. We have masked our faces, making emotion more difficult to read. We have muted ourselves on video calls. We have refused hugs and handshakes. Leaders have implored us not to gather as a sign of love, which is counterintuitive to our human instinct.

Still, we struggle to hear voices of reason. We wonder why our own voices seem silenced by louder messages. It is easy to feel lost in the noise.

It would have been easy for the early church to get lost in the noise that Pentecost. With so much at stake for the burgeoning community, it must have been a bewildering time to lead a religious community. But, when the Spirit filled that place and eyes widened and filled with light, and lips curled to smiles and shouted triumphant messages in world languages, the noise was joyful and there were ears to hear. The Holy Spirit filled the disparate spaces between dissenting responses to the risen Jesus so that even the widest theological chasms were bridged by an ineffable Spirit connection.


For speech to be communication and not noise, it must be heard. For someone to hear words there must be a bond of trust that slows their whirling mind to really listen. For there to be trust, there must be a shared communal experience, and that is what the Holy Spirit brought to the early church community that first Pentecost.

At the food bank, no one was under any illusions that they had spoken meaningful Spanish to the gentleman who approached the table. A few people remembered enough Spanish nouns to describe a hospital setting and others found ways to mime the verbs. Neither was the gentleman able to provide much affirmation that he understood any English. This was hardly a Pentecost moment. There was no fluid speech. There were no joyful shouts of God’s greatness. There were only a few foolish-looking volunteers trying to describe with their actions the words on a page.

Regardless, there were all the elements of a Spirit-filled moment. There was the bond of shared community experience at the food bank and a common human need for nourishing food and human relationship. A relationship of trust had been built, one where the man could depend on getting food every week from the volunteers who never failed to arrive, no matter the weather. Their dependability made them credible for him, so he showed them his personal documents and asked for help. There were great chasms in the life experience of the volunteers and their guest, but each was willing to work hard to listen, and make a concerted effort to communicate, no matter how foolish they looked or felt. The message of God’s great power and love was shown, even if it was not the topic of discussion.

Pause to listen

That Pentecost day must have been a noisy mess of people speaking over each other. But there were still people listening and ready to hear a message in their language. The message they heard was one of God’s power and love, which they may have missed in all the noise had they not been listening. Will you strain to hear a message of love? Will you listen a little harder?

Where do you hear a language that you understand? Who is speaking in a way that speaks to you? Will you know it when you hear it? How will you respond? Will you come back to hear more and try again?

If the Spirit descends on you and burns inside of you so fiercely that you cannot stay quiet, speak firmly and clearly. You do not need to shout. The Spirit will fill the social distances between you and others, bridging gaps and shepherding a community of holy hearers. Articulate your words, give thought to your sentences, and bring unbridled passion to your message. Speak truth with love, and when you have said your piece, be quiet and listen. Be ready to hear the unexpected.