A Gift of Words

This is from Leonard Sweet: Recently, a judicial friend was presiding over a case in a small, rural county. The defendant was charged with drunk driving and trying to assault the police officer who arrested him. To convict the defendant on the assault on an officer charge, the District Attorney had to prove that the defendant knew the person he was assaulting was a police officer. And the easiest way to do that is to show that the officer was wearing a police uniform, and therefore the defendant knew that this was a police officer.

So the District Attorney asked the officer on the witness stand, “And how were you attired when you pulled the defendant over?”

The witness looked at him blankly. It was clear he didn’t know what the District Attorney meant by “attired.” Everyone saw this but the District Attorney.

“Would you repeat the question, please?”

In a slightly irritated voice the District Attorney said, “And how were you attired when you pulled the defendant over?”

The witness still was puzzled. “Say that again,” he pleaded.

“How were you attired when you pulled the defendant over?” barked the District Attorney.

My friend said you could suddenly see the light bulb come on in the officer’s head, and he proudly proclaimed, “I was traveling on standard issue radial tires!”

This officer needed an interpreter even within the English language!

That’s what I’m getting at: We all need our own personal interpreter, full time, 24/7. So much of what we hear, even within the English language, we don’t understand. And nowhere is that truth more evident than with people who are new to the church.


I am a hospice chaplain. The first few months on the job, I needed to learn the medical jargon that was used. We have regular Interdisciplinary Team Meetings to coordinate care for our patients. At one such meeting when I was still fairly new, I wanted to ask a question.


I noticed on the clinical notes for a patient that a term was used that I didn’t know. And I also wanted to get a chuckle. So I asked, “What’s SOB?” I got the desired chuckle and was told, “Short of Breath.” I learned many more medical terms, BID, TID, Q this, and Q that.


Recently, I came across a term on the face sheet for a heart disease patient. It said “stenosis.” So I looked it up. Stenosis is the narrowing of something, like one of the many tubes in our bodies. In this case, it is a narrowing of a heart artery. Why not just say narrowing? Naw, that’s too simple. We have a 2-bit word we can use instead.


The church is no different. What does Pentecost mean? Well, literally, it means 50. It is 50 days after Easter. Why not call it Easter + 50 or Holy Spirit Day or Church Birthday Day? That’s too simple. We have this other word we have always used.


What does Eucharist mean? It means thanksgiving. Why not call it Holy Thanksgiving? Naw, that’s too simple. We have this other word we have used since the beginnings of the church, a Greek church, that uses Greek words. Only we ain’t in Greece. We need to make it easy for the unchurched to become the churched. If not, they will become frustrated and not come back.


PentecostPentecost is about the story when the Holy Spirit, in great power, transformed a cowering group of Jesus’ followers and gave them great power to share Jesus’ story. They shared the story to a group of people from all over the Roman Empire and who spoke many languages. In their day, Greek was the common language, the lingua franca. But rather than speak to them in Greek, they spoke to each in their own language. To share the Word of God and spread the word to a wider church, they spoke to the people plainly and in their own language.


The Holy Spirit transforms frightened disciples into bold proclaimers of Jesus. The Holy Spirit chooses to arrive when Jerusalem is crowded. The potential audience is large. In essence, the gathering of a crowd was an evangelical model of people coming to hear a message. Now granted, a big commotion is what caused a crowd to gather.


But after that Pentecost, the disciples gradually left Jerusalem and the Holy Land. They were compelled to tell the story about Jesus and the world wasn’t going to go to Jerusalem, a backwater province of the Roman Empire. They went to places where people gathered. They went to synagogues where Jews and those sympathetic to Judaism would gather and would understand their references to Jewish scriptures. They went to the marketplaces.


You know what? By today’s standards we might say they were failures. They converted very few people in those first centuries. And in those odd places where they had a visible percentage of the population, they were persecuted. Who would join a group who lived under the threat of arrest and worse? But people did. The Jesus story was just too compelling. It could not be kept a secret.


Pentecost marks a strong contrast. We have the disciples huddled together in the upper room, afraid to go out to the populace. Then the Holy Spirit comes in dramatic fashion and they can’t stay in the room any longer. They are compelled to go out and tell the story of Jesus.


Peter is the primary example. Peter is a pretty compulsive guy. We have no evidence that he did public speaking during Jesus’ ministry. After all, Jesus did all right doing all the talking. Even if the disciples had a crisis or question, it was another one of the disciples who would verbally engage Jesus, not Peter. Peter was a doer.


Yet at Pentecost, Peter was the one who addressed the crowd. He saw Jesus do it many times. Now he was the one to step up. Peter assumed his role as the group’s leader. Jesus saw this in Peter. Peter was a part of Jesus’ inner circle.


Peter probably always had a knack for public speaking but may not have done it because he couldn’t lick the butterflies in his belly. On Pentecost, Peter either didn’t feel those butterflies or he didn’t get them or he ignored them. The Holy Spirit compelled Peter to take charge and to speak for the group.


spiritual giftsPeter had the gift of public speaking and Peter had the gift of leadership before Pentecost. After he was infused with the Holy Spirit, those gifts were enhanced by the Holy Spirit.


We all have gifts. We all have abilities that we do better than an average person. These gifts from God are improved by the Holy Spirit. St. Paul talks about spiritual gifts in several of his letters. These Pauline gifts edify the church. But our gifts are not just for the church. They are a part of us in whatever we do.


If we were to imagine a room of twenty people, there may be two or three who share the same gifts. Collectively, all twenty are necessary to accomplish the big tasks. The twenty share their gifts for the goal of the group. Smaller tasks can be done with smaller groups.


All of us can do most projects. Depending on the project, we may do it well or we may do it less than well or maybe we do it superbly. If we can do something superbly and we like doing it, that is one of our gifts. Most people have at least two gifts. Two of Peter’s gifts were leadership and public speaking. Those gifts he already had were enhanced by the Holy Spirit.


No one can say that I have no gifts. Everyone has gifts. But no one person has all the gifts. It takes a group or even a congregation working together to do the work they are to do, even the work of God. Peter did not continue the church all by himself. Paul did not further the work of any of the churches he founded. Paul allowed the people, gathered together, to do the work of God in their communities. They were successful when they shared their gifts.


We gather into congregations on Sunday to be spiritually filled and strengthened. To do God’s work, utilizing our gifts, can drain us. We need recharging. We need encouragement. We gather so that we may re-enter the world filled with the Holy Spirit to do God’s work in the world.

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