The readings for this Sunday included the following:
Genesis 1: 1-5 – creation
Mark 1:4-11 – the baptism of Jesus
Acts 19:1-7 – an account of Paul baptizing believers and the believers receiving the Holy Spirit and speaking in tongues and prophesying.
My sermon last Sunday began with tracing the trajectory that connects creation in Genesis to Jesus’s baptism in Mark. The imagery of creation (chaotic waters/deep, wind/spirit moving over them, dry land/body appearing) has to be one of the best candidates for helping to form a ‘biblical theology’. I spoke of the culmination of this imagery in Jesus’s baptism and how the words of creation that are now spoken are ones of love. However, I went on to say that the trajectory does not end there and continues into Acts 19. Here is the second half of the sermon,
In Acts 19 we have a short sketch of Paul encountering a group of disciples in Ephesus. Paul at this time is constantly on the road trying teach, organize, and put out fires with all the newly forming churches. Encountering these disciples the first thing he asks is, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?” The group replies, “What!? We haven’t even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” These disciples had been baptized by John which was for repentance but Paul insists that they need to be baptized in Jesus. After being baptized in the name of Jesus Paul lays his hands on them, the Holy Spirit comes upon them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied.
Speaking in tongues remains a polarized topic in most churches. I am not interested this morning in exploring popular perceptions and misperceptions of this expression, what I want us to consider is reading this passage in light of the larger trajectory of creation within the Bible that we have been tracing. What if the tongue represents another site or space for the work of God’s creation? This thinking is of course not far-fetched as God spoke creation into being and Jesus is called the Word which the Gospel of John says was from the beginning. What if speaking in tongues somehow represents whatever it is that is before creation? What if speaking in tongues represents the formless and void waters over which the Spirit of God must call forth life? Biblically, if there is creation there is also the turbulent waters from which creation comes.
So let’s think about the tongue as a possible site of the unintelligible waters before creation? How our tongue strains to find words in the face of the possibility of love, the absence of love, and the loss of love. Often we don’t what words could possibly help heal or restore broken relationships. We struggle to find words that can make meaning of difficult life circumstances. Sometimes we stammer. Sometimes our tongues slip up and we say something ridiculous. Sometimes we simply want to scream or we involuntarily groan in response to something. Of all things surely the tongue can be a site of chaotic or unintelligible waters.
Fernando Pessoa was a Portuguese writer active at the turn of the twentieth century. I understand his work to represent an account of speaking in tongues. The major work he is known for, in English at least, is called to The Book of Disquiet. But it is not really book, or at least it wasn’t. Pessoa did publish in his lifetime but what has become his treasure was his trunk that was found after he died. The trunk contained apparently over 25, 000 scraps of paper on which were sketched partial manuscripts, poems, reflections, bits of philosophy, letters and other miscellaneous materials. And the content of the papers like the scraps themselves was often scattered, even contradictory. At times he wrote under other names or personalities. Sometimes his words almost became nonsensical. There was nothing systematic, coherent, or whole about what was in the trunk other than wooden slats that kept the scraps from flying off in all directions. But as people sifted through these scraps they found that the seeming unintelligibility or strangeness within the trunk often kept in step with what we often experience as a strange and unintelligible life. And so The Book of Disquiet emerged from this formless and void sea of papers. I still remember coming across this book almost by chance. Reading this book was a powerful experience for me as it seemed both foreign and strange and yet also intimately meaningful. Pessoa himself within the book writes,
I weep over my imperfect pages, but if future generations read them, they will be more touched by my weeping than by any perfection I might have achieved, since perfection would have kept me from weeping and, therefore, from writing. Perfection never materializes. The saint weeps, and is human.
And a few lines latter he asks,
But do my words ring in anyone else’s soul? Does anyone hear them besides me?
What if speaking in tongues is like the sound of our thoughts and feelings given space to articulate themselves all at the same time? I used to think honesty was a sort of simple clarity but I am not so sure anymore. I get the sense that honesty may be, at least at first, acknowledging all the stirring waters that move within and around us even if they are confused or conflicted. Perhaps it is the Spirit that can allows us, frees us, to express, at least to ourselves, the unintelligible fullness of our lives in all its intricate beauty and confounding contradiction. We are, I think each of us, 25, 000 scraps of paper in the trunk of our body. Now imagine when we gather as a family, as a church, as a community. If it can be difficult to make sense of our own life, how do we do it as a family or as a church? Appealing to law and authority is always one option. But our imagery this morning asks for more. It asks that we would gather as the teeming and sometimes unintelligible waters of hope and fear and that we gather listening for the words that will ring in our soul; the words that would bring new creation out of the waters; and that we would live into these words and actions because they speak to us and allow us to speak to our neighbour Jesus’s baptismal words You are a child of God, beloved, God is well pleased in you.