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Pentecost, General Conference, and the Spirit of God

Bishop Sudarshana Devadhar preaches at the May 14 worship service at the United Methodist 2016 General Conference. Photo by Maile Bradfield, United Methodist Communications.

Photo by Maile Bradfield, United Methodist Communications

“We cannot make disciples for Jesus Christ,” United Methodist Bishop Sudarshana Devadhar preached at General Conference 2016, “unless we are willing to cross boundaries and break barriers.”

They were all filled with the Holy Spirit
and began to speak in other languages
as the Spirit enabled them to speak.
(Acts 2:4)

Sunday, May 15, 2016, is Pentecost Sunday. Christians in just about every church hear the Acts 2 story and sermons on this miraculous day. May 15 also falls in the middle of the General Conference of The United Methodist Church meeting in Portland, Oregon, May 10-20. General Conference is the once-every-four-years gathering of our global denomination.

Pentecost was already a holiday in the time of Jesus. Fifty days prior, the people celebrated Passover, remembering the Exodus when God freed people's bodies from the bondage of slavery. Pentecost, also called the Festival of Weeks, commemorated God giving the Torah to the people of Israel for the nourishment of their spirits. It was also a time when they brought their first fruits to God in thanksgiving for a good harvest.

On the day of Pentecost just days after Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension, the Holy Spirit descended in a powerful way upon Jesus’ first followers. Jesus had promised them the Spirit would come to empower them to be his witnesses all across the globe.

Interestingly, the very first gift the Spirit gives the disciples is the ability to speak in many languages. People from all over the then-known world who had gathered in Jerusalem were able to hear the disciples talk about the gospel of Jesus Christ in a way they could understand.

Many languages are also on display at General Conference 2016.

On Saturday, May 14, the day before Pentecost, Bishop Cynthia Harvey, of the Louisiana Episcopal Area, opened the morning plenary session with a bi-lingual prayer in both English and Spanish. She then greeted everyone, “Good morning, buenos dias, bonjour.”

Wherever you go at General Conference, you are likely to hear a variety of languages. It is an amazing experience.

At this 2016 gathering, all speakers and delegates are encouraged to speak in their native tongue. An app for our phones, and a wonderful team of translators, allow each of us to hear what is being said in our own language.

It’s not exactly Pentecost—the disciples didn’t need an app—but it gives us a taste of what it means to be a much bigger church than we encounter in our local congregation on a typical Sunday morning. The church is larger than one nation, one language, and one culture.

When the Spirit gave the disciples the ability to speak all those languages, people reacted in two ways. Some were impressed. Blown away by what they were hearing, they named all the nations that could understand. They were moved by what God had empowered the disciples to say.

Others, however, dismissed it. “They’re drunk!” they said. Well, more accurately according to Acts, they accused the disciples of being “full of new wine.” (Is that a subtle reference to the first fruits celebration?)

Rather than hearing a beautiful, multilingual proclamation of the gospel, it was noise to them. They thought the followers of Jesus were uttering nonsense they did not understand.

I would guess the same could be said of this gathering of United Methodists in Portland. What a bunch we are! We speak many languages, and even more dialects within those languages. That can lead to quite a bit of misunderstanding.

There was some confusion the other day when someone suggested we “table” a motion. In some languages and cultures, tabling means to put something aside for later. In other languages and cultures, it means the opposite—to be brought out and worked on now. No wonder some who observed the Pentecost celebration described in Acts 2 accused the believers of being drunk.

While our differing languages provide potential misunderstanding, the Holy Spirit gives us the ability to overcome them.

In his message during the opening worship on Saturday, May 14, Bishop Sudarshana Devadhar expressed this beautifully. “We cannot make disciples for Jesus Christ unless we are willing to cross boundaries and break barriers.”

The first fruits of this celebration of Pentecost described in Acts 2 were not new wine, but the responses of 3,000 people who heard, believed, and were baptized into the community of faith.

The beauty of Pentecost and of being part of a multi-lingual denomination is the Spirit’s ability to bring us together under the unifying love of Jesus, which is able to overcome every barrier.

Despite differences of language, geography, and culture, we are one in the Spirit of God. Our unity in Christ is far greater than anything that separates us.

We celebrate the unifying love of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, and at General Conference.

*Joe Iovino works for UMC.org at United Methodist Communications. Contact him by email or at 615-312-3733.