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  • Writer's pictureFather Benjamin von Bredow

Other tongues.

A Sermon for Pentecost

May 19, 2024 at Holy Communion

1 Corinthians 14

“They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues” (Acts 2:4). In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. ☩ Amen.

I will say a word about a perplexing aspect of Spirit’s coming. We hear that the Holy Spirit inspires people to “speak in other tongues.” What does this mean?

I ask this question as if we have no idea what “speaking in tongues” is, but we may not be honest when we say so. I have seen many polite, reserved Anglicans retreat from even asking the question of whether the biblical “speaking in tongues” is the same thing that Pentecostal churches encourage today—that is, ecstatically speaking in rapid, unintelligible sounds. We don’t want to go there because, to be honest, it’s pretty weird. We don’t to discover that they might be right.

Now, I don’t think that they are totally right, but neither are they totally wrong. We’ll get there.

The first thing I want to point out is that ecstatically uttering nonsense speech is not what we see in our reading from Acts, on the day of Pentecost. When the Holy Spirit descends on that occasion, he inspires people to speak not in an angelic language opaque to the human mind, but in the ordinary languages of places they have not yet visited. The miracle is that the apostles were given access to the languages of foreign nations so that they could preach the gospel, as Jesus commanded them, “to all the world” (Mark 16:15). We can call this the “Pentecostal tongue-speaking,” the miracle of language on the day of Pentecost.

But there was another practice in the first days of the church also called “speaking in tongues.” Its epicentre was in the city of Corinth in today’s Greece. St Paul evangelized that city, but once he was gone this “speaking in tongues” got somewhat out of control, and he wrote 1 Corinthians 14 to respond to the issue. Paul describes this “Corinthian tongue-speaking” simply as “uttering speech which is not intelligible” while praying in church (v 9). He describes how spontaneous outbursts of this unintelligible speech was a threat to the “decency and order” of the church’s worship (v 40).

Besides the fact that this description matches what we see in Pentecostalism today, it also matches practices of ecstatic nonsense speech in other religions, especially shaman-based folk religions around the world. Ecstatic, nonsensical utterance is not just a Christian phenomenon.

So where does it come from? The Bible nowhere suggests that Corinthian tongue-speaking is a miracle. Instead, Paul treats the it as a spiritual practice in which Christians can choose to engage or not engage. A tongue-speaker is not simply carried along by the breath of God without any choice or participation. Speaking in tongues is something you can choose to do.

But why would you choose to pray using nonsense words? Again, Paul is helpful, when he says that “one who speaks in a tongue speaks not to men but to God; for no one understands him, but he utters mysteries in the Spirit. … The one who speaks in a tongue builds up himself. … If I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays but my mind is unfruitful” (v 2, 4, 14).

Speaking in tongues is way of expressing to God the prayers of your spirit which are too deep for words—too deep, perhaps, even for your own mind to understand them. Anyone who has cried knows that there are some feelings which need to be expressed for which there are no words. The person who speaks in an unintelligible tongue circumvents the ways that language and consciousness can become barriers, preventing us from uttering the cry of the heart directly to the God. To speak is tongues is to reach down into the shadowy places of your soul where you feel exultation beyond singing, anxiety beyond facing, thankfulness beyond saying, and sorrow beyond bearing, and to bring it up before God so that you can find comfort and release.

St Paul describes this in another passage not usually associated with tongue speaking, in Romans 8. He says, “the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words” (v 26). There are things we need to say in prayer that we do not have words for and do not need words for, and the Spirit of God helps us to bring them out.

We can see why Paul both valued speaking in tongues—he says that he was glad that he did all the time (1 Corinthians 14:18)—but he also wanted to limit its use in church. Using unintelligible sound to dredge the bottom of your heart is something you should absolutely do, but, he says, it’s all about you and God, and it’s only noise to everybody else. In church, St Paul would rather hear one intelligible word than a thousand unintelligible ones (v 19). We’re here to build one another up (v 4).

And yet we Anglicans have, in all our services, a thousand intelligible words. Perhaps we would do well to reflect on the value of a few unintelligible ones.

Three weeks ago we spoke about the Holy Spirit, and we said that the Spirit is God present with us, drawing us into the fulfillment for which we were created. Your fulfillment depends on a complete reconciliation being made between your heart and God’s. But how can reconciliation be made so long as your heart is full of things too deep for words, things you are unable or too afraid to say to God? Words themselves may have to be set aside. So the Spirit moves when we ask, and gives us utterance. The Spirit is the one who unlocks the shut doors of the human heart.

I will add my own testimony. Speaking in tongues, as the Spirit gives utterance, is a practice I have. And I learned it from an Anglican, from Nicky Gumbel, the founder of the Alpha Course. In his Alpha videos, Gumbel encourages people to ask the Spirit to grant them the gift of tongues. This is how: he tells us start by saying ordinary prayers, offering praise to God, confessing our sins, and confessing and rejecting whatever doubt we might have about the request we are about to make. Then you ask for the gift of the Spirit to speak in tongues, and you “open your mouth and speak in a language you have not learned.”

My testimony is simply this: it sounded strange, but I tried it, and it worked. But more than that, praying occasionally in an unknown tongue has been a great comfort to me. It gives me a way to bring before God the deep anxieties of my heart, in the secrecy of my prayer closet. When I feel stressed for reasons about which I am not clear, I have experienced that stress fading away or sometimes—even better—the nature of my anxieties comes into consciousness while I pray, so that I can address it. The Spirit has also helped me pray for the needs of others whose hearts are just as much of a mystery to me as my own is.

I encourage you, in fact, I plead with you, for your own good: do this for yourself; pray for the gift of the Spirit to give your spirit utterance.

But even more, the fundamental point is this: God will have all of your heart. Before he is done with you, he will find some way to break open the strongbox of your soul. There is nothing that lies hidden in darkness which is not known to God now and which will not be made known to man eventually (Luke 8:17). If you want to live in the Spirit, you must allow the Spirit to work even in your secret places.

1 Comment

May 21

I had the experience of speaking in tongues when I was 16 at a Christian youth camp as I was worshiping the Lord it changed my life as a teenager and gave me a great desire to witness and serve the Lord, In my own prayer life it has been an encouragement and a place where I come away from refreshed,

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