“The Languages of God” Colchester Federated Church, June 9, 2019 (Acts 2:1-21) Pentecost Sunday

“And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.  Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them.  All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.”[1]

The Holy Spirit certainly arrives in style—with winds, tongues of fire, and gifts of speaking in diverse languages so that all of the people gathered in Jerusalem could understand what the disciples were saying.  Pentecost has always been one of my favorite days in the church year.  I love this holy day because it marks the birth of the Christian Church and it’s full of energy, excitement, passion, mystery, and the Holy Spirit.

Look at the disciples seeing God, one another, and their neighbors in a new light.  Look at the gifts of the Holy Spirit.  Look at Peter standing tall and proud, facing the crowd and declaring the Good News for all to hear.  Look at this new revelation that ushers in the church and shakes the very foundations of society.

Pentecost is an amazing day for many reasons.  Though when we hear modern-day charismatic Christians talking about speaking in tongues and the Spirit gifting them with this ability (and when they cite Pentecost over and again to make their case), well, the cynical side of us may think that speaking in tongues is odd.  Or just not our style.  We may even start to think that Pentecost is a day in the liturgical year that we should move quickly beyond because it’s also a little odd and not really our style.

Though the point of Pentecost is not the disciples “speaking in tongues” in the way we may first consider (babbling in such a way that no one understand what someone is saying.)  The point isn’t even the tongues of fire that apparently alighted on each one of the disciples who were gathered together in that room.  Pentecost is this moment where the disciples can be witnesses to the diverse populations in Jerusalem.  The people gathered around the disciples were actually able to understand what they were saying.  The language barriers, the ethnic and cultural barriers seem to have been broken down on this miraculous day!  The disciples were able to be witnesses; they were able to witness to the Good News of Jesus Christ.

In the story, the disciples weren’t “speaking in tongues” the way modern charismatic Christians often do.  Instead, the disciples were able to miraculously speak in these different vernacular languages of the people present in Jerusalem.  This is amazing considering that most of the disciples were from Galilee and their own native language was Aramaic.  It would be like the Holy Spirit gifting us with this ability today and all of a sudden in this sanctuary we were able to speak Korean, Spanish, Swahili, Arabic, and any other language we can think of even though most of us are used to English as our first (or only) language.  And then we could go out into Colchester and the surrounding communities and speak to folks about Christianity and we could do so in languages and terms that they would understand.  We wouldn’t be incomprehensible; we would be gifted by the Holy Spirit with speaking languages that perhaps we have never studied and don’t really know.

That’s the whole point of the story of Pentecost found in the Acts of the Apostles.  For the first time, the disciples can be witnesses in Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth (as Jesus commanded) because they possess the Spirit-gifted ability to speak the languages of these native people.  Therefore people in the crowds are astonished and asking one another, “And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?  Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.”[2]

The disciples can speak to people from all over the place.  The disciples can meet people on their own terms, wherever they are.  Though when we consider the history of Christian mission, we may think about Western imperialism and Christians forcing native peoples all over the world to learn the English language, to read the Bible in English, to change their name to a “Christian name” when baptized, to say the Lord’s Prayer in English (or Spanish or French or Portuguese) or whatever the native language of particular missionaries ended up being.   And this was sometimes unfortunately the case.  Missionaries did not (and do not) always behave in ethical ways, respecting the culture of the very people that they are trying to convert.

If we explore the history of Christian Mission, we can see that the most successful missionaries tended to somehow adapt to the cultures in which they were living or even take it a step further and help improve the lives of those they were trying to convert to the Christian faith.  For instance, there’s Cyril and Methodius who were brothers who traveled from Constantinople to the modern-day nations of Croatia, Serbia, Slovenia, and the Czech Republic in the 800s.  As Richard P. McBrien explains their story in Lives of the Saints, while in these areas, the brothers put spoken Slavic languages in written form for the first time and invented an alphabet from which the Cyrillic alphabet was derived.  These brothers (who became St. Cyril and St. Methodius) were able to teach Christianity by doing so in the peoples’ own language.  They became “the apostles of the Slavs.”  Whenever we see images of Cyril and Methodius on icons, they are almost always pictured with scrolls in their hands; the gift of written language was their gift to the people they served.[3]

Or we have the example of John Eliot in Massachusetts.  John Eliot was a Puritan missionary to Native Americans, establishing a respectful relationship with the Narragansett Indians around Roxbury.  Eliot was called the “Apostle of the American Indians” and helped to organize fourteen Indian villages in the area.  No white folks were residents and there was a form of self-government instituted that followed patterns laid out in Exodus 18.  According to the biography about him from Boston University’s School of Theology, “He brought cases to court to fight for Indian property rights, pleaded for clemency for convicted Indian prisoners, fought the selling of Indians into slavery, fought to secure lands and streams for Indian use, established schools for Indian children and adults, translated the Bible (1663) and twenty other books into Indian languages, and attempted to train Indians to adopt a settled way of life.”[4]  John Eliot is often used as an example of an ethical missionary—empowering those he served by translating the Bible into Indian languages and advocating for their rights to those in power.

When we think of missionaries like Cyril, Methodius, and John Eliot, it seems that their work was very much in line with the spirit of Pentecost.  They were using language—the peoples’ languages—to reach out to others and meet them on their own terms as they spread the teachings of Jesus Christ.  It’s interesting to see different expressions of Christianity and what works for people.  To see different translations of the same concepts.  To know that our job as Christians is to meet people where they are because that’s what Jesus did throughout his ministry.

We must remember that the Bible itself was originally written in Hebrew and Greek and has been translated in its entirety into 600+ languages (depending on what source we can find on the topic.)  Thus, the spirit of Pentecost points to diversity, to people being at different places, to the challenge inherent in spreading the message of Jesus to people who may just not understand where we’re coming from or how we view or practice our own faith or even speak the same language that we speak.  Pentecost points to the difficulty in translating any seemingly “foreign” religion into the native language of various peoples.  But it also points to the possibility of these challenges being met with the help of God, with the gifts freely given by the Holy Spirit.  Serving others with humility makes all the difference in the world.

In the end, Pentecost reminds us that we can reach out to people on their own terms.  The disciples, Cyril and Methodius, and John Eliot quite literally reached out to people through vernacular languages.  Though the Holy Spirit has a way of working in and through all of us.  The very stories we know, the traditions we hold onto about Pentecost point to meeting people where they are by using their own languages to convey the teachings of Jesus.  And what’s so remarkable is that somehow the Spirit, the message; Jesus Christ himself has a way of transcending language to bring the Good News to all of us.  We can see visions and dream dreams and pray prayers and worship God through it all.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] Acts 2:2-4, New Revised Standard Version.
[2] Acts 2:8-11.
[3] Richard P. McBrien, Lives of the Saints, 104-106.
[4] “Eliot, John (1604-1690)”, BU School of Theology,  http://www.bu.edu/missiology/missionary-biography/e-f/eliot-john-1604-1690/