Rev. Joanna Harader —
Acts 2.5-8 —
5 Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem.
6 And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.
7 Amazed and astonished,they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans?
8 And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?
Today is a holiday! Though Hallmark has not yet (at least to my knowledge) created a card for Pentecost, it is, nevertheless, an important holy day in the church. Many people consider Pentecost the birthday of the Christian Church. Lots of churches hang banners. Some have balloons or streamers. You all were encouraged to wear red.
The red, of course, is for the tongues of fire. And the banners almost always represent flame in some way. The balloons and streamers are reminders of the mighty wind–or at least the sound like a mighty wind–that blew that day.
The mighty wind and the tongues of fire. That’s what Pentecost is about. That’s what we generally focus on in our churches on this lovely holy day that has not yet been co-opted by Hallmark.
And I’ll grant you, the wind and the fire are pretty cool. Very exciting. And they make for great party decorations. But it is not the wind and fire that birthed the Church on that day about 2000 years ago.
The writer of Acts tells us that the God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven who were living in Jerusalem at that time are drawn to the early Christ-followers when they hear “this sound.” And “this sound” is not a sound like a rushing wind or the blazing crackle of fire. “This sound” is the sound of people speaking in the hearers’ own native languages. People from “every nation under heaven” heard a bunch of back woods, uneducated Galileans speaking in every imaginable language. That is the part of the Pentecost miracle that draws a crowd and ultimately births the church.
Biblical scholar Margaret Aymer explains that the people in the crowd that day were immigrants to Jerusalem, people forced to speak the language and adopt the customs of the Roman Empire. If the apostles had been speaking Greek, everyone would have understood them—Greek was the lingua franca. But the Greek wouldn’t have been compelling. The Greek wouldn’t have touched their hearts and opened their ears in the same way as the Parthenian and Medite, and Elemish, and Cappadocian, and Pamphylian and Arabic did.
Translation is often what makes the Gospel compelling. Aymer claims that “on the day of Pentecost, Christianity became a movement with a divine sanction to multilingualism and to translation.” A divine sanction. We have a divine sanction to translate the Gospel into the native language of others.
Some people, like my Hebrew Bible professor, Dr. Tom McDaniel, take this divine sanction to translate the Gospel quite literally. He spent a lifetime learning and translating the ancient languages of scripture—particularly the Hebrew Bible. He spent some time teaching the original Hebrew text in Japan–in Japanese. There are people called to the deep and difficult work of learning the original languages of scripture and honoring those languages as they translate into contemporary native languages.
Sometimes this translation goes well, and sometimes it doesn’t. In Barbara Kingsolver’s novel The Poisonwood Bible, Rev. Nathan Price, an American evangelist, falls a bit short of the ideal. He proclaims to a group of confused Congolese villagers: “Jesus is bangala!” He meant to say something along the lines of “Jesus is supreme.” But he did not quite get the correct cadence and tone. What the villagers heard instead was, “Jesus is poisonwood”–a terribly irritating local plant. So, understandably, the Congolese people were not interested in getting close to this noxious Jesus person.
There is a This American Life piece by the writer David Sedaris that demonstrates the limits of language when it comes to explaining the Christian faith. Sedaris talks about a French class he took while he was living in France. The class was discussing holiday traditions, and when they got to Easter, a Moroccan student asked the others to explain, “What’s an Easter?”.
As you might imagine, words like “crucifixion” and “resurrection” and “only begotten son” had not yet been covered in the beginning French class, so the students fumbled their way through. “‘It is,’ said one, ‘a party for the little boy of God who call hisself Jesus and– you know, like that.'” Another student explained: “‘He call hisself Jesus, and then he die one day on two morsels of lumber.'” Someone else chimed in: “‘He weared the long hair. And after he died the first day, he come back here for to say hello to the peoples.'”
If we stop and think about it for a minute, we realize that explaining the basis of our Christian faith is no easy task–even in our own language. When we try to speak in foreign languages–languages in which we are not fluent–it becomes nearly impossible.
Of course, it’s not just a language issue. There are cultural considerations as well.
I once read a tragic story about a missionary effort to translate the Bible. It was a long time ago and I don’t remember the details, but I remember the basic concept. Some missionaries had gone to a small village and begun living with the people there and learning the tribal language. These people did not know of the Christian God or the story of Jesus; the Bible had not been translated into their language.
The missionaries learned about the religious beliefs of the local people. They believed in a good, loving, creating deity–who was female–and an evil, vengeful, destructive deity–who was male. So when the missionaries finally began the hard work of translating the Bible into the language of these people, they used the feminine pronoun for God:
By the seventh day God had finished the work she had been doing; so on the seventh day she rested from all her work. Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it she rested from all the work of creating that she had done. (Genesis 2:2-3)
Unfortunately, the missionary powers that be found out about this “heretical” translation and refused to let the missionaries proceed with their work.
Sometimes, the translation needed isn’t even into a foreign language, but into a particular expression of a language in which we are fluent. Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber wrote a blog post awhile back titled: I love Jesus, But I Swear a Little. She writes to those who complain about her language: “No need to leave me comments about how disappointed you are in my use of language because out there in cultural Christendom you will find niceness in abundance, super-duper positive thinking, and lots of inspiration with (best of all!) no swear words! ”
And it’s true. The vast majority of Christian publications are squeaky clean. That’s the native language of a lot of Christians. That’s how they can best hear the Good News. And there are a lot of people speaking that language.
Bolz-Weber is speaking the native language of those who often don’t get the opportunity to hear the news of Jesus in their own native tongues: “other folks out there who are comforted by ambiguity, who need a Word of grace . . . Who need the stark truth of what it means to be broken and blessed at the same time.” For some people, a swear word here and there is familiar. It is comforting. It is their native language.
Now, I’m not advocating that we all start swearing. But can we try to let go of the language we want to use and let the Holy Spirit speak through us in the language people need to hear?
Just think about the first Pentecost when a group of Galileans spoke their native language, and their speech was heard in dozens of other languages—the heart languages of those listening. That is the kind of speaking in tongues we need today in a world that is getting smaller and smaller. In a society where divisions seem to be getting larger and larger.
Because the truth is that we are not good at communicating, especially not about God. Not even in our native languages, never mind trying to speak across divides of language, culture, gender, sexuality, ideology, race, age.
I understand that your congregation is in the midst of a discussion about how to welcome and include lgbtq (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) people. That is a conversation that Peace Mennonite has had, and a conversation that continues within our Mennonite denomination.
I know all too well that in the midst of these discussions it often feels like people are speaking past each other and around each other and possibly that they are not even speaking the same language.
For my own part in these discussions, I have worked to learn the language of the lgbtq community—I can tell you what all of those letters stand for and what the terms mean. And also what the “i” and “a” stand for in the extended version: lgbtqia. (Intersex and ally and/or asexual) I know what the term “homosexual” signifies for most lgbtq people. I know that “cisgender” means a person who identifies as the gender indicated by their biological sex. And I know that some people who do not identify with either gender binary of male or female prefer the pronoun “they” to “him” or “her.” Sometimes I get the terms wrong. Sometimes I use the wrong pronouns. But I’m trying to learn the language so I can speak the good news to those who desperately need to hear about Jesus in their own native tongue.
I am also trying to learn the native language of my more conservative brothers and sisters. (See, I know to call them my brothers and sisters.) I’m trying to understand what they mean when they use terms like “sin” and “covenant” and “accountability” and “natural” and “biblical.” I sometimes try to speak in their language in order to help them understand my holy longing for grace and love and joy within the church.
This type of translation is hard work—it is the work you all are doing right now as you try to speak clearly and listen well and really understand what others are saying during this important discussion. Please do keep in mind that you are not just discussing topics or theological concepts or biblical passages; You are talking about people—people who are quite possibly sitting in the room with you; people who are most certainly friends of and/or related to those sitting in the room with you.
It is possible to muddle through these difficult conversations with our human tongues and eventually get to a point of decent understanding. But it is hard, hard work. Trying to say the right words, the accurate words, the words that will be true and be able to bring people together instead of pushing them apart; the words that speak the Good News of Jesus. Sometimes we get closer than others. But always our words are inadequate. We can never quite capture the native tongue of another.
So thanks be to God for the work of the Spirit given at Pentecost: to make us able to hear each other speak in our own languages; to be able to speak our truth and have it heard deeply and fully by others. And to be given ears to hear what others are trying to tell us–not just the jumble of words that come out of their mouths, but what their hearts are really saying.
This Pentecost speaking in tongues is what the early Church most needed, and it is what the Church still needs today. It is this speaking in tongues that will allow us to fully share the Good News of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
May God give us ears to hear and tongues to speak. Amen.