Language at Pentecost

by Sue Collins

(Based on Acts 2:1-10; John: 14: 25-27; Ps 104)

This is the ‘Birthday of the Church’: the day of Pentecost!

In the Book of Acts, Paul us gives us a vivid account of God’s launching of ‘the Church’ into the world, describing
– the coming of the Holy Spirit, and
– a coming together of people from all parts of the known world. 

It is a gathering like no other! Full of wild details that challenge the imagination – tongues of fire, rushing winds, and accusations of drunkenness.

Pentecost, by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld

To put it bluntly (quoting Debie Thomas),
“God showed up fifty days after Jesus’s resurrection and threw the world an unforgettable party.”

He did more than that; he gave his followers a clear and startling picture of what a Christian’s ‘body on earth’ should look like. All were “filled with the Holy Spirit”: they began speaking in other languages as the Spirit gave them the ability – Christian language, holy, and worthy of God’s stories, weaving diversity and inclusiveness into the very fabric of the church.
He called the people of God to be ‘the One and the Many’, to be a miraculous weaving together of race, culture and language.

We need to take time to consider this word “language”. It features heavily in this Pentecost event, because language is far more than the sum of its parts. Grammar, vocabulary, syntax. Languages carry the full weight of people’s respective cultures, histories, psychologies, and spiritualities.
As individuals, we see and hear differently, we process and punctuate differently. Those who speak several languages and those who translate are very aware of this.
We are all familiar with people on TV translating from English into Maori (and vice versa), and how interesting it is to compare some of these differences – differences which are sometimes obvious even without knowledge of the words. 

There is no such thing as a perfect translation.

On the day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit empowered these first Christians, enabling them to speak in a great diversity of languages. Perhaps, in this first coming together, God wanted his church, from the very beginning, to honour the boundless variety and creativity of human voices.


Because God’s ways and the things he does need diverse understanding and telling We here living in New Zealand all have some varying understanding and experience of this. Think of the Maori, early residents in Aotearoa, who inhabited this South Pacific land long before the wave of European explorers and settlers came with their pakeha knowledge and ways. Much adjustment has been needed as we’ve begun to understand and respect the value of different ways and practices.
One special example is Maori’s regard for this land, and for the use of it: their belief that neither land nor sea are ‘owned’, and that respect is to be given to this God-given earth. 

And this immediately brings to mind our psalm, 104, for today: “Oh Lord, what a variety you have made!  And in wisdom you have made them all! The earth is full of your riches! There before me lies the mighty ocean, teeming with life of every kind, both great and small. And look! See the ships! And over there, the whale you made to play in the sea!”

Pakeha arrived in a new land with different understandings. We are all still learning ways forward, learning from each other.

Returning to the Day of Pentecost, the Birthday of the Church:
– Understanding was needed on all sides. People had to interact by speaking and by listening.
– They had to surrender to languages outside of their comfort zone. Races could not huddle together in their own versions of sameness and safety, so they were opening up to each other.
– God was calling his church to proclaim his great gifts and deeds in every tongue. Perhaps he was saying, “This spirit-drenched place, this fledging church, this new body of Christ, is yours! You don’t need to feel like outsiders here, we speak your tongue too. Come in. Feel at home!”

We as Christians today place great stock in language. On Sundays, here, we profess our faith in the languages of liturgy, prayer and song. We believe that language has power.

To speak out across barriers of race, ethnicity, gender, religion, culture, denomination, or politics is to challenge stereotypes and risk ridicule. It is a brave and disorienting act! And this is what the Holy Spirit required of Christ’s frightened disciples on this day – essentially to stop them huddling in their version of sameness and safety – to open up, to speak out. Silence and disengagement were no longer options.

Those who listened took risks too. They had to suspend disbelief, lower defences, and opt for wonder instead of contempt. They had to widen their circles and talk to strangers with weird accents.
Some couldn’t bear it and retreated into self-protection, scoffing in denial, in an atmosphere  of suspicion and cynicism. 
But some people spoke and some listened, and into those astonishing exchanges, God breathed fresh life.

Something happens when we speak each other’s languages. We experience the limits of our own perspectives. We learn curiosity. 
And so it is no small thing that the Holy Spirit loosened tongues. In the face of difference, God compelled his people to engage from Day One. That day of Pentecost, the call was to press in, linger and listen.

And something happens – something grows from this. No matter how passionately I disagree with your opinions and disbeliefs, I cannot disagree with your experience.  Once I have learned to hear and speak your story in the words that mean the most to you, then I have stakes I never had before.
I can no longer flourish at your expense, I can no longer ignore you.

From the Gospel of John, we hear Jesus’s words to the disciples as he prepares them for this coming change.  He tells the disciples that he is leaving them, at the same time assuring them of the coming of the Holy Spirit into their lives. And knowing how hard it will be for them to understand, and how difficult it will be for them live new lives in a hostile community, he promises them ‘the Comforter’, the Holy Spirit. Saying: “I am telling you these things now while I am still with you. But when the Father sends the Comforter instead of me – and by the Comforter I mean the Holy Spirit – he will teach you much, as well as remind you of everything I myself have told you.
“I am leaving you with a gift – peace of mind and heart! And the peace I give isn’t fragile like the peace the world gives.
“So don’t be troubled or afraid.”

In this time and world, let us hear what the Spirit is saying to us, his people, now, today.

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