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  • Writer's pictureRevda. Pamela Hosey Long

Love in every language

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2 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. 3 Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

5 Now there were devout Jews from every people 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? 9 Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11 Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” 12 All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” 13 But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.” Acts of the Apostles 2: 1-13

Our reading from the book of Acts this week gives us an idea of how the Holy Spirit works in the church. When the disciples are meeting together in the upper room, they hear a great sound like a rushing wind and suddenly flames of fire are posing on tops of their heads. What this means to us is, the Word of God is in-filling them and then setting them on fire. And they run from the room out into the street, and when they get out into the street what they find are Jews from all over the known world there in Jerusalem to celebrate the feast of Pentecost.

Now all these people are there speaking all of their native languages from their native regions and that in itself is kind of interesting, that so many people from so many places had come to Jerusalem to honor the feast of First Fruits. The purpose of the Feast of First Fruits was to celebrate the bringing in of the first harvest from the winter planting. So these were people who had come on vacation, maybe, but they were coming to the temple in Jerusalem to bring in the first fruits of their harvest.

We sometimes talk about these first Christians who first received the Word out in the street as the first fruits of the church, the first harvest of the Holy Spirit. I think that it’s really important for us to realize that these were not all Hebrew speaking Jews, they were not all Greek speaking Jews. They were coming speaking dozens of different languages from around the Mediterranean area. I believe the significance of this is that God, in sending his Holy Spirit and sending the disciples out into the street to preach to this diverse crowd, was actually reversing the curse of Babel.

I also think it’s important that we notice that God did not send them all out to make them understand the language of the disciples, but he sent the disciples out to speak the language of the people in the street. What God was doing that day was redeeming our languages, our cultures, our nations, our tribes, our people groups. Notice that he's not asking us in this passage to be tolerant of each other. In fact I think what he’s asking us to do is to celebrate our diversity.

I think it’s really important to think about the church as literally built on diversity. The reason I say this is, if the people all out in the street that day had all been from one language and one culture, then the Christian message would have stayed right there in the street. But they weren’t--there were different nationalities, different cultures, different languages, and that actually made it so that the Holy Spirit and the message of Jesus ‘s resurrection could spread farther and faster.

We might want to think of it in these terms like this--when the COVID virus first broke out, it broke out in a very diverse city. A person got on an airplane and he went to another city. Now if that fellow had stayed right there in Wuhan, we might have had a Wuhan disease. But the people in Wuhan were from all over the world and they were getting on planes and going back to their cities, and so a virus spread throughout the world very, very fast.

I think maybe one of the messages of the Pentecost readings is that the message of Jesus Christ was viralized or aerosolized because of the diversity of languages and cultures present in the street that day. This way, the message of Jesus could make its way into every nook and cranny of the world.

On the other hand, I also think that anytime we try to standardize or homogenize our worship, our message, even our manner of delivery, we quench the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit moves on diversity. Its wheels, its motor is glorious diversity.

The original foundational architects of Anglicanism back in the 1500s were beginning to capture this idea. Cranmer had been playing around with different translations of the liturgies and he incorporated the work of Wycliff and Tyndale to put our Scriptures and our prayers in the vernacular.

The vernacular is one of the foundational principles of our Anglican faith. By vernacular we mean the language that the people speak, not a classical language, not a foreign language, but the vernacular. Wycliff and Tyndale both lost their lives trying to bring the scriptures to the people who speak English. They were criticized and eventually martyred for trying to put the scriptures into the clunky, smelly, irregular, down home, inelegant English language. This is why in the Anglican faith we continually update our prayer book and we update the versions of the Bible that we use, to make them better, to make them vernacular. The updating of our prayer book is almost required, because language changes over time. I don’t know anybody that speaks to his wife using the term “thou.” If you're using “thou” with your with your mate, I want to know about it! In my entire life I have never addressed a friend except jokingly as “thou”—“Wouldst thou like to go to tea on Thursday afternoon”? Nobody says that. So our prayer book shouldn’t use that kind of language either.

God wants us to speak in the vernacular when we talk to him and the vernacular is how the message of the Bible reaches into our hearts.

Many years ago, before I started discerning a call to the priesthood, I accompanied a new priest up into the Altos de Chiapas, up into the Highlands, into a small town called Yochib, which I know nobody in here has ever heard of because there are only about 300 people in this village. And yet the majority of them were Anglicans. And this young priest went to visit a church that the community was building with their own hands. When I got there the church still only had two walls and some benches. They had a man in the community who was the only one who had a high school education and that day he came dressed in his traje, his regional festival attire. As the young priest spoke in Spanish, this gentleman translated the message into Tsotsil. I notice very early on that the young priest speaking Spanish would say a sentence or two and it might take several minutes for the interpreter to render the whole message into Tsotsil. What I found out later was there were so many words and ideas and images in the young priest’s sermon that didn’t exist in this culture. So the interpreter had to explain everything.

We are just like that community--we need the gospel to be told to us in the language and in the context that we understand. When God sends his love message to us, he sends it into every culture, and he aerosolizes it so that we can pass it from one to another. When people want to say there's just one human race, I always feel like I need to resist that concept. I think in their good intentions what they mean is they would like to be able to ignore the fact that our languages, our cultures, ethnicities, value systems, are no different. But that’s not how God sees it.

In Revelation 7:9 we read that in the end times there will be a great multitude from every nation and tribe and language. Years ago I participated in a beans and rice project back during COVID. We were trying to feed the community of Montgomery the best way we knew, because a lot of people were out of work. They had no income. The best we could do was to get some beans and rice and some other products out into the community. But it became clear to me really quick that the Mexicans who were showing up to receive the free food were having a hard time choosing something that they could take home and cook. So the next week I took some funds and I went to the Mexican grocery store and I bought a bunch of Mexican products. The next week that we were able to offer food assistance the word started getting out that this church loved us. And that's when our ministry really started to grow, because we loved them in the vernacular. In that case it happened to be the vernacular food they were used to.

That's where we start we start, by loving people as who they are, not hoping they become like us.

Malcolm Guite is a famous English poet who writes in the Anglican vein. He wrote a sonnet about Pentecost, and the end of that Pentecost sonnet reads like this:

Today the gospel crosses every border,

all tongues are loosened by the Prince of peace.

Today the lost are found in translation,

whose mother tongue is love in every nation.

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