In Our Own Language

A Reading from Acts

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.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.
Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem.And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 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, 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.”

14 But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. 15 Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. 16 No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:

17 ‘In the last days it will be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams.
18 Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
and they shall prophesy.
19 And I will show portents in the heaven above
and signs on the earth below,
blood, and fire, and smoky mist.
20 The sun shall be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood,
before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.
21 Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’

Word of God, Word of Life.

Thanks be to God.

When I first stepped foot into campus at LSTC I had my mind set on joining into a community that felt like home, eager to make the most out of the single year I had here. What I didn’t realize is just how little I was prepared for questions like —

Voice 1: Nice to meet you, Analyse. So, what year are you in?

Analyse: Well…I came in with the 1st years…I mean, Junior class, but I’m going on internship with the…what do you call them again?…Middlers!…but I’m also working on a degree program and will graduate with the Seniors so…all of them?

Voice 2: Hey Analyse! What program are you in again?

Analyse: Um…I’m a Lutheran year, so I’m here to round out the M.Div. I earned last May at the Wake Forest University School of Divinity, since it was an Ecumenical Divinity School, but I’m also hoping to earn a Master of Arts in Ministry degree while I’m here, so…both/and?

Voice 3: Why’d you go to an Ecumenical seminary instead of a Lutheran one?

Analyse: It was a Divinity School…part of a bigger university, so technically it wasn’t a Seminary. Um…but I’ve been part of the ELCA all my life and I wanted to learn how to communicate with people who believe differently from me, because…you know…people in my future congregation won’t believe the same thing,

let alone those who worship at the Baptist church down the street, or the temple downtown. Yeah it’s more work…but I look like I’m 12 anyway, so what’s a little extra time right? [PAUSE]

Hi. I’m Analyse and I’m a walking grey area. Wanna know my degree program? What year I’m in? How much time do you have, because you’re not going to get the two word answer you’re expecting. [PAUSE] It was like stepping into another world. Linguistically, we were all speaking English, but at the same time it was like I was speaking another language all together. I felt like I was in way over my head.

Voice 4: Welcome everyone to our Monthly Multicultural Lunch. We will start by checking in. Does anyone want to go first?

Analyse: I will…I think I’m having some sort of identity crisis. I have no idea who I am here. When I was at Wake…I fit…I found my niche…I knew who I was…it was easy…and I liked it.

For the first time ever, I fit in. Here,…I don’t know…it’s like I’m back in high school. I don’t fit anywhere. I don’t know which class meetings I’m supposed to attend. Do I go with the Juniors, since I entered with them, the Middlers, so I get internship info, or the Seniors?

Do I go to M.Div. meetings? MA? I don’t fit neatly into any of the checkboxes for anything here. I don’t know what I’m supposed to do…

Voice 4: [Pause] Maybe your role in being here is to break out of the boxes that we try to put you in.

[PAUSE] I thought about that for a while. I mean heck; I’d been subverting expectations since I informed my candidacy committee that I’d chosen Wake Div. over a Lutheran Seminary. But in that moment, I felt kinship with fellow students whose cultural diversity also sometimes made them feel like outsiders. In a single interaction, in fact, in a single sentence, I heard my language being spoken, and I became part of the LSTC community for the very first time.

When the Holy Spirit rushes into Jerusalem like a whirlwind, she does far more than rest in the form of tongues of fire on those who were gathered together, filling them with her presence. What she does is set in motion the expansion of a community of believers, which goes beyond a group of Galilean Jews, to the broader populace present in Jerusalem for the Feast of Weeks, the culmination of the festival of Passover. The community hears these Galilean Jews and they are amazed to find their own native tongues being spoken, the Word given to them in a language they could understand.

At first glance those present in this text seem to struggle with the diversity that makes up the crowd. Chaos erupts after the Holy Spirit’s presence is made known. A buzz forms within the crowd as they try to understand what has taken place. Emotions were running high. After all, why would these disciples, all of a sudden be able to speak in languages they never had before? It must have been both exciting and terrifying in equal measure and perhaps it is for that reason that some in the crowd exclaim that “they are filled with new wine,” a phenomenon linked the enhancement of prophetic speech. It would be so much easier to brush off what the crowd was experiencing as a state of drunkenness, than for it to be realized as the miraculous event it truly was.

Just before John baptizes Jesus in the 3rd chapter of Luke he proclaims, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire”.[1] It is in this text that John the Baptizer’s prophecy comes to fruition. The beauty of this passage is the paradigm shift where, for the very first time, the Word is being spoken in seemingly every language at the same time.

A cacophony of voices are raised telling the gospel news, but what’s more important than that is the crowd hears the clamor of voices and each individual is able to hear their own language being spoken and they are able to understand. Instead of causing division, language is a point of unity; unity but not sameness. And so, community is formed where strangers once stood. The Holy Spirit becomes a gift, not just to each individual, but to the greater community as well.

Amidst the chaos Peter stands up and interprets these events for the crowd, adding his voice to the throng. He takes the prophesy found in the 2nd chapter of Joel, and answers crowd’s cry for understanding as they try to interpret what they are witnessing. Peter quotes Joel but makes three slight edits to the original prophecy. First, Peter announces that a paradigm shift has in fact taken place among God’s people, that times have changed. He does so by changing “After these things” in Joel and instead opens the prophecy with “In the last days.” Second, Peter says “Even upon my servants, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit;” the “my” is absent from the original text in Joel and by adding it Peter illustrates the expansion of a community beyond a social status, to a broader community typified by relationship with God. It proves to those gathered that God not only wants the greater community to have a relationship with one another but with God as well. At the end of that same verse Peter also says that both the men and women whom God has poured God’s Spirit upon “shall prophesy” and so Peter interprets the work of this new Spirit infused community. That it is to be a community of faith, a community of prophets.

The community created is a priesthood of all believers. And I say thank God for that. Just because all of us are Christian doesn’t mean that we all speak the same “language,” have the same experiences, or use the same stories to connect with those around us. My language may not connect with you but maybe someone else’s here does.

So engage those you come across in your ministry,  learn their stories and open opportunities for your congregants, or whomever you minster to, to add their voices to the community. The Holy Spirit at Pentecost lit a spark among God’s people and that Spirit, breathed life it into it.

Peter and those gathered together received that spark, that tongue of fire, and added their own words, their own breath in the tongues of countless nations, fanning that flame and allowing it to grow and to spread into a prophetic community founded upon diversity instead of uniformity.

That community is also filled with the Holy Spirit, the energy of the Word made known to them in each of their own native tongues, setting their hearts ablaze as they in turn share that Word with the world. And so guided by and filled with the Holy Spirit it is our job together to breathe our own stories, and enable our neighbors to add their own unique voices into that community, stoking the fire, and engaging different “languages” to help it grow, but we don’t do that alone. The Holy Spirit ignites a fire in our hearts and minds as well, enabling us to communicate and share the gospel with those around us. We communicate in our own tongues, inspired by the Holy Spirit and because of that gift someone might be able to hear their own language being spoken, understand and become part of the greater community, perhaps for the very first time.

[1] Luke 3:16. NRSV.


One Comment on “In Our Own Language

  1. Pingback: In the Language of Each |

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