In the Language of Each

Stained Glass at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church
Photographe: Rev. Analyse Triolo

4 years ago I was standing in the 1 Train on my way back home from my internship on the Upper West Side to my apartment in the West Village. It was rush hour and the train was packed. Normally I would listen to music on the train, but I’d forgotten my earbuds at home that day, and as a result my world was broadened beyond my own personal bubble. I started hearing the conversations people were having on their phones or with people that were with them and what I noticed fascinated me. Not one of the conversations that I could hear was in English. I was astounded. I don’t think I’ve ever been in a situation before or since where the one language I could speak was the minority. The cacophony of voices swirled around me in the native language of each and I was reminded of and astounded by the diversity of this handful of commuters on the 1. 

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 of diverse immigrants present in Jerusalem for the Feast of Weeks, the culmination of the festival of Passover. The Spirit shows up with no special building, and no special service to commemorate the occasion. The Spirit shows up and equips the disciples to do the work of the church, and the Spirit meets them there with all of their fear, all of their doubt, and all of their questions about what it means to do the work of the church they are called to mere days after Jesus’ crucifixion. Yet, they aren’t the only ones for whom this momentous occasion is for. This diverse 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 the crowd’s cry for understanding. 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 all people whom God has poured God’s Spirit upon “shall prophesy” and so Peter declares boldly 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. 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 yours all the time, but maybe creatively connecting with someone else will. 

So engage those you come across in your ministry,  learn their stories and open opportunities to add their voices to the community. Right now we find ourselves in the midst of another paradigm shift as we continue to learn what it means to be Church in the time of the Coronavirus. Just like the disciples we find ourselves encountering the Spirit promised to us, outside of the building we’ve grown accustomed to worshiping in, commemorating the birth of the Church in a way that looks really different from what we’re used to.  And the amazing thing is the Holy Spirit showed up then and shows up for us now. She showed up at Pentecost and lit a spark among God’s people and that Spirit, breathed life it into it and roughly two thousand years later continues to breathe life into us as well. Though Church may look really different right now, it has never ever closed. Not even in the midst of the Coronavirus.

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 still around us, not just in the Holy Trinity community, but the community in our neighborhoods and across the globe 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 we all 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, stoking the fire, and engaging different “languages,” including new digital ones, 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.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: