Each in Their Own Language

For many years, I worked on a college campus. I won’t say which one, but it was an American university. On that college campus, full of very active and engaged college students living in Washington, DC, and who were themselves very interested in governance, there was an abundance of acronyms and abbreviations that people used all the time. This would sometimes become a problem in our services.

Rev. Mark Schaefer
Congregation of St. Thomas the Doubter
May 19, 2024
Luke 24:36b-48

Text transcribed by YouTube, Reconstructed by ChatGPT. Please forgive any typos.

We would get visitors, and our regular folks would stand up and announce that there would be a UMSA meeting later that week. At that point, I would have to turn and ask, “UMSA stands for what?” They would reply, “Oh yes, the United Methodist Student Association.”

Then, people would stand up and represent the music group that our own Chris Slatt founded, called The Fellowship of Sound. By that point, they had abbreviated it in their heads to FoSound and would say, “Come sing with FoSound,” which many people heard as “Faux Sound” and wondered why we were singing with a fake choir. We would have to explain that.

Of course, if you live in DC, you are used to hearing people talk about the DoD, the DoJ, the SEC, and all manner of alphabet soup that is constantly and commonly understood by the people who live in the DC area, or the DMV, as some of them are calling it recently for Delaware, DC, Maryland, and Virginia. It’s all very insider.

This is something that I see frequently in groups and communities and very often in the church. For those of you who’ve known me for any period of time, you likely have heard me rant about the church signs that are often out in front of churches. These signs either have overly cute messages or threaten you with Hellfire and damnation.

You’ll see the cute ones that say things like, “Prayer is God’s knee mail,” and then you’ll see the other ones that, in the middle of July when it’s hot, will say something like, “You think it’s hot today???” What I don’t think anyone understands who puts these signs out is that they only work on people who are already coming to your church. They only work on people who think it’s cute to refer to prayer as email or who believe in hell enough to be threatened by it.

It’s a type of communication that we often engage in when we’re used to talking to insiders and forget that outsiders talk in a different way. If the church ever had a regular reminder of the need not to do that, it’s this Pentecost story.

This story finds the disciples—now the apostles—ten days after Jesus’s Ascension, ten days after Jesus has risen but not before telling the disciples to stay in the city where the Holy Spirit will come upon them. They will be empowered to be His witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and all the world.

Here they are in Jerusalem, fifty days after Passover, fifty days after Easter weekend, what we would call it. It is time for the Jewish Festival of Pentecost, known in the text as the Feast or the Festival of Weeks or Shavuot, which means “weeks.” The Festival of Pentecost is the Greek translation of “seven weeks.” It literally just means fifty days.

Here they are on the first day of the week, seven weeks after Jesus has been resurrected, seven weeks after the Passover, when crowds from all around the Jewish world are coming to Jerusalem for the pilgrimage festival. The Holy Spirit comes upon them, and they begin to speak. They begin to speak in languages that everyone can understand: Aramaic, Greek, Arabic, Latin, Persian, Parthian, Coptic—you name it, they’re speaking it.

All the people who are walking by the room where the disciples are hear this, and they’re saying, “How is it that we can all understand these people? Each of us can hear them speaking in our native language.” Some, of course, deride this and say, “Well, they must be drunk,” which might be a reference to the other kind of speaking in tongues that sounds like gibberish. People don’t really know how to understand what’s going on until Peter comes forward and says, “This is what has happened: the Holy Spirit has been poured out on us just as the prophet Joel said it would be.”

It’s instructive to me that the first thing the Holy Spirit does is translate the gospel into a language that people can understand. There’s a lot I could say about different religious movements throughout history that have often punished people for translating the scriptures into the local language. People were burned at the stake for trying to do this. John Wycliffe, who did the first English translation, died a natural death, but then his body was dug up and burned afterward as a sort of posthumous punishment. There was all kinds of conflict. It was a real break with the Catholic Church when Martin Luther translated the gospel into German.

I’m not bringing this up to talk about the virtue of worship in the vernacular, as the Orthodox would call it, but about the very real way that this is an intentional break from that insider language. In the ancient world, you could get by with three basic languages: Greek in the eastern half of the Roman Empire, Latin in the western half, and Aramaic, which had been the language of government and trade for a thousand years ever since the Assyrian Empire. Most people spoke at least one of those languages to some degree.

So, had the disciples simply spoken in their native Aramaic, a fair number of people would have understood. If they had spoken in Greek, perhaps an even larger number would have understood as the lingua franca of the time. But what happened here was not speaking so that it was just comprehensible; it was not a message just so that the points got across. It was a way of saying, “This is for you—not just because you speak this trade language, not just because you belong to this economic-political stew that is the Roman Empire, not just because you’re connected well enough or able to travel far enough that you are likely conversant in these tongues. This message comes to you in your native language.”

The Greek says, “in the dialect in which we were born.” In some translations, you might render it as “one’s mother language,” the language one learns from birth, from one’s own mother and family and people. That’s the language that the gospel comes to people in—not just an understandable one, but the one that belongs to you. That is the ultimate way of refuting the idea that you need to be an insider to understand what’s going on.

The pitfall with insider language is not simply that people might not know what you mean when you say “UMSA” or “DoD” and “DoJ” and all of the other alphabet soup acronyms. It’s not simply that people don’t know what it means and that the education is lost. It’s that there is an immediate perception by any newcomer that they don’t really belong here, that this community is meant for people who know what that code means, who get all the insider talk. This isn’t for me.

But when you speak to someone in their native tongue, when you speak to them in the language of their heart, they come to understand that they are a part of this, that they are included. When we begin to appreciate not just the words that people speak but the experiences that they bring, the view of the world that they have, we make a clear statement that they belong.

It’s interesting for me and for those of us who have worked in the last several decades—Jennifer has probably seen this too in her work—where we have gone through probably, I would say, three generations of HR trainings about inclusiveness.

All of those trainings started decades ago talking about diversity. We want diversity. We want the company to reflect the people it serves. Diversity is attainable, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that people have been included. You can have a church and you can look out and say, “Look how diverse our congregation is! It’s full of young and old, black and white, gay and straight.” But if the same twelve middle-aged to old white people are in charge, that is a diverse church, but it is not an inclusive one.

So then, the next generation of this reflection began to talk about diversity and inclusion, making sure that those faces are heard and that they are part of the community. Now, there is an even deeper level that people have focused on, which is not just the diversity, not just the inclusion, but the belonging—the fact that people don’t just feel that they have a say but that the community belongs to them. It’s not just that they’re allowed to be there by the people it really belongs to.

That’s a real challenge because there are a lot of places in the world where people will tell you that’s their country. They just let us live here, and they remind us of that fact. When we speak in the native tongue, when the Holy Spirit causes the disciples to communicate on a level that speaks to where that person comes from, it’s saying to them, “This belongs to you. This tradition is not ours that we’re allowing you into; it is yours from the beginning.”

There’s one other important point that this story conveys—well, there are a lot of important points, but I’m only going to focus on one other today. Some Christian evangelist strategies talk about how sin has created a chasm between us and God. You may have seen these diagrams. Someone may have handed you a tract at some point in your life that shows this sort of chasm with us on one side and God on the other. There’s this enormous pit and nothing can cross it—our good works can’t cross it, our prayers, our good intentions, nothing can get across. So, you see Christ makes the sacrifice and lays down, and now there’s a cross in between, and we can walk across the gulf and be in union with God.

As some people have pointed out, this makes for an awfully impotent God who can’t cross this gulf between us and God, right? God is like trapped on this island by God’s own self and doesn’t know, is lonely except for this bridge that gets built. Also, as this one religious writer I heard talk about this said, he was describing a story about when a friend of his had invited him to see a movie about Jesus. He loved the movie. He didn’t know anything about Christianity, but he loved the movie. He was completely surprised by the resurrection—all of it. He thought it was wonderful. Then, afterward, when they talked about it, they brought out this diagram and began to explain it. He began to wonder whether they had seen the movie about Jesus because, in that movie, Jesus seemed to be with the people. He was born among them, he lived among them, he served with them, he was one of them.

He began to think, “This is all wrong. We don’t get to God; God comes to us.” That’s the whole story. That’s how it works, and that’s what this is. This is another instance of God coming to us as we are, for who we are, where we are, in whatever state we are. That’s where God comes to us. God speaks to us in our native language, in our mother tongue, in the dialect in which we were born, and calls us to know that God is there with us already.

We’re so used to thinking we have to earn our way or that everything is some kind of “earn your pay, pay your dues, and then you get in” or “follow the right procedures and then we’ll let you in,” or whatever it is, that we forget that God does not care about any of that nonsense. God has always, from the first day walking through the Garden in Eden to coming to Moses in the burning bush to walking by Elijah in the cleft of the mountain to showing up at Abraham’s tent to being incarnate in flesh in Jesus, come to us. God always comes to us as we are, in ways that we can understand, in ways that speak to us in a real and powerful way.

Then, that same Spirit sends us out to do the same for everyone.

The Text

Acts 2:1–21

“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, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”

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. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:

‘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.
Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy.
And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist.
The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.
Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’”