Unscrambling the Language (Pentecost 2019)
Genesis 11: 1-9; Acts 2: 1-8
Unscrambling the Language
There are two scriptures which were read today. One of them obviously being the story of today; the story of Pentecost; where God’s Spirit comes into the midst of the church and miraculously, through the power of the Spirit, the difference created by language is healed. The other one is the story of Babel, which seeks to explain why the differences of language even exists. I’m going to hold these two stories in tension and talk about how one is similar to, and an un-doing, of the other; and about how it’s about more than just language that is unified through Pentecost.
But I want to begin by suggesting that some believe that the people who first heard the story would not have thought of Babel. We have a tendency to jump the story of Babel as we look at a story that has your multiple languages going into one; and it makes sense to put them together. But there are some who believe that the people of Luke’s time wouldn’t have jumped to Babel here, but rather have jumped to Sanai. And that is another Pentecost sermon that I sometimes preach, you might even hear that next year. But to me, just because they might not have thought of this story, that does not invalidate us looking for lessons within the story as it relates to Babel, for God might be speaking to us today in a new way.
Now my own personal way to view this is to look at the story of the Tower Babel as an archetypal story, and actually pretty much everything in the first 11 chapters of Genesis as it archetypal story. What that means is that I believe the story speaks truth into our lives, and they were written down in order to explain phenomenon that exists in the world. So for the story of Babel, it is to explain the fact that we have multiple languages. I don’t necessarily believe that it happened 100% the way it was recorded in the story. That is actually pretty helpful here, because the God in the story has motivation that doesn’t fit with pretty much anything else we believe about God.
Let me first state that the idea that this didn’t happen exactly as recorded, in my mind at least, does not lessen either the story of Babel or the lessons we can learn from it for Pentecost. The idea in Babel, and the idea in Pentecost looking back at Babel, would be that if we can overcome our differences in language then we can do anything. That’s what God states in the story of Babel; if they can do this then they can do anything, nothing will be beyond their grasp, therefore God needs to limit them. That’s the lesson: our differences that we allow to happen, such as our languages, are what holds us back, and if we can overcome those differences, nothing is beyond our grasp. Pentecost is a display of what can happen, what it looks like to overcome those differences. It is about equaling everyone in the world, equaling every language in the world, making it all as one and unlocking the potential in the Church there. Whether or not Babel literally happened, the idea of Babel exists, the lesson about Babel exists; and Pentecost can indeed be about undoing the reality of Babel, and learning the lesson of Babel.
But another thing I’m going to argue today is that Pentecost is not all about the languages, but the language coming together served a purpose that was greater than that. The languages all being understood, the words being spoken all being understood in people’s own native languages, lifted up those native languages to be equal to the one being spoken. The lesson of Pentecost is equality. The places that all these people came from, the people whose native languages were being heard; these were the languages of the Gentiles all around Jerusalem, in one big circle around Jerusalem. The Spirit is saying “my message belongs in your language. The Gospel belongs in the language of the Gentiles.” That language, and those people, are equal to Jews and Jerusalem.
We see that within the early church. They kind of get this idea of equality of people. We see them hold everything in trust, with each not viewing their own needs as greater than the needs of their brother or sister. We see this throughout the earliest part of the book of Acts. And while I will grant that we see in the story that these are Jews from those places, and so there is a racial unity and therefore it might’ve been easier for them to do that then for say us to do that in the United States, there still were divides among people in Jerusalem. Even though they were Jews they still were divided between the rich and poor, slave and free, male and female. In the Spirit of Pentecost, those go away in the Church as it should be; as we see ultimately very soon in the mantra of Paul: “in Christ there is no longer slave or free, male or female, rich or poor, Gentile or Jew.” That is a lesson of Pentecost as well.
That is a lesson that is taught within the translation of the message into these languages. Because here’s the thing: throughout history, really pretty much all history except the United States, people learn more than one language as they grow up. In the time of Jesus that was certainly the case. The people of Jerusalem that day that we’re hearing that message would have learned Hebrew, because they were Jews and by age 13 they would have learned Hebrew, Aramaic probably as that was kind of the language of the people in that area, they could well have learned Greek because that was the language of the common folk throughout the Roman Empire, and if they were of nobility they might will have learned Latin as that was the language of the upper echelon throughout the Roman Empire. And of course we understand from the story they knew their native language as well. I say all that to point out that translation is not actually needed, what the Spirit does here, is not actually needed for them to understand the words that are coming out of the disciples’ mouth. Just a few short versus after this Peter gives his sermon of Pentecost, and he speaks in one language and they all hear in one language, probably Aramaic or Hebrew.
So this act of the Spirit was not needed for understanding, but I do think the act of the Spirit was needed for hearing. Remember, these were Jews living in and around Jerusalem according to the story. Even if they weren’t, they were Jews that were in Jerusalem for this time. This is the Festival of Weeks, 50 days, or the day after seven weeks of seven days. This is probably the second or third most important festival in the Jewish faith. But if you have arrived in Jerusalem, and made pilgrimage to Jerusalem, for the second or third most important festival in Judaism; my guess is you didn’t miss the most important festival in Judaism: Passover. The point being that whether they lived in Jerusalem or whether they have come to Jerusalem for the event of the Festival of Weeks, they were here during Holy Week. They heard the Gospel message from the mouth of Jesus himself. And it didn’t stick. Because none of these 3000 people are part of 120 that have the Spirit rest upon them. So in other words, they have listened to, and they have understood the message before, but they haven’t actually internalized it, they haven’t really given at the light of day. They’ve never really heard it.
When the Spirit translates the message into the native language of each individual person that is sitting there, what is really happening is not a miracle of understanding, it is a miracle of hearing. By allowing the message to be heard in each of these languages, the Spirit is lifting each of the native languages to be equal to their Aramaic, equal to Hebrew. And in so doing, the Spirit is lifting the places those languages came from up to be equal to Jerusalem. That may well have been huge. These people hear the message now because the step is been taken to reach them, a step has been taken to translate the message to who they are; shown in the representation of their native language.
I believe that we as a Pentecost-filled Church are called into translating the message today. Now today, translating to a native tongue might not mean translating out of English. All of the places where we are having contemporary music, and praise bands, and guitars is translating. We’re going to have VBS soon, and we’re gonna have a guitar playing music; there that is an active translating to a native language. Sunday School itself is an act of translating to a child’s native language. The use of modern pop culture in some of my sermons, the references to them, that is the act of translating to a native language. And I hope through all of this, that by going to where they are, it might open the door to actually hear the Gospel message that we offer.
And as we do that, I would remember that the disciples don’t know the native languages of the people there. They do not leave the Upper Room with the Holy Spirit and full knowledge of every language that exists on the face of the earth. And I don’t think they left the upper room with the words to the Apostles Creed ready to go in the back of their heads, ready to explain the entire Gospel in three volume treatise. They didn’t have the right words to reach these people. But they went out into the streets, and they proclaimed their story the best way they knew how, and they trusted that the Holy Spirit would indeed work in the midst of their sharing of their story the best way they knew how. And it did.
The active agent at Pentecost is not the disciples, it is the Spirit. The disciples spoke in Hebrew, they spoke in Aramaic, they spoke in Greek. They spoken in their native language. And somewhere along the way the Spirit translated that into another language before it got into the ears of the people that were receiving. That’s what happened at Pentecost. And as a result of the Spirit doing that on that day 3000 people were added to the church. That would fill up this sanctuary pretty well. What do you think would happen if we trusted the Spirit in that way today? Let’s find out. Amen.