People are drawn to the story of God’s mighty acts, the story of Jesus, not simply for the story itself, but because they hear that story in their own native languages. If the apostles had been speaking Greek, everyone would have understood them—Greek was the lingua franca. But the Greek wouldn’t have been compelling. The Greek wouldn’t have touched their hearts and opened their ears in the same way as the Parthenian and Medite, and Elemish, and Cappadocian, and Pamphylian and Arabic did.
Translation is often what makes the Gospel compelling. New Testament scholar Margaret Aymer points out: that “on the day of Pentecost, Christianity became a movement with a divine sanction to multilingualism and to translation.” (Feasting on the Word) A divine sanction. We have a divine sanction to translate the Gospel into the native language of others.
At the last Western District Conference convention I sat down at a table with some Hispanic pastors and attempted to talk with them in their own native language. “Hola. Me llama Joanna. Estoy de Lawrence.” We awkwardly pieced together a conversation, and they graciously left me with this parting advice: “Necesitas mas practicar.” You need to practice more.
Not all of us are gifted linguists. Still, even those of us with sub-par foreign language skills have a divine sanction to translate the Gospel into the native language of others. And I’ve been thinking about what that means.
I’m slowly learning the language of the lgbtq community—lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer. I can tell you what all of those terms mean. And also what the “i” and “a” stand for in the extended version: lgbtqia. (Intersex and ally and/or asexual) I know that some people who do not identify with either gender binary of male or female prefer the pronoun “they” to “him” or “her.”
Sometimes I mess up. I was at a party yesterday where I very likely used incorrect pronouns. Sometimes I use a term or a label or a pronoun that does not communicate the love and respect I intend. But I’m trying. I’m trying to learn the language so I can speak the good news of love and grace to those who desperately need to hear it in their own native tongue.
And I am also trying to learn the native language of my conservative brothers and sisters. (See, I know to call them my brothers and sisters.) I’m trying to understand what they mean when they use terms like “sin” and “covenant” and “accountability” and “missional.” I sometimes try to speak in their language in order to help them understand my holy longing for grace and love and joy within the church. If you read some of my email conversations, you would recognize my theology, but you might not recognize my language. Because I’m trying, in the power of the Holy Spirit, to speak in the native tongue of another.
Of course, there is a danger that trying to speak in the native languages of others will slide into simply trying to say what others want to hear—which is not healthy or holy communication at all. No matter what language we speak, the message we are called to share is the same—the Good News of Jesus Christ.
And part of that good news is this: Even as we are called to translate for others, we are also promised the gift of hearing the Good News in our own native tongues—our own heart languages. The Spirit speaks to us in ways that resonate deep within our souls. Through music, through nature, through literature, through science, through chance encounters with strangers and intimate conversations with friends; through food and rest and work; hopefully, once in awhile, even through the words of your pastor.
We may experience the spiritual drama of tongues of fire and mighty winds—or their rough equivalents—a few times in our lives. But the most important miracle of Pentecost–speaking and hearing the Gospel in our own native language—this miracle is available to us each and every day.
May God give us ears to hear and tongues to speak. Amen.
This post is excerpted from a longer sermon, which you can read here.