Acts 2–Pentecost and Translation

May 24, 2015
Acts 2

In a desperate attempt at procrastination on Friday, I posted on Facebook asking if people thought I should use the phrase “piss-poor” in my sermon. As in, “People in the Mennonite church these days are doing a piss-poor job of communicating with each other.” The phrase just popped in my head and I found it slightly amusing–I wasn’t actually planning to use it. Well, probably not. I just figured a lot of my pastor friends, also eager to put off their sermon-writing tasks, would “like” the comment and move on; a little levity for the work weekend ahead.

But no. My friends are far too mature and thoughtful. Instead of a few simple “likes,” my status sparked a long discussion thread about our use of language, our responsibility not to offend—or at least to offend only for good reason, the different language standards within different communities, and possibly more appropriate synonyms for what many considered a poorly chosen phrase.

My favorite suggestion was “sorry excuse”–as in, “The church’s attempts at dialog today are a sorry excuse for the true communication we are called to by the Spirit.” This true communication, according to the book of Acts, is what ignites the early church and catapults the Gospel of Jesus Christ out into the broader world. We read that on the day of Pentecost, “the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard [the apostles] speaking in the native language of each.

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.

Language is important. That is one of the messages of Pentecost. The language we use to communicate the Gospel matters. And sometimes different people need to hear the story in different languages.

Even though the Church was born out of this event of miraculous translation, the institutional church has historically resisted efforts to translate scripture into the “vulgar” vernacular. “In the fourteenth century John Wycliffe translated Jerome’s Vulgate Bible into English. A critic of Wycliffe, Henry Knyghton complained:

The gospel which Christ delivered to the clergy and doctors of the Church, that they might, themselves, sweetly administer to the laity and to weaker persons . . . , did this master John Wycliffe translate out of Latin into English … whence through him it became vulgar and more open to the laity and {to} women who could read, than it used to be to the most learned of the clergy, even to those of them who had the best understanding.

How dare Wycliff make the holy words of scripture available to laity and literate women! Translation into native languages means that the institutional church and its scholars have less control over the interpretation and application of the text. For some, this is frightening. For others, it is a deep grace. Yale Divinity School professor Lamin Sanneh converted from Islam—a faith he still holds in high regard—to Christianity primarily because Christianity believes in the translation of sacred texts. An English or Spanish or Swahili Bible is still holy scripture while the true Q’ran is only in Arabic.

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.” A divine sanction. We have a divine sanction to translate the Gospel into the native language of others.

For some people, like my Hebrew Bible professor, that means doing things like teaching the original Hebrew text of the First Testament in Japanese. There are people called to the deep and difficult work of learning the original languages of scripture and honoring those languages as they translate into contemporary native languages.

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.

Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber wrote a blog post awhile back titled: I love Jesus, But I Swear a Little: An Open Invitation to Unfriend Me on Facebook, Stop Following Me on Twitter and Discontinue Reading My Blog if You Need To. She writes to those who complain about her language: “Countless Christian websites and books and blogs are your brand of Christian.  No need to leave me comments about how disappointed you are in my use of language because out there in cultural Christendom you will find niceness in abundance, super-duper positive thinking, and lots of inspiration with (best of all!) no swear words! The Christian world is your oyster.”

And it’s true. The vast majority of Christian publications are squeaky clean. That’s the native language of a lot of Christians. That’s how they can best hear the Good News. And there are a lot of people speaking that language.

Bolz-Weber is speaking the native language of those who often don’t get the opportunity to hear the news of Jesus in their own native tongues: “other folks out there who are comforted by ambiguity, who need a Word of grace . . . Who need the stark truth of what it means to be broken and blessed at the same time.” For some people, a swear word here and there is familiar. It is comforting. It is their native language.

Now I’m not going to follow Bolz-Weber’s lead and start swearing in my sermons. We try to keep it PG around here for the kids. Plus, I’m not really much of a swearer anyway. It’s not my native language. If I started throwing around curse words, I think those more versed in four-letter vocabulary would concur with the Hispanic pastors: “You need more practice.”

But just as some of you would be offended to hear me cuss in a sermon, I know some of you would be offended if I started using “churchy” language. I used the phrase “the Gospel of Jesus Christ” earlier, knowing even that would be pushing it for some of you. If I started dropping phrases like “washed in the blood” or “dear brothers and sisters in Christ” or “Father God, we beseech you Lord, in this your holy sanctuary to just come among us Lord and fill us Holy God with the righteousness of your holy anointing”–if I started talking like that, some of you would not come back. It’s not your native language.

Fortunately, I think my native language is pretty close to the native language most of you speak. As long as I use proper grammar and watch my gendered pronouns, we seem to communicate pretty well in our little congregation.

I face more challenges in terms of speaking native languages in the broader church. 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.” There was actually a piece about this on NPR last week—“they” as a singular, gender-neutral pronoun—which I imagine some of you object to on strictly grammatical grounds.

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 to those who desperately need to hear about Jesus 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.

More than once one of you has told me after worship, “I am so happy you said [some very particular thing that I most certainly did not say in my sermon], because I really needed to hear that.”

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.