June 8, 2014
Acts 2: 1-39
Joanna Harader

Hallmark has not yet (at least to my knowledge) created a card for Pentecost; nevertheless, it is an important holy day in the church. Many people consider Pentecost the birthday of the Christian Church. Lots of churches hang banners. Some have balloons or streamers. When my mom was a pastor she encouraged everyone in the church to wear red on Pentecost Sunday.

The red, of course, is for the tongues of fire. And the banners almost always represent flame in some way. The balloons and streamers are reminders of the mighty wind–or at least the sound like a mighty wind–that blew that day.

The mighty wind and the tongues of fire. That’s what Pentecost is about. That’s what we generally focus on in our churches on this lovely holy day that has not yet been co-opted by flower stores and candy companies. The wind and the fire.

And I’ll grant you, the wind and the fire are pretty cool. Very exciting. And they make for great party decorations. But it is not the wind and fire that birthed the Church on that day about 2014 years ago.

The writer of Acts tells us that the God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven who were living in Jerusalem at that time are drawn to the early Christ-followers when they hear “this sound.” And “this sound” is not a sound like a rushing wind or the blazing crackle of fire. “This sound” is the sound of people speaking in their own native languages. People from “every nation under heaven” heard a bunch of back woods, uneducated Galileans speaking in every imaginable language. That is the part of the Pentecost miracle that draws a crowd and ultimately births the church.

So I’ve been thinking this week about communication and language and faith.

In Barbara Kingsolver’s novel The Poisonwood Bible, Rev. Nathan Price, an American evangelist, proclaims to a group of confused Congolese villagers: “Jesus is bangala!” He meant to say something along the lines of  “Jesus is supreme.” But he did not quite get the correct cadence and tone. What the villagers heard instead was, “Jesus is poisonwood”–a terribly irritating local plant. So, understandably, the Congolese people were not interested in getting close to this noxious Jesus person.

It is hard to describe Jesus in a language that we do not know well.

There is a This American Life piece by the writer David Sedaris (You should really click over and listen to it.) that demonstrates the limits of language when it comes to explaining the Christian faith. Sedaris talks about a French class he took when he and his partner, Hugh, were living in France. The class was discussing holiday traditions, and when they got to Easter, a Moroccan student asked the others to explain, “What’s an Easter?”.

As you might imagine, words like “crucifixion” and “resurrection” and “only begotten son” had not yet been covered in the beginning French class, so the students fumbled their way through. “‘It is,’ said one, ‘a party for the little boy of God who call hisself Jesus and– you know, like that.'” Another student explained: “‘He call hisself Jesus, and then he die one day on two morsels of lumber.'” Someone else chimed in: “‘He weared the long hair. And after he died the first day, he come back here for to say hello to the peoples.'”

Sedaris notes that these explanations of Christ’s resurrection “would have given the Pope an aneurysm.”

If we stop and think about it for a minute, we realize that explaining the basis of our Christian faith is no easy task–even in our own language. When we try to speak in foreign languages–languages in which we are not fluent–it becomes nearly impossible.

Of course, it’s not just a language issue. There are cultural considerations as well.

I once read a tragic story about a missionary effort to translate the Bible. It was a long time ago and I don’t remember the details, but I remember the basic concept. Some missionaries had gone to a small village and begun living with the people there and learning the tribal language. These people did not know of the Christian God or the story of Jesus; the Bible had not been translated into their language.

The missionaries learned about the religious beliefs of the local people. They believed in a good, loving, creating deity–who was female–and an evil, vengeful, destructive deity–who was male. So when the missionaries finally began the hard work of translating the Bible into the language of these people, they used the feminine pronoun for God:

By the seventh day God had finished the work she had been doing; so on the seventh day she rested from all her work. Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it she rested from all the work of creating that she had done. (Genesis 2:2-3)

Unfortunately, the missionary powers that be found out about this “heretical” translation and refused to let the missionaries proceed with their work. The people who spoke that obscure language were never able to truly hear the Good News of God because Western cultural biases got in the way.

It is hard to let go of the language we want to use and let the Holy Spirit speak through us instead. But we need to be open to this Pentecostal speaking in tongues. Now I’m not talking about the kind of speaking in tongues generally heard in Pentecostal churches today where people begin speaking in what they would call a “prayer language”–what skeptical observers might call “gibberish.” That is a kind of speaking in tongues that Paul talks about in some of his letters. A valid display of the Spirit, but acceptable in worship only when someone with the gift of interpretation is present.

I am talking about the speaking in tongues that occurs at the first Pentecost when a group of Galileans are speaking in their native language, and their speech is heard in dozens of other languages–languages they could not possibly have known how to speak. That is the kind of speaking in tongues we need today in a world that is getting smaller and smaller. In a society where divisions seem to be getting larger and larger.

Because the truth is that we are not good at communicating, especially not about God. Not even in our native languages, never mind trying to speak across divides of language, culture, gender, ideology, race, age.

There is a lot of talk within Mennonite Church USA right now about inclusion (or not) of gay and lesbian people; some churches, like ours, are welcoming and affirming, others would consider themselves welcoming but not affirming, and some are simply hostile. Some Mennonite pastors are willing to officiate same-sex weddings; many are not. Theda Good, who is married to a woman, has recently been licensed toward ordination in Mountain States Conference and many within the denomination are upset by this action. Some conferences are threatening to pull out of the denomination. Some are concerned about being kicked out–though this seems increasingly unlikely. In the midst of it all, it can often feel like people are speaking past each other and around each other and possibly that they are not even speaking the same language.

I wrote a blog post this week critiquing Ervin Stutzmann, the MCUSA executive director’s, use of the term “third way” to describe some kind of ambiguous way forward for the denomination. I said that the “third way” was a way for oppressed people to respond to their oppressors without resorting to violence and without passively accepting their oppression. Someone heard this as berating Ervin for the hard work he is doing. Another heard me say there is no place for white, middle-class, straight men in the Mennonite church. Somehow, even though we are all native English speakers, we were not speaking the same language. After a bit of conversation, I think we at least understand each other better, even though we don’t agree on every point.

It is possible to muddle through with our human tongues and eventually get to a point of decent understanding. But it is hard, hard work. Many of you have been there–with friends, with family members, within the church. Trying to say the right words, the accurate words, the words that will be true and be able to bring people together instead of pushing them apart; the words that speak the Good News of Jesus. Sometimes we get closer than others. But always our words are inadequate. We can never quite capture the native tongue of another.

Perhaps what we need is a second Pentecost. The rushing wind and tongues of fire would be optional. But we desperately need to be able to hear each other speak in our own languages. We need to be able to speak our truth and have it heard deeply and fully by others. And we need ears to hear what others are trying to tell us–not just the jumble of words that come out of their mouths or get printed on the page. But what their hearts are really saying.

The Pentecostal speaking in tongues is what the early Church most needed, and it is what the Church still needs today. It is this speaking in tongues that will allow us to fully share the truly Good News of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

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