When I was twenty-one years old, I studied abroad for the year in Marburg, Germany. My trip there marked the first time I had ever flown on a plane, and while I knew I would be greeted by a friend when I landed, I was terrified. I had studied German for four semesters in college and while I could read with some facility, my speaking ability was quite limited and I my aural comprehension was weak as well. In the year I spent there, I gained considerable fluency that returned when I spent another year in Germany a decade later, and even when I traveled back some years ago.
Learning a foreign language is a humbling but transforming experience. As we gain fluency, we can almost become different people, and different, new worlds open up to us as we encounter ideas, cultures, and people from a different point of view. I regret not learning languages other than German as well as I know it—I had a couple of semesters of French and we did some private Italian study before our trip a few years ago. I’m infinitely jealous of people who can speak several or many languages.
I was surprised to read a statistic recently that more than half of a certain demographic group in America felt uncomfortable when they heard a foreign language being spoken. Foreign languages can be an entrée to a new cultural world, but they can also be a barrier to understanding and connection.
Today is the Feast of Pentecost and we heard, as we hear each year, the story of the descent of the Holy Spirit on the gathered disciples, and the miraculous speaking in tongues that led to the conversion of thousands. I find it interesting to read this story after we following the lectionary readings from the Acts of the Apostles this Eastertide. We have heard of Peter’s vision and his baptizing of Cornelius’ household. We have also heard of Paul’s conversion and the beginning of his journey to Macedonia, where he converted and baptized Lydia and her household. So we have seen the effects of the miracle at Pentecost.
In a way, the story prefigures the whole book of Acts and indeed is a symbol of the disciples obedience to Jesus’ command to go into all the world, making disciples of every nation. In this case, however, the whole world, at least the whole of the Mediterranean world, the whole of the Roman empire have come to Jerusalem. We hear the list of the places and languages that are present for the festival of Shavuot, the feast of weeks. It reminds us that Judaism was a world religion—that its adherents had spread throughout the Mediterranean world. It is a reminder, too, that in the first century, Judaism was a missionary religion. As we have seen before in the cases of Cornelius and Lydia, both of them, though Gentiles, were attracted to Judaism.
So Jews and proselytes from all over the known world were present in Jerusalem for the Feast of Shavuot and in the middle of that throng, the disciples began to preach, not in Hebrew or Aramaic, but in the native tongues of all of those visitors. What must they have thought when they heard their native tongue being spoken? Was it relief, was it welcome? Finally, after who knows how long, someone is speaking their language.
We often focus on the dramatic story, the mechanics of it. We want to know what happened, how it happened. That’s all well and good, but what does this miraculous speaking in tongues symbolize?
According to Luke, the disciples had been huddled up in the upper room, the same place they had gathered for the Last Supper. It’s where they returned after the Ascension and Jesus’ promise to send the Holy Spirit. They had got themselves organized a bit, selected one of them to be the twelfth apostle replacing Judas the Betrayer. We don’t know what they were thinking or how they were feeling, but they were in waiting mode.
And then the Holy Spirit came upon them, with tongues of fire and the sound of a mighty wind, and their world changed again. They left the room, went out into the city, and began to preach. We might say that the Holy Spirit, the rushing wind, blew them out of their waiting mode, out of their hiding place, and sent them into the world. In this instance, the world had come to Jerusalem but they would soon go much, much further.
In that sense, their experience is a model for us. While we talk a great deal about going beyond the doors of this church, going out into our neighborhood, we actually don’t do much of it. I’m glad we open our doors; I’m glad we have ministries like the food pantry or the First Monday Meal, or Grace Presents, that invite people into our space as part of our outreach and mission. I’m glad we welcome visitors and newcomers. But all of that happens on our turf, in our comfort zone. What would it be like for us to go out into the community, to visit coffee shops like Barrique’s or Colectivo, and share the Good News of Jesus. I know what most of you are thinking right now; you’re getting a bit uncomfortable, you’re squirming in your pew….
I saw results of a survey last night conducted by an Evangelical polling firm. It listed the least “Christian” cities in the US—Madison was number 11. I didn’t read the commentary; no doubt the spin was about how Christianity is in decline and prone to persecution. They estimated that only 51% of the population is “Christian.” I’m not sure whether they count Episcopalians in that total, but that’s another matter. From my perspective, that statistic isn’t something to mourn. It’s an opportunity—think about all the people who haven’t discovered the love of Jesus Christ?
But to reach them, we can’t sit inside here, open our doors and wait for them to come join us. We’ve got to get out into the streets and into our neighborhood. More than that, like the disciples, we have to learn to speak the languages of those outside our doors—foreign languages of immigrants, of course, but also the languages of those who have no language for religious experience or Christianity. We have to translate our message into their native tongues—whether their native tongue is Spanish or millennial.
Spending a year in Germany, learning German took me way out of my comfort zone. It exposed me to new and challenging ideas. It led to experiences I would have never had, and helped to see the world in a new way. It changed how I related to and interacted with people. I would never see the world, or the US in quite the same way.
The Holy Spirit’s tongues of fire came down on the heads of the disciples. They left the upper room, went into the city of Jerusalem and throughout the world, preaching the Good News of Jesus Christ, sharing the transformative message of Christ’s love. May the same fires of the Holy Spirit ignite us, fire us up and out of our seats, and send us into the world, sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ and making disciples.