The Language of Church
A Sermon on Genesis 11:1-9 & Acts 2:1-11
by Rev. Elizabeth Meador Strobel
Preached at Trinity Presbyterian Church of Independence, Missouri
June 9, 2019 – The Day of Pentecost (C)
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, ‘Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.’
In The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the main characters Arthur and Ford adventure through the galaxy with the help of a babel fish. Spelled like the Tower of Babel, a babel fish is a small, yellow alien that can be planted in your ear and make your brain translate any language in the whole universe – very handy for a book written entirely in English. When Arthur first uses the babel fish, the book says “he turned goggle-eyed with wonder. He was experiencing the aural equivalent of looking at a picture of two black silhouetted faces and suddenly seeing it as a picture of a white candlestick. Or of looking at a lot of colored dots on a piece of paper which suddenly resolve themselves into the figure six and means that your optician is going to charge you a lot of money for a new pair of glasses.”[i]
There’s something about understanding the language around you that is instantly energizing and comforting. I wonder if any of you have experienced the discomfort of being surrounded by a language you don’t understand. Perhaps you’ve had the opportunity to travel to another country, and been surrounded by people who only speak French or Swahili or Hindi. Maybe you’ve been to one of the many stores in Independence where most of the clientele and staff speak Spanish. Those are exciting and fun experiences, but they can be intimidating long-term. Immigrants and travelers often report that being surrounded by a language they don’t understand is isolating, and learning to speak a new one can initially be disorienting – especially if the new language they’re learning is as difficult as English. Not knowing what’s being said can make you simply feel lost. As a minor example, when Charlie and I visit his family around the holidays, I often get a little lost because they all speak German – all the kids took German in high school, they’ve hosted German exchange students, and his sister even majored in it and is fluent. And while I can pick up a few words here and there, I mostly sit there nodding like an idiot who chose to take Latin as her language requirement.
Even among English speakers, we speak different languages. At our last Presbytery meeting, there was a discussion on the floor about how the CPM, the CCRE, and the NWCC could work together to more fully facilitate the OD in keeping with the rules of COM, GA, the BOO, and, of course, BOP. Now that’s a language that I definitely speak – but most people looked around like we were all crazy! It will help you to know that what they were discussing is simply the ordination process. I wonder if with just that simple explanation you felt more comfortable. When someone switches to speaking our language, we can instantly feel at home, in the know, and confident. I suspect you’ve felt that way when your grandchild is trying to explain your computer to you and finally says something that makes sense. Or when your doctor stops speaking medical jargon and looks at you and says “Don’t worry, this is all good news.” Or that moment when you wade through your tax return and have no idea what’s going on, but arrive in the end with a number that makes sense. Sometimes, it would be great to have a babel fish just for everyday life.
Language is basic communication. It helps us speak to each other and also speaks to who we are. In our story from Genesis this morning, all the people speak one language and are content to just stick together. So content are they that instead of exploring the world around them, they decide to build a tower that reaches the heavens – a single, concentrated edifice that they can all gather around. But God did not make human beings to stay in one place or to speak only one language, so God gives them different languages and scatters them all over the earth.
In the book of Acts, God’s people are at it again. They’ve been told by Jesus to make disciples to the ends of the earth, but instead they are still in Jerusalem, all gathered in one place. And so yet again, God gives them a gift – the gift of being forced outside of themselves. A great wind rattles everything around and these Hebrew speaking fishermen start spouting out the languages of the known world, as if the Holy Spirit gave them each their own personal babel fish. I wonder if you can imagine how the people who overheard them felt? What would it be like to be a Parthian, a Mede, an Egyptian, or a Libyan and hear your own language for the first time in what could have been hours or even years? And just imagine how it might feel to hear, in your own language, a sermon for the first time about the grace and acceptance of Jesus Christ. Like other times we hear someone in our own language, it probably felt like a homing beacon, an old friend, a sense of comfort and empowerment all in one.
This was the Day of Pentecost, the birthday of the church. And what I hear loud and clear today is that the church was born when we learned how to speak outside of ourselves. Part of our religious DNA is to reach out to others who are not like us, to get out of our comfort zones, and to make others feel at home. In the early church, it meant literally spreading the stories of Jesus around the world. That work has been done and is still being done well. It occurs to me, though, that we need to learn to speak the languages of our own communities just as much.
I wonder what languages are spoken around us that we need to learn. We are not the church if we simply sit in the sanctuary, talking to each other about living Jesus and being Presbyterian. Certainly, there is value in learning the actual languages of the immigrant communities in Independence. But there are a number of languages even within English we need to learn. We need to speak the language of people who have different economic realities than we do, understanding that one person’s poverty would translate to another person’s riches. We may need to learn how to use digital communication – like social media and texting – to communicate with others. We could all use a little medical jargon to understand the suffering of the people we love who are having health challenges.
And most of all, we need to learn the language of people who don’t go to church. Time and again, I hear well meaning church folks use very traditional churchy language to invite someone to church. We talk about our sense of family and spirituality and community, as if we have a corner on those markets - when what most non-church-goers crave from the church is authenticity, prophetic justice, and vulnerable conversation. If we only speak in our own church language, it’s not going to work, and it’s not what God has planned for us – we are meant to reach out to the language people speak already, not expect them to understand us first. The Gift of the Holy Spirit means that we are empowered and compelled to get out of our walls and our comfort zones.
Here’s the thing about the Holy Spirit The Spirit can do a lot, but the Spirit expects us to join in on the Holy Work. Notice that the Spirit did not have the disciples speak Hebrew and changed the listeners – the Spirit changes the disciples, first. The Spirit will change us, too. Perhaps not always so dramatically as the day of Pentecost, but God is still moving through believers to reach out to the world and offer comfort, confidence, and a home.
And so I leave all of us, myself included, with a challenging question: What language do we need to speak to be God’s church today? What do we need to learn to be not inward facing, but the outward oriented hands and feet of Jesus Christ, scattered by God and blown by the Spirit to the places we most need to be? The story of Scripture tells us that when we huddle together, God will send us out. It’s who we are meant to be. And so as we celebrate the birth of the church on this Day of Pentecost, we ultimately celebrate that God is always sending us out to preach the good news – whatever language that may take. Thanks be to God. Amen.
[i] The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams. Chapter 5.