I wonder how you were with languages at school? I was terrible.
Still, I try to learn something of the local tongue when I travel. Not much sticks. If you need someone to ask for the air-conditioning to be turned on in Turkish, I’m your man – after that, nothing. And I can order chicken in Greece – kotopollo – or … more chicken!
But there is something very important going on with languages in the story of the first Pentecost from Acts 2: the Holy Spirit gave the disciples the power to speak the gospel in all tongues. Immediately it prompted the question, “What does it mean?”
So, what does it mean?
Enoch the Egyptian heard the commotion and was intrigued. Finding the crowd wasn’t hard. But what was happening was unclear. Through the heat and dust of the Jerusalem day he saw men and women acting strangely, excited, all speaking at once. And around each, little groups were forming. His ear was drawn to a woman – Mary, he learned later was her name – because, though clearly a Jew, from Israel, she was speaking about a man called Jesus in his own language.
Dorcas from Cappadocia was also drawn to the commotion. Who were these mad people, shouting, laughing? But – hang on – the big one with the shaggy beard was speaking in her tongue, about a dead man that Big-beard said was now alive again.
I’m imagining just two of many people who heard things being said in their own languages. 3,000 became Christians that day.
About 15 tongues are mentioned. The list may not be exhaustive. It was like the United Nations, when all the delegates have their little headsets, and get simultaneous translation of the proceedings … except for the lack of headsets and professional translators.
It was inexplicable. Clearly these Israelites – mainly uneducated Galileans – did not possess these languages, but were speaking in them. That’s why these Jews and converts to Judaism from every known nation, gathered in Jerusalem for the Jewish feast of Pentecost, were amazed and perplexed, and asked each other, “What does this mean?”
It means many thinks, but I’ll give you three:
That a gift has been given.
That God is with his people.
And that the good news is for all and makes sense for all.
2. A GIFT HAS BEEN GIVEN
When some in the Pentecost crowd answered the question, “What does this mean? It means they’re drunk,” Peter pointed out that this would have been a very early session indeed. No, they’re under the influence of a holier spirit than alcohol.
This means, he says, that the promised gift of the Spirit of God, predicted by the prophet Joel, promised by Jesus, has been given. Jesus on the eve of his death promised that he would not leave his followers without comfort, but would send an Advocate, comforter, counsellor, helper.
Err, OK, but apart from the simultaneous translation trick back then in Jerusalem, what does that mean?
3. GOD IS WITH/IN US
It means something about God being with us and in us.
If Jesus’ time on earth, the 30 odd years from the first Christmas to the first Easter, had been a brief interlude only in God otherwise being absent from the world, what difference would he have made? Interesting to have God with us as a tourist for that time, perhaps, but then the Ascension would be the resumption of his absence.
But our faith instead is this: in Christ, God was with us, in one place, for 30 years, here to win our salvation. And then, this work done, God is with us by his Spirit, “another Advocate, to be with you forever,” in every place where a Christian heart holds him.
Now we can’t see the Spirit, but that does not mean he is not real, and cannot be present to us.
Every second something like 65 trillion neutrinos, solar particles – real, but very small – pass through each of our bodies. You can’t see them, but they do. We’ve only known about them since 1959. But it turns out that the universe is a stranger place than we thought: bits of it are passing through each other, including us, interpenetrating, intermingling, all the time. If 4,000 trillion invisible neutrinos have gone through me since I first said “neutrino” a minute ago, I’m willing to at least be open about whether the invisible God might somehow be able to get inside me too, by his Spirit. Jesus says God would come to us by his Spirit, and he would be with us always.
The new closeness of God to the world, the new intimacy with God that Jesus’ disciples once enjoyed, this continues, because the Spirit has come.
If this is true, then there is loose in this world, within Jesus’ followers, this same Spirit that appeared as fire on the disciples’ heads, that spoke through them in every language needed to proclaim the gospel, that then gave them courage in place of fear, wisdom, power, and joy.
It means God has not left us alone – he is with us by his Spirit. And not just in the next room or vaguely around; he is within us.
4. THE GOOD NEWS MAKES SENSE TO ALL
This is not to say that the Holy Spirit has been sprayed indiscriminately across the planet, to just make everywhere a little bit better, a light drizzle of God to freshen everyone up a little. Not according to Jesus in the gospel:
“This is the Spirit of Truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him.”
It’s possible to miss God’s presence altogether, according to Jesus, who should know.
“But”, Jesus continues to his followers, “You know him, because he abides in you, and he will be in you.”
And although God’s presence in us is not automatic, he wants to come to all. That’s what this weird languages thing in Acts 2 is all about. Jews and converts of every known nation heard the good news in language they understood, as the Spirit, filling the disciples, gave them ability.
What does this mean? It means the good news is for all, and available to all. The crucified and risen Lord Jesus can be proclaimed, understood and worshipped in every language under heaven.
One implication of this is that translating the Bible is possible and necessary, though the principle and the right had to be fought for in the Reformation. Some paid with their lives for doing that, and it’s only just over 400 years since the first widespread English Bible, the King James Version, was written: yet I easily take it for granted I can read the gospel for myself. Well, scripture can and must be translated into every tongue because Jesus is entirely translateable, and makes sense in and of every human culture.
And so the good news can make sense for Innuits and Aborigines, Berber desert-dwellers in Morocco and latte-swigging lawyers in New York. When Christ comes to different cultures whatever there reflects God the creator is celebrated, and whatever that is distorted and sinful – and each culture has its specialities – is challenged.
Now translating the gospel here is not only about words, but about how the love of God and Jesus’ teaching about how to live become embodied in our everyday, local lives. When the Spirit of God, who lives in all Christians, enables us to express what living for Christ means in this specific place where we live, then the gospel is really being translated. At the moment in the UK, Food Banks are part of the translation of the gospel; I suspect that challenging individualism with community and friendship are an increasingly eloquent translation too.
When Jesus helps us makes sense of our lives, and others see that, translation is happening. You are currently engaged in writing a parish profile to guide the appointment of your next vicar; that is very much about reading your church and neighbourhood so you know what living for Jesus looks like here, and can find the right minister to help you translate the gospel in and through the mission and ministry of your church. For that translation work is vital.
Pentecost means Jesus Christ can make perfect sense even in Darlington, in this church community, and through it.
So what does this mean?
It means that those who follow God in Christ have God the Spirit within, and this is a confident business: we are God’s adopted children, his co-heirs, able to call God “Dad, Father”, says Paul in Romans 8. It means we can and should be confident in faith, even in a world that often assumes atheism and common-sense are the same thing.
And it means this same Spirit, by which we call God Father, can enable us to translate the gospel for others, maybe not into other languages, but into words and deeds that make Jesus real, present, and inviting for them. We in whom the Spirit dwells can translate Christ for others, in word and deed, as the Spirit gives us ability.
And that is our calling as Christians, as a local church.
“What does this mean?” they asked.
That a gift has been given.
That God is now dwelling within us.
And that the good news is for all and can make perfect make sense for all. It just takes a bit of translating.
Sunday 19th May 2019, Colin Jay was our President and Preacher. Towards the end of his sermon, he read out the welcome from Coventry Cathedral. This was incredibly thought provoking, and I thought it was worth copying into our Parish magazine and shared for those who could not attend on the day, and also for those of us who were there, to read again.
We extend a special welcome to those who are single, married, divorced, widowed, straight, gay, confused, well-heeled or down-at-heel. We especially welcome wailing babies and excited toddlers. We welcome you whether you can sing like Pavarotti or just growl quietly to yourself. You're welcome here if you're just browsing, just woken up or just got out of prison. We don't care if you're more Christian than the Archbishop of Canterbury or haven't been to church since Christmas 10 years ago. We extend a special welcome to those who are over 60 but not grown up yet and to teenagers who are growing up too fast.
We welcome keep-fit mums, football dads, starving artists, tree huggers, latte sippers, vegetarians, junk food eaters. We welcome those who are in recovery or still addicted. We welcome you if you're having problems, are down in the dumps or don't like organized religion. We're not that keen on it either. We offer welcome to those who think the Earth is flat, work too hard, don't work, can't spell, or are here because Granny is visiting and wanted to come to the cathedral. We welcome those who are inked, pierced, both or neither.
We offer a special welcome to those who could use a prayer right now, had religion shoved down their throats as kids or got lost on the Ring Road and wound up here by mistake. We welcome pilgrims, tourists, seekers, doubters and you.