2 When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.2 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. 3 Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
5 Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6 And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.7 Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?9 Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes,11 Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” 12 All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” 13 But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”
– Acts 2:1-13
“PARTHIANS, MEDES AND ELAMITES. OH MY!”
Acts 2: 1-13
The Reverend Phillip Blackburn
May 24, 2015
There were fourteen different languages spoken on the first Christian Pentecost. Fourteen. You heard a few minutes ago what it was like to hear five languages. It was a cacophony of sound, unintelligible to all but a few. And yet, on that day, as the Holy Spirit descended upon the nascent Church of Jesus Christ, there were fourteen. And as always, the timing of the Spirit was impeccable. Jews and proselytes from the far flung reaches of the Roman Empire had traveled to Jerusalem. I have included a handy little map for you in the bulletin so you can see just a few of the regions represented on Pentecost and can understand the vastness both of the Roman Empire in those days as well as the horde that had appeared in Jerusalem.
They were there for the Festival of Weeks, one of the three pilgrimage festivals in Judaism. This one marked the grain harvest and asked adherents to travel to Jerusalem with the first fruits of their harvest. So there they were, Jews from all over, ready to hear the Gospel delivered from this little band of Galilean peasants, all in their own languages. Fourteen languages. But why not just one language? Why all those languages? Have you ever asked that question of this text before today? Why all those languages? Why weren’t things different. The Spirit had lots of different options. The disciples could have started talking and then the gathered masses could have been granted understanding of their Aramaic. Or perhaps they could have spoken Greek. That was the language of the realm, in many ways. The Gospels and Paul’s letters were all written in Greek. Many of those who arrived would have gotten the gist of things in Greek. Wouldn’t that have been easier. It still would have been miraculous; it’s not like the provincials who were doing the talking wouldn’t have needed a boost to get it out in Greek. Or perhaps Hebrew would have been more appropriate. These were Jews, after all. Why not use the language of their forebears. Again, this would have been a miracle and would have probably been more effective in conveying the consistency of Jesus’ ministry with the history of God’s people. Why not Hebrew?
I could go on, but you get the point. Why this way? Why all these different languages? Well, I have a theory about this but before I get to it, let me ask you a question. In what language did you first hear the Gospel? Of course this seems a silly question because for all of us the answer is the same, our native language. Maybe English, Dutch, German or something else, but the answer is the same. But that’s not what I’m asking. Let me tell you what I mean. My earliest memory of the Gospel being preached to me was by Esther Staggs at First Christian Church in Hennessey, Oklahoma. My grandparents lived in Hennessey and when I would go to stay with them we always went to their church. My mom took me to a Methodist church in Oklahoma City, but I don’t remember a lot there. But I do remember Esther. I would gather with a few other little kids in the church and we would meet in their little partitioned education building. I remember learning the basic stories of who Jesus is, and how he showed me God’s love. And I don’t just remember the words; I remember the tastes and smells too. Anytime I smell Tang or Nilla wafers or Pine Sol, I am instantly taken back to that Sunday School class. I was a little kid at the time, but this is how I was encountered, by Esther and her stories and her snacks. And so the language of the Gospel for me is not just English; it is more than that, it is a memory of a time and place where it first made sense to me.
And it’s a good thing that Esther was so kind and gentle. If I’d had a more severe Sunday School teacher, or one who was just mailing it in, I may not have heard the Gospel. I needed to hear it in my language. And this gets round to the idea of Pentecost and what is happening. And this is my theory. I believe the tongues of Fire appeared and the Galileans spoke those 14 languages because I think the first act of proclamation is to accommodate those who have never heard. The visitors from the Empire were not met with something foreign to them, but something instead which would have sounded the most like home to them. They had traveled a long way, at great expense, to a foreign place on account of their faith, and here was a completely new idea, a new teaching about a very old God, and it came wrapped not in the trappings of religious institutions or worse, empire, it came wrapped in the language of home. It came in the tongue which they had first learned, in which their mother had welcomed them and their family had named them and their grandparents had taught them.
When we consider evangelism, and that is what Pentecost really is, evangelism, the proclamation of the Gospel for the salvation of humankind, we almost always approach it from the wrong end. We approach it as we experienced it, expecting others to appreciate hearing these words in our language as much as we first did. But all of us came to Jesus Christ not because we first changed ourselves in order to hear, but because we heard in a language we understood and then changed ourselves. It is our task, in this age, to open ourselves to the Spirt as the first disciples did, and to seek the language of the day, and to speak it, so that others who have never heard the Gospel can finally hear it in their language.
When people talk like this, about contextualizing the Gospel, they are often accused of watering it down, but this is far from the case. The message heard on Pentecost was the same by all those who heard. There is no recorded distinction between the testimony received by the Medes and the Elamites. It is the language that was different. Our task, as evangelists, is to realize that there are different languages being spoken out there, and I’m not just talking about Spanish and English and Lao. I am talking about the language of children and young adults. The language of millenials and baby boomers. The language of rich and poor. The language of African American and Latin American and Native American. There are dozens of different languages outside those doors, and there are thousands of people who have not yet heard the Gospel in a language they can understand, the language of home.
There were fourteen languages spoken on the first Pentecost. Thousands of people heard the Gospel for the first time in their native tongue, and with this miracle a model was laid out for us in the Church. We have the greatest message in the history of the world. We have stories, personal stories, to share about what Jesus Christ has done in our lives, and we have promises to share about what God is going to do in this world. But for those things to be truly heard, they should be proclaimed in the language of the people. Once again, for the umpteenth time in human history, God met us humans as we are, not as he wanted us to be. On Pentecost we were greeted in the language of home. All of us were greeted in the language of home. Amen