I like words. I like reading words. Saying words. Writing words. According to Meyers-Briggs, I am a total and complete extrovert. Words, are my favorite. As a lawyer, I learned the economy of words – their use, value, and how to save them. What I have come to understand as I’ve grown to appreciate words, is the difference between words and language.
I speak a few words of Spanish. But I don’t speak the language. To speak a language is to understand the complexities, the richness, the depth of meaning in words.
Pentecost is more than about words; it’s about language. It’s a true understanding of the complexities of the language of each person gathered. Each of the Disciples spoke in other languages, and each language was understood.
To really illustrate, I’d like to share a story. Well, part of a story.
It isn’t my story, it’s a work of fiction written by Mary Gordon, entitled, Pearl.
If you haven’t read Pearl, I recommend it. And don’t worry, I’m not going to give anything big away.
The title character, Pearl, is a college student who is studying abroad in Ireland to study “the Irish language”. Moving past my initial thought of her study of Gaelic is even less marketable than my having studied Political Science in college, what Pearl shows us is an interesting glimpse into the difference between words and language.
Pearl has learned the words of the Irish language. But there’s more to a language than the words. Each word has history. And the history of Ireland is filled with stories that create the meaning behind each word. That’s the language. When Pearl starts to understand the language, it isn’t because of anything she learned in a book. It’s because she starts to understand the people who speak the words. This is a transformative experience for Pearl.
And it is a transformative experience that we hear about in the story of Pentecost also.
The transformation isn’t reserved for those who hear, or those who speak, or those who observe. Miracles, and what is described here is a miracle, transform everyone and everything.
The tongues of fire touched each of the Disciples, but the result was the Spirit spread, in the language each person gathered could understand.
What an incredible gift, to be able to speak to a person in the language they understand.
That would be an incredible gift even in English! Our language comes from more than our nation of origin. It’s an expression of who we are, as a people and as individuals.
Each individual that day understood what was being said, once those words were mediated through God’s continuing presence – the Holy Spirit.
I find it interesting that Peter when defending and explaining what is happening, uses the Prophet Joel. The word Prophet or prophesy occurs 3 times in 3 verses.
Prophets, in the Old Testament, were the mediators between God and God’s people. A Prophet would take the word of God to the people in the language that they understood. The Prophets would also speak to God on behalf of God’s people.
What matters here though is the first part, where God places God’s word with the Prophet, and the Prophet repeats those words to God’s people, in their language. Not just words, their language. So that they can understand. Because God knows the power of language goes well beyond the words used.
Pearl learned this in the story. She learned that to truly understand a language is to go beyond vocabulary. And when you truly get enmeshed in a language, it is more than being able to communicate with people who speak a different language. You communicate differently, you become different; you see the world and people who speak different languages differently.
In order to do this today, to speak the language of another, unfortunately, requires more than Christ breathing on us or the divided tongues of fire resting upon us. Well, actually, I’m sure either of those options would work equally as well, but unfortunately we live in a world where we have to learn the language of Christianity in ways other than from Christ himself.
This is why we have Scripture. And anthropology, and sociology, and linguistics, and history, and a ton of other academic disciplines who have worked to uncover the ancient world. We can now enmesh ourselves in the world and language of First Century Palestine. We can understand the language of Scripture.
And it is hard, hard work. But doing so is the essence of what I truly believe Pentecost has come to mean today.
And truly understanding the language of Scripture has another interesting side effect for many, but not all: once you understand the language, you want to better understand your neighbors.
Not just your geographic neighbors, but your brothers and sisters in the world. Many of us speak a common language of Christianity, but we speak it in very different dialects.
Our brothers and sisters include those who speak other religions as well as other languages!
I think that we have an opportunity to put a modern spin on Pentecost. We, as Christians, have an opportunity to go out into the world and spread the love of Christ by getting to know people. By talking to people we don’t normally talk to. By stopping to say good morning to an un-housed neighbor, and having a conversation. By talking to the people who clean our offices; finding out where they’re from, what makes them happy.
Spreading the message of God isn’t limited to our words. The language of God goes far beyond what words we use. The language of God encompasses are that we are. It helps us become all that we are, and all we are created to be. And at its best, the language of God helps others become who and what they were created to be as well.
Our language is more than just our words. It’s what I started to learn in Law School, and have truly come to know since beginning my life in ministry. It’s what Pearl learned when she stopped approaching Gaelic, the Irish language, as words, and started truly understanding and appreciating what it means to be someone who speaks that language. And it is something that we as Christians have the opportunity to learn and embody as well.
We, each of us, have the opportunity to learn to speak the language of God. We speak it with our words, our thoughts, our actions, our interactions, and, above all else, by how we live out what Christ taught us to do.
Let our language as Christians be more than our words. Let it be who we are. Let us speak the language of God in all that we do, and with all that we are.