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." All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, "What does this mean?" But others sneered and said, "They are filled with new wine." But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, "Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o'clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: 'In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women,in those days I will pour out my Spirit;and they shall prophesy. And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below,blood, and fire, and smoky mist. The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood,before the coming of the Lord's great and glorious day. Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.'" (Acts 2:1-21)
Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it. If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you. I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. (John 14:12-17, 25-27)
Our Land Rovers drove out from the green, bustling town of Mto wa Mbu, Tanzania to the dusty land just a few kilometers to the outskirts. Prickly acacia bushes and tall termite mounds littered the landscape as we drove through the dirt under a clear and expansive sky. Way off in the distance, a small building came into view – a square, one-room church with cinder-block walls and a tin roof. We were about to sit in on choir rehearsal.
We were greeted by young Maasai women, mostly teenagers, wearing traditional swaths of red and blue fabric, with heavy beaded necklaces and bracelets jingling with each step. They giggled as they looked at our own strange clothing and weird white skin.
We entered the church and sat on rough wooden benches, the choir on one side, all of us visitors on the other. And they began to sing. Songs of praise and joy, in a completely different tongue, with complex and unfamiliar rhythms, with a strength and presence of voice that not one of us travelers had ever heard before. They sang and they danced, and small children wandered in an out of the space. We listened to the music and examined the murals on the walls, which included snippets of Bible verses, such as “seek first the kingdom of God and its righteousness.”
They took a break from singing so that we could have some conversation. Up at the front of the church, three people gathered to facilitate. There was Simon, the evangelist or leader of the church, who spoke Maa, the language of the Maasai, and Swahili. Next there was Dr. Steve Friberg, medical missionary and host for our trip, who spoke Swahili and English. And next to him was me, the pastor and leader of our group of travelers, who according to custom was to bring greetings from our group to theirs.
And so we started talking. I thanked God for the hospitality of these church members who had welcomed us into their church and their music, and I greeted them in the name of Christ, and I expressed the blessing of unity that we shared in Christ. Dr. Friberg translated my words to Swahili. Simon translated his words into Maa. And back-and-forth we went. The church choir asked us questions about our own land and our climate and our faith in Christ; we asked them about what difference Christianity made in their lives. And it was all mediated through a chain of translators, shifting words from one language to another, helping all of us speak to one another across a great language divide.
The day of Pentetecost had come. And there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. At [the sound of the wind and the rush of fire] 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?
The gospel message showed up anew on the day of Pentecost– the good news of God's love and grace, the good news of Jesus, who came to earth, lived, taught, healed, suffered and died, and the astonishing good news of Jesus rising from the dead. But the truly incredible thing was that this message of hope and joy and salvation came to each person in his or her own language, in familiar, understandable words. No longer was there only one language to speak of God; no longer was God’s grace only for those who knew the vocabulary, no longer was the power of the Spirit only given to those on the inside. Redeeming the confused tongues at Babel, now the Spirit fell upon all nations and tongues. Young and old, slave and free, man and woman, Jew and Gentile, near and far: all had access to one God through this one Spirit, who breathed out God’s good news in as many languages as there were ears to hear it and tongues to proclaim it.
Think, for a moment, about your earliest memories of church and faith. How did you come to hear about Jesus? Who taught you about God? When did you first start feeling the rumblings of faith in your heart? How have you experienced the Holy Spirit, or when have you felt the unmistakable presence of God surrounding you?
If you were to share your experiences with your neighbors in your pews [or around the table during fellowship hour], you’d probably find as many differences in your stories as you found similarities. Each of us has a different story of faith to tell, because each of us has been touched in different, personal ways by the presence and grace of God. We live in a Pentecost world, where God’s good news keeps spilling into our world in new and different languages, that all might hear and believe.
In Bible study last Monday, we focused our conversation on the Holy Spirit. We brainstormed images and ideas that we thought captured the nature and function of the Holy Spirit. By the end of the hour, we had identified the Holy Spirit as a voice, a spirit of life, a feeling of companionship, a rush, a presence, a mover & shaker, an inspirer, a transformer, an intercessor, a conscience, a community-builder, a gatherer, a sharpener of senses, a wind, a comforter, a teacher, a truth-teller, a protector, a liberator, a peace-bringer, a counselor, a sign or symbol, and a flame.
Initially, I looked at this list and decided that the Holy Spirit could be summed up as a meddler – as always having her fingers in everything. But the more I thought about it during the week, the more I started to realize that I was wrong. If I really wanted to sum up the nature of the Holy Spirit, I had to think of her as a translator.
Because our experiences of the Spirit - as comforter, counselor, inspiration, or or otherwise - are experiences of God himself translated into words and feelings that we can understand.
The Holy Spirit is God’s way of always reaching us where we are. Through the Holy Spirit, God speaks to us in our native languages, revealing his presence in ways that we can trust to be true. The Holy Spirit brings us moments of hope in the midst of sorrow, moments of comfort in the midst of grief, moments of joy in the midst of darkness, moments of inspiration in the midst of boredom. The Holy Spirit reveals God’s heart in the beauty of nature, in the care and compassion of our neighbors, in our amazing capacity for growth and change, in solemn moments of prayer and in holy moments of laughter. In many and various ways, the Holy Spirit translates God’s grace into languages that we can understand.
And this act of translation is always transformative. For us in that church in the middle of northern Tanzania, translation transformed strangers into neighbors. For those in Jerusalem on that first Pentecost, translation transformed ordinary crowds into faithful believers and disciples. For all of us in the body of Christ, translation transforms us from hearers of the word to doers of the word, just as the Holy Spirit transforms ordinary bread, wine, and water into extraordinary, tangible means of grace and forgiveness.
And just as the Spirit translates God’s truth into our own languages and tongues, so also are we called to be a many-tongued people of Pentecost whom God has called to translate his good news into languages that our world will understand.
So what languages do you speak?
Do you speak the language of art, able to translate God’s hope into paintings and sculptures and fiber arts? Do you speak the language of technology, able to translate God’s hope into 140 characters at a time? Do you speak the language of compassion, able to translate God’s love into hugs and boxes of tissues? Do you speak the language of protest, able to translate God’s liberation into editorials and thoughtful dialogues? Do you speak the language of children, able to translate God’s joy into moments of creativity and play?
There are many gifts but one Spirit, many tongues but one Lord, many glimpses of grace, but one Creator of us all. And so we are called to make peace with God’s divine open-endedness, knowing that there are always new languages to be spoken, and great and greater works to be accomplished in Jesus’ name.
For we are yet living in the age of the Holy Spirit, who blows wherever she chooses. And in the rush of that wind, we push forward into a divine future of a limitless God who lives and breathes and moves and speaks life into our souls.
May we always have ears to hear, and may we always have voices to proclaim God’s praise.