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Learning to Speak a New Language

painting of dancers from many backgrounds dancing together

[Ed. Note: This post is adapted from Rev. Jane's Sermon from June 5, 2022]

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rushing of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting…All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

– Acts 2:1-21

I learned this week, that a friend of mine speaks a form of Creole that is spoken in Belize. It is a mixture of English, languages from West Africa, Spanish, and the Native American language from there. I have tried to learn to speak and read several different languages over the years.

For any of you who have worked to learn a new language, you will probably agree – it is mostly a very humbling experience! You have to be willing to sound like a fool, while practicing basic words like car, and egg, and can I have a cup of water poorly. A few years ago, I decided I needed to learn to speak Spanish and so I took a class for a while and then downloaded an app and so I could practice every day.

I really thought it would be easier, but learning to roll my r’s and pronounce words with the right accent means I have given up on this project over and over. I have a great deal of admiration for anyone who is trying to learn a new language, who are willing to listen with new ears and learn to speak with a new tongue.

It is so beautiful to listen to another language and to hear the cadence and uniqueness that reveals something of its culture and people, some truth that can only be fully known through a specific language.

We know that the Spirit speaks to us all in a variety of different ways. Certainly in a multitude of languages, but God is revealed to us at different moments of our lives, through different people or our experiences as well. Maybe through music, or while tending the garden, maybe while you are swimming or rocking a baby to sleep or in traveling to a new place or making a new friend.

God is Still Speaking

And yet it is the same God who speaks to us in all these different ways. This is what we celebrate today – on this Pentecost Sunday! That God is always finding ways to connect with us and will use a million creative avenues to find us. Our breath, the wind, a flame dancing, a bird swooping down, a new language, or a flutter in our stomach all signs of the presence of the Holy One in our midst.

During my first year of seminary, I had the opportunity to spend two weeks in South Africa studying and visiting with the church there and witnessing how the church was dealing with the issues of poverty, racism and AIDS.

South Africa is a country that has been divided by poverty, apartheid, and hatred. It is an incredibly diverse country. There are 11 official languages in South Africa, English, Afrikaans, the language of the Dutch colonists, and 9 tribal languages, including Zulu and Xhosa.

I was so impressed with our tour guide, Frank, because he spoke all 11 languages (and then a few extras as well!). Frank’s ability to speak these languages enabled him to interact with people on all levels of society. I remember him speaking with the white Afrikaans owners of a hotel where we stayed and then speaking with a little African girl at the water spigot at the top of a settlement on a city dump. He was able to hear the truths of people from all walks of life.

One of my most vivid memories of my trip was a worship service at the Anglican seminary where we spent several days. During worship, when it was time for the Lord’s prayer, the priest would invite us to say the words that Jesus taught us in our own native language. The room was full of the voices of people praying to God in their own language.

It was a powerful example of how God’s language is a universal language. A transcendent language. In fact, if we use Frank as an example, God’s language cannot be confined to any one language but is a way of relating to people, connecting people, across what divides us.

That They May All be One

When we pray the Our Father, we remember our oneness. The fact that we begin with “our,” is our way of acknowledging the oneness and unity that we find in God even in the midst of our diversity.

The Holy Spirit is opening our eyes once again, nudging us, prodding us, even setting our heads on fire in an attempt to remind us of our connectedness with God and therefore with one another.

Paul says that when we cry “Abba Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God. God is in us and we are in God.

Can we be witnesses to the Spirit of God’s oneness? Can we hear God’s truth through another’s language? Can we put aside our own desires and let God’s Spirit fill us up so that we may be transformed into a force that can change the world?

Our Gospel lesson this morning shows us that this isn’t easy. Even Jesus’ own disciples kept missing the truth, even when it is right in front of them. Phillip says to Jesus, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.”

Isn’t this the eternal question: Where is God exactly? How can we connect to God? Who can translate God to us?

Jesus’ answer betrays his frustration: “Have I been with you all this time, Phillip, and you still do not know me? The Father and I are one. If you have seen me, you’ve seen the Father. I am in the Father, and the Father is in me.”

But then, he makes an even greater revelation, especially for us. He tells them that although he must leave them, he is sending an Advocate, the Holy Spirit, to be with them (and us) forever. He promises them his own Spirit, his breath, his inner language as our helper.

And he was true to his word. Jesus’ disciples, 120 of them according to Luke, were all gathered together, moping around, wondering what they were going to do without Jesus.

And suddenly a holy wind came swooping through the room, filling them with up with God’s own breath and striking sparks that burst into flames above their heads. And then that breath came out of them and they began speaking languages that they did not even know.

They discovered abilities they didn’t know they had: Shy people became bold, weak people became strong, and people who were lost, suddenly found their way. They had sucked in God’s own breath and they were transformed. A group of bumbling followers became a force that changed the history of the world.

The First Pentecost

That Spirit, that force of God is here among us. We who are gathered here this morning to pray and seek God, who are breathing in the Spirit of God that Jesus promised his disciples. We too have gifts to share. We who are yearning for God to transform our lives, are being filled with the Holy Spirit. We are now in God and God is in us.

The disciples were empowered to speak languages they didn’t even know, so that new disciples might believe and hear the works of God. We live in a world where English is the predominate language. Literally people all over the world are learning to speak English and yet it seems that we understand each other less and less every day. We seem to speak different languages even when we use the same words. Religion, politics, economics, children, adults, each speaking a language that no one else seems to understand.

Could the spirit of Pentecost call us once again to a spirit of understanding? Can we listen? Can we hear the truths of those we do not normally understand?

Pentecost is about our unity in the midst of diversity. It is about speaking in new ways and also understanding new languages. Opening our ears to hear another perspective. Opening our hearts to someone you don’t agree with. Discovering the truth that we are one people empowered by the one Spirit.

In an age of polarizing fear and division, the church’s mission – the essence of Pentecost – has never been more pressing. The church is a community of people following in the way of Jesus, empowered by the Holy Spirit to carry out God’s mission of healing for the sake of the world. If we are going to do this, it is going to require something of us.

May you learn to speak and listen in new ways. May you offer your unique gifts and identity as a witness to God’s presence in this place. May you know that you are beloved and so is every other child of God. And that God longs for us to be one. For us to see the beauty of God’s dream reflected in this diverse world.

May it be so this Pentecost. May it be so. Amen.

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