Language Barriers

Acts 2:1-12

When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. 2 Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. 3 They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.

5 Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. 6 When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken. 7 Utterly amazed, they asked: “Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language? 9 Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome 11 (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” 12 Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “What does this mean?”

Happy Pentecost Sunday to everyone! Pentecost is a unique holiday in the church, in part because Hallmark has not yet realized that they are missing a chance to sell more greeting cards. Pentecost is also unique in that it is one of the few holidays that we still refer to by the name given to it in the Bible. The Bible never calls Christmas Christmas or Easter Easter. But it does call Pentecost Pentecost.

We in the church know Pentecost as the day when the Holy Spirit descended upon the believers gathered in Jerusalem like a violent wind, like tongues of fire, and equipped the believers to go out into the world to deliver the good news of Jesus Christ. And it is indeed that, but there is an older tradition attached to Pentecost as well, one that traces back to the Hebrew Bible. When considering today’s text, we need to ask, “So why were they gathered together?” To celebrate the Jewish holiday of Pentecost. The Christian version is kind of a repurposing of the original Jewish holiday.

But if you scour the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible, you will not find a holiday known as Pentecost. The reason for the confusion is that when Luke wrote the book of Acts, he would have been writing in Greek and he would have used the Greek version of the Hebrew Bible, known as the Septuagint, for his references. If you read the Hebrew Bible in the Greek language, you will find about five references to the Hebrew celebration of Pentecost.

Pretty confusing, right? Yeah, language can be confusing, and we’ll come back to that.

Pentecost is a Greek word that simply means “fiftieth.” Happy fiftieth, everybody! Fiftieth what? The fiftieth day after the Passover. This is why the Jews were gathered together on the day we know as Pentecost, celebrating the fiftieth day after the Passover when God and Moses brought the people out of slavery in Egypt. According to Hebrew tradition, this is the day when God gave the Ten Commandments to the Hebrew people, just fifty days after leaving Egypt.

The Hebrew Bible literally calls Pentecost the Festival of Weeks, because they were to count off a week of weeks, seven weeks, or 49 days, after the celebration of the Passover. The next day, they celebrated the giving of the Ten Commandments. The Festival of Weeks is also an agrarian holiday on the Jewish calendar as it is a celebration of the early harvest. Just as our cold-weather vegetables are becoming ripe, so too were the cold-weather vegetables of the Hebrew people. And let’s be honest, what better reason is there to celebrate than the harvest of kale?

In the literal sense, Pentecost was a festival of harvest. Then in the 1st century, in the metaphorical sense, Pentecost became a time to begin the harvest of people. Now I want to sing “Bringing in the Sheaves,” but I won’t. You’re welcome.

The Festival of Weeks, Pentecost, was one of the three pilgrimage festivals of the Hebrew faith, the others being Passover and the Feast of the Tabernacles or Sukkot. According to Exodus 34 and Deuteronomy 16, all male Hebrews needed to travel to Jerusalem and present themselves to the Lord. This is why all of the believers are gathered together in one place in Acts 2, and this is why there are Jews in Jerusalem from “every nation under heaven” (v. 5).

The Jews from every nation under heaven would have known Hebrew, but they would also have spoken a local dialect as their main form of communication. When the Holy Spirit came to the 120 gathered followers of Jesus on that Pentecost, the first gift that was given was the ability to speak in different languages. These believers start to talk among themselves, and evidently they are overheard by others. We find their response in verse 7-8, “Utterly amazed, they asked: ‘Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language?’”

Some have said that this gift wasn’t a gift of speaking in different languages, but the gift of understanding different languages. It says that everyone understood in their “native language.” It doesn’t say that the believers spoke different languages.

So which is it? Did the believers speak different languages or did the others just hear in their own language? What the miracle a gift of tongues or a gift of, well, ears? Do you agree with me that it was a gift of tongues or do you agree with “them” that it was a gift of ears? Are you with us or are you with them?

Rather than getting caught up in this unsolvable mystery and causing additional divisions, I like to think of Pentecost as God taking something away. God isn’t just giving the ability to speak or hear other languages. This is symbolic of something bigger: God is taking away barriers.

This is one important distinctive aspect of our faith tradition. Christianity is, and has from the very beginning, been meant to translate into other cultures and languages. Just consider what we profess. Christianity claims that God up in heaven took on human flesh and lived among us for 33 years. John 1 says that God came to this world and was roughing it here, comparing the incarnation to a camping trip. God among us, God with us! That is cross cultural! And John calls Jesus “the Word made flesh.” The cross-cultural experience of the incarnation, of God becoming human, is in itself the Word made clear to us in all languages. The incarnation is a translation of God that everyone can understand. The incarnation is the removal of barriers. And at Pentecost, God removes language barriers, at least for a short time. God came to this world in a way that everyone could understand. God then brought his message to the world in languages that everyone could understand.

Unfortunately, we as Christians are really good at putting up new barriers. For far too much of our history, Mennonites have focused on exterior barriers. Head coverings, plain coats, chin-strap beards, and cape dresses all had their place in explaining who we were to the world around us. But when these things become barriers to keep people out rather than a manifestation of who we are as a group trying to follow Christ, we have made a huge mistake.

Do you remember the Amish beard cuttings from a few years back where members of one church forcibly cut off the beards of members of a different Amish church? This was a way of saying, We don’t think you count as an Amish anymore. Just admit it, you’re among the English.

For years, the common language in Mennonite churches in the United States was German. For even more years, the language in the Catholic Church was Latin. Even the other Abrahamic religions, Judaism and Islam, say that it is important to learn Hebrew and Arabic to really understand their religion. Every Jewish boy must study Hebrew to read from the Torah at his bar mitzvah. If you want to read the Quran, you need to read it in Arabic, or else it is just a paraphrase of the Islamic holy book. But Christianity by default should be, and needs to be, a cross-cultural faith tradition.

I have a hard time justifying these language choices in light of the barrier-destroying events of Pentecost. Where Judaism, Islam, Mennonite-ism, and Catholicism (and many more!) have said, “You must learn our language to be a part of the in group,” Pentecost says, “We will bring the message to you in a way that you can understand.”

Barriers need to be torn down so that the Good News can thrive.

Many Americans only speak one language, and I’m one of them. I am always impressed by those who can move fluidly from one language to another: Spanish, French, English, Pennsylvania Dutch. I’ve studied Spanish in High School and I had four semesters of Greek and two semesters of Hebrew in seminary, but to say that I “speak” these languages would be stretching it a bit. So when I say that I am monolingual, I know that I am among the majority of US citizens.

Over the last few years I have developed a bit of a relationship with the leaders at Signs of Life Fellowship, a deaf church here in Staunton, VA. Chris and MaryBeth are good friends of mine, and we are at the point in our relationship where we can give each other a hard time and enjoy it.

As I’ve mentioned a few times, I come from the great state of Ohio and I cheer for athletic teams from Cleveland and Columbus. Right now, the Cleveland Cavaliers are playing the Golden State Warriors in the National Basketball Association championship. Golden State, for those of you who do not know, is a reference to California, and this basketball team considers Oakland to be home.

There are a surprising number of Golden State fans around Staunton, in large part because one of their star players, Steph Curry, has roots in the area. Over the last few weeks, I have been trolled online by members of the Signs of Life Fellowship community. Last Tuesday, as I was with my family on a walk to the park, I was met by Chris and MaryBeth and their son Mario, and they proceeded to talk smack to me about the NBA Finals. Oh, and they were talking smack in American Sign Language. There is something beautiful about engaging in playful banter with a Guatemalan boy in American Sign Language. And though I didn’t understand every word that they said, I’m glad that God has brought us together as a diverse representation of the kingdom of God. And with God’s help, we can do more together, reaching people we otherwise might not have been able to reach.

John introduces us to an additional name for the Holy Spirit that I believe will be helpful for us today. That word is “paraclete.” John calls the Holy Spirit the paraclete four times in the Gospel of John and once in the Epistle of 1 John. The NIV and NRSV translate paraclete as “advocate.” For instance, we read this in John 14:16-17, “And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate to help you and be with you forever—the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you.”

Paraclete literally means to come beside someone else. Imagine you are going to go stand in line for a sandwich at a food truck after church. If I volunteer to stand beside you, I am your paraclete. I am standing beside you, not just to stand there, but to support you. To talk to you. To be there for you. In some situations, the paraclete may help you. In others, the paraclete may just be there for support. Either way, through the Holy Spirit, God is with us, beside us, within us, as our advocate.

The King James Version chooses to translate paraclete as “comforter.” This makes good sense in the context that this word is used in John 14 where Jesus says, “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you.” Don’t worry, I’ll send the paraclete, the comforter.

I like the idea of the Holy Spirit as comforter in that sense. When we are hurting, when we are stressed, God, through the Holy Spirit, is with us, comforting us. But I also think that it is appropriate to think of the Holy Spirit as the “dis-comforter” as well.

I come back to this idea that one of the gifts that first Pentecost after Jesus’ death and resurrection was the tearing down of language barriers. Barriers make us feel safe. Barriers give us comfort.

Just go to the zoo where there are large animals roaming around. There are some very important barriers there that keep us separated from the lions, tigers, and bears. Oh my!

We build barriers for our protection, and often that is a good thing. But I propose that too often we confuse our protection with our comfort. We often establish barriers because it is more comfortable to have that barrier in place. And to have that barrier removed is uncomfortable.

Language can provide that comfortable barrier for us. Dress can provide that comfortable barrier for us. Ethnicity can provide that comfortable barrier for us. But Pentecost is about removing barriers, and this is why I say that the paraclete can be just as dis-comforting as it is a comforter.

I want to leave you this morning with a story from my Signs of Life friends. Thomas, who is a hearing person, attended a Christian conference when he was in high school, and he observed there for the first time an ASL interpreter at work. The interpreter was working with a deaf man who had come for the same reason Thomas had. They were bother hungry and eager to learn more. And though Thomas hadn’t had any significant experience with the deaf community before that time, he approached the young man after the conference and developed a relationship with him through his interpreter.

By the end of that conference, Thomas had made a decision. He went to his new friend and said, “You can’t learn my language, so I’ll learn yours.”

And he did, and now he is a regular part of the teaching rotation at Signs of Life.

Pentecost: it’s not just about wind and fire. Pentecost is about barriers being torn down. May the advocate, the dis-comforter, join us and equip us as we tear down obstacles that keep people from experiencing the love and grace of Jesus.


About Kevin Gasser

I envision this site to be a place where I can post my weekly sermon text and invite feedback from anyone who is interested in the church, theology, or life in general. Please note that these sermons are rough drafts of what I plan to say from the pulpit, so typos are common.
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