Have you ever felt like you were speaking a different language?
The first time Jenny and I fought – I mean, really fought – I think it was over language. I came home one day to find our new apartment full of apples – apples on the mantle, on the table, in the entry. Not wax fruit, I mean real, bright green, granny smith apples all over the place. Apples were in a bowl on the counter and in a big vase over the fireplace. “Oh, I love these,” I thought, so I reached for one, prompting a shout from Jenny: “No!” When I looked confused she explained, “Those are for decoration.” It sounded ridiculous to me, but I could see she was serious. The Better Homes and Garden magazine was still open to the page that had sparked the idea. So I put the apple back.
Until later that night. Jenny was asleep and I was studying for a test – these were seminary days – and I needed a late night pick me up. Nothing in the fridge matched my craving, and all I could think about was this big vase full of apples across from me in the living room. Well, what would you do? I pulled one out and arranged all the rest. “She’ll never miss one, I thought.” But you know what? She did.
A day or two later, with things still a bit chilly at home, I remember telling an older, wiser, longer-married friend about it, not understanding the big deal and he looked horrified. “If it’s important to her, it’s important to you, buddy,” he said. “You’ve got to learn to speak her language.” Because what I had translated “food” or “late night snack,” Jenny had translated, “décor for my brand new home.” We were speaking different languages.
Now that might seem apples and oranges to you, but it’s one of a number of linguistic twists I’ve learned throughout my relationship with the person I love most. Like when we were dating, if Jenny told the waitress, “No, I don’t want any fries” I learned that actually meant, “I’ll just take some off of Alan’s plate.” Just as she learned that if I said, “Everything’s fine… fine…” that’s not usually what it meant. “I’ll handle the dishes,” doesn’t mean that most of the time after the dinner party just as “I’m going home, but I don’t mind if you stay out late…” well, that’s not usually accurate either.
The Danish philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard, once observed of the limits of language that language is partially given but partially something that develops freely, with its own codes and nuances. (1)
Sometimes, it seems we’re speaking different languages – most especially with those to whom we feel most close. Even here.
That’s the situation in Jerusalem – at the church’s beginning. As the Spirit comes on this day of Pentecost, it visits a cultural hub – Jerusalem – with multiple languages from the reaches of the empire. It was a place so cosmopolitan and varied that even the sign over Jesus’ cross was written in Latin, Greek and Hebrew. The conversation in the street from pilgrims gathered for the Feast of Weeks would have been varied and wide-ranging, blending together in a nearly indiscernible hum.
It’s to this place of varied backgrounds and dialects and diversity that Jesus has sent the disciples. “Stay in the City,” he had said to them as he ascended. It must have been tempting for them to circle up or hunker down – to gather tightly with those whom they have known so well and shared so much. They know the same stories and have seen the same things. They speak the same language, you see.
They know what it is to be “saved,” for instance, because they watched it happen when Jesus reached out to heal a blind man. They have an understanding of this word “baptism,” because they were there and they saw the heavens part for Jesus, echoing with God’s message of love. By now, they have a full understanding of “resurrection” – this bizarre concept so foreign to so many even to this day. It was once so strange and unbelievable to them, but now they have seen it, experienced it themselves in places like an upper room where he appeared, or a lakeshore where he called them again, or a hill outside the city where he rose up into the canopy of clouds. They know what it is to be people of the risen Christ. They know that the worst thing is not the last thing, and that despite appearances this world is held by a God who is as incomprehensibly loving – as astoundingly merciful – as Jesus made God out to be.
And they could have stayed with those who knew the story and spoke the language. But instead Jesus calls them to descend into a city where they are not comprehensible and into a wider world that would sometimes prove hostile to the words they had to speak.
How would they do it? How would they say anything that could even be understood?
The answer comes rushing down the streets of Jerusalem that day – wind and fire, and soon divided tongues resting on them and giving them words to speak. They are soon speaking in new and different languages, understood by a crowd that is filled with people from every nation under heaven – Acts says – and the crowds look in bewilderment, “How is it that we hear in languages that we understand?”
That’s the gift of the Spirit. Clear communication. Understanding. That in a world of every nation and experience under heaven, still through the power of the Spirit, we can come to understanding of the love of God in Christ. For there are so many times we seem to be speaking different languages. Church has always been – from its beginning – the collection of people from every experience under heaven. People with different backgrounds and biases, different contexts and commitments, different life experiences, different theological frameworks, different ways of seeing the world or understanding the activity of God within it – people who, somehow, through the power of Christ’s Spirit, can come to a place where we hear the word of God in our own language.
But notice, that doesn’t mean we all speak the same language. Granted, that’s what many of us would want. We’d want to gather together and live out our faith with those who speak and understand just like us.
I remember how shocked I was upon some study abroad in seminary to meet children – Gypsy children in Romania – who could speak multiple languages. We were playing soccer in a schoolyard, and at age 6 or 7 they were adapting and accommodating to communicate with me – a 25 yr old, who only knew one language fluently with my two year high school Spanish requirement mixed in.
And if I’m accustomed to my experience – my language and all the accompanying assumptions – holding that kind of central, primary place, well, that’s bound to trickle in to other parts of my life, even my faith, where maybe I expect everyone to speak like me, and share my assumptions, and adapt to my way of thinking. Why can’t they just see the apples for what they are, and not with such wild imagination.
If I’m honest, I just want people to speak my language.
That’s what Rome wanted in the first-century world, too. Rome had its own language – Latin. And with that came a whole host of assumptions. Rome had its own way of being and it required all of those in its dominion to use it. Rome wanted the language and practices of the Empire to be adopted by all. You can bet if a Roman called a customer service line he expected to get someone who could speak Latin clearly!
But notice, when the disciples are speaking, they don’t speak the language of Rome. They don’t even speak their own languages only. They speak in the languages of all of those gathered in Jerusalem. They speak the languages of those whom Rome is seeking to oppress and control. They are challenging and overturning the assumptions of assimilation and conformity and instead with their varied tongues celebrating and animating the truth that when the Spirit comes, all people’s languages can be spoken freely and all people can hear the good news of the risen Christ.
See, the coming of the Spirit – the understanding that comes with it – does not mean the erasure of difference. God doesn’t take us back to an era before the Tower of Babel, where all people spoke one common tongue, as much as some of us would pine for just that. It’s not one, unified language. Instead, the Spirit of God rushes through the streets to amplify all different ways of speaking and celebrate all the different ways of being in the world.
In our birth – our origin on the streets of Jerusalem – people were speaking all different languages. Which is who we are as people of the Spirit – as a church seeking to catch the wind of Christ’s Spirit and to dream the new dreams that Peter proclaims in the streets to all those people. And we are at our best in seeking to do so when we continue to celebrate the coming together of different languages, different ways of speaking, different assumptions, and different experiences of the Spirit.
Some of you will recall a couple of years ago – in the midst of an election cycle, where it can sometimes be hardest to welcome the breadth of language and perspective that exists – we went to our cars following worship to find flyers on our windshields. Someone had canvased the parking lot during worship with political leaflets blanketing the parking lot.
Maybe they missed the “No Soliciting” sign. That I can understand. Perhaps a large parking lot full of cars was too hard to pass up at 11 on a Sunday morning. I can let that slide. Maybe they didn’t anticipate our congregation’s belief in the essential separation of church and state. That I can forgive, since they’ve probably come across a church or two that communicates the contrary.
But what frustrated me at my core was the faulty assumption in the strategy – that the person thought that cars parked at a Baptist church on a Sunday morning would belong to people who think the same way. The assumption that because we are a church, we speak the same language.
And how desperately this world needs to know of places – especially in this another election cycle – that accentuates the varying languages and assumptions that exist in our world. Places where people gather amidst their diversity, where a range of perspectives and opinions exist, and where that plurality is not seen as a weakness, but as a sign of the Spirit. All these languages don’t make us confusing, or muddled, or a murmuring mass. Through the power of the Spirit, they make us church. They make us the witness of the risen Christ, with a message too big and important and sweeping for any one language.
When we welcome all those languages we might have a shot at dreaming the new dreams that Peter proclaims. If we can be that kind of community, we might even have a chance to become what bursts forth from the work of the Spirit in Jerusalem, as all those people from all those backgrounds come together in that idyllic image of the early church later in Acts 2: Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.
How I wish that person who canvassed our parking lot would have come inside to find people reaching across the aisles for the hands of those to the right of them and to the left, trying to learn some new languages, while praying and singing and dreaming of what our world can yet be and acknowledging that it takes all of us in all of our diversity.
And that doesn’t happen if the disciples stay in the upper room telling the stories they know in the insider language only they can understand. That’s why the church – from its origin – has always been a place where people of all different nations and tongues can come to understand one another.
Many of you know – as Dr. Pressley mentioned earlier – that this week we laid to rest our oldest member: beloved 104 yr-old DB Cobb. Just for context, he was born three weeks before the voyage of the Titanic (or in the Downton Abbey era for some of you) and he and his wife, Edna, joined our church a week after the attack on Pearl Harbor that inaugurated US involvement in World War II. 75 years of life in this church. How many languages had he come to learn and share and speak in that time?
It brought to mind a story shared by Rev. Ryan Motter – a friend from my days at Vanderilt, who today serves a church in Missouri. Some months back, Ryan was a new father to two month old Lydia. He had a visit coming up to his church’s oldest member, 102 yr old Jennie Lou, and he decided to take his daughter, Lydia, along. He handed 2 month old Lydia to 102 yr old Jennie Lou – the youngest and oldest members of that community of faith. He asked Jennie Lou what her prayer was that day. She squeezed the baby and said, “That this little one and every little one in our church grows up and lives as long and full a life as I have.”
Jennie Lou held Lydia as the baby girl drifted off to sleep. And as Lydia cooed on her shoulder, Jennie Lou whispered in her ear, “This is a good life.”
The cooing baby. The reflective saint. It was almost like they were speaking two different languages. And thanks be to God.
- Søren Kierkegaard (1813–1855). In Cloeren, H. Language and Thought. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1988.