“In the New Testament Pentecost story Luke tells, the Holy Spirit descended on 120 believers in Jerusalem on the fiftieth day after Jesus’ resurrection. The Spirit empowered them to testify to God’s great deeds, emboldened the apostle Peter to preach to a bewildered crowd of Jewish skeptics, and drew three thousand converts in one day. For Christians, Pentecost marks the birthday story of the Church. And what a fantastical birthday story it is, full of details to challenge the imagination. Tongues of fire. Rushing winds. Accusations of drunkenness. Mass baptism. One could spend years unpacking these details. But here’s the one I find most riveting: ‘All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.’ ‘At this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.’ Christians often speak of Pentecost as the reversal of Babel, the Old Testament story in which God divided and scattered human communities by multiplying our languages. But in fact, Pentecost didn’t reverse Babel; it perfected and blessed it. When the Holy Spirit came, he didn’t restore humanity to a common language; he declared all languages holy and equally worthy of God’s stories …he wove multilingualism into the very fabric of the Church. …Languages carry the full weight of their respective cultures, histories, psychologies, and spiritualities. To speak one language as opposed to another is to orient oneself differently in the world – to see differently, hear differently, process and punctuate reality differently. …If this is true, then what does it mean that the Holy Spirit empowered the first Christians to speak in an unmatched diversity of languages? Was God saying, in effect, that his Church, from its very inception, needed to honor the boundless variety and creativity of human voices? That he was calling it to proclaim the great deeds of God in every tongue – not merely because multiculturalism is progressive and fashionable, or because the church is a ‘politically correct’ institution – but because God’s deeds themselves demand such diverse tellings? Could it be that there is no single language on earth that can capture the deeds of God? Here’s another detail I love about Pentecost: when the disciples and their friends began to speak in foreign languages, the crowds gathered outside their meeting place understood them. And this – the fact of their comprehension – was what confused them. They were not confused by the message itself; the message came through with perfect clarity in their respective languages. What the crowds found baffling was that God would condescend to speak to them in their own mother-tongues. That he would welcome them so intimately, with words and expressions hearkening back to their birthplaces, their childhoods, their beloved cities, countries, and cultures of origin. As if to say, ‘This Spirit-drenched place, this fledgling church, this new Body of Christ, is yours. You don’t have to feel like outsiders here; we speak your language, too. Come in. Come in and feel at home.’ …I wonder what it would be like if the Church allowed the Holy Spirit to transform it into a place of deep and implicit belonging – not for the few, but for everyone. I wonder how our ministries would need to change so that the crowds listening outside our doors would hear ‘Welcome!’ in languages they comprehend.” Debbie Thomas
“with your blood you purchased for God
persons from every tribe and language and people and nation.”
Moving From the Head to the Heart
- Is there sufficient diversity in your church?
- Do you make a point to reach out to “different” people with God’s love?
- How can you be part of God’s “welcome” to outsiders?
Abba, use our many voices in the telling of your deeds.
For More: “Against Christianese” by Debbie Thomas
In today’s post I broke my own rule of “400 words” or less. This was just to important and beautiful not to share. Thanks for reading. – Bill