Americans are known around the world for our limited language skills. People who grow up in other countries often know multiple languages, and although they probably have a native language that is most comfortable, they are able to understand other predominate languages. The same would have been true in Jesus’ day and setting. “Latin was the official language of the Empire; however, most of Roman daily affairs were likely conducted in Greek. Likewise, Hebrew was the religious language of the Jewish religion, but many of the Jews in Israel at that time conversed in Aramaic. Of course, in Jerusalem itself, as a cultural center, there were multiple other languages from the reaches of the empire and beyond as well.”
Our scripture passage says that there were devout Jews “from every nation under heaven” living in Jerusalem. Of course, residents and visitors would not know all of these languages, but most of them would have known some. If they didn’t know Aramaic, they would have known Hebrew; if they didn’t know Greek, they would have known Latin; etc.
This means that the miracle of the Holy Spirit’s gift of languages may not have been necessary—at least not to share the message. If the message of Jesus had been offered in several predominate languages, it would have been understood by most, even if the person was from a small area with a more obscure language. “Given this, the real miracle of Pentecost seems not to be so much the fact that the apostles were able to communicate, but rather, that the ‘devout Jews from every nation under heaven’ were able to hear in their ‘own native language.’… The miracle of Pentecost is not so much a miracle of understanding as it is of hearing. What caught people’s attention, what gave them pause, and led even to the frantic search for explanation, is that these Galileans were now speaking in the people’s own native languages.”
If you have ever travelled to a non-English-speaking country, you know the comfort that comes from hearing your own language. It’s not just because a clerk has pity on you and keeps you from ordering the wrong thing. It’s that somebody sees you and speaks to you in your own language—the language that requires no internal translating, the language in which all of your best memories are stored, the language of home.
I saw this at work a few years ago during our long adoption process. One of our meetings was not going well, and we were looking at the possibility of an even longer, drawn-out process. The turning point was when Jackie simply called the person by his name—not the American pronunciation, but his native Spanish pronunciation. His head jerked up as he realized that somebody really saw him. I believe it changed the course of our history. “When someone reaches out to you like that—when someone really see you for who you are at your core, it’s a lot easier to hear what they have to say in return.”
One preacher tells a more dramatic story. She writes: “When I was a seminary student, I worked as a chaplain at a large public hospital in Dallas, Texas. Many of the people who came into the hospital were Hispanic, and so, as a part of my orientation, I was given a set of index cards with simple Spanish phrases and prayers. One day, not long after I had begun this position, I was called to the room of a frantic elderly woman. The nurses were trying to calm her down, but she was clearly agitated and angry, chiding them in Spanish. ‘What can you do, Chaplain?’ they asked. I was twenty-one years old. I knew only the Spanish that was written on my little index card. And I knew even less about how to calm down frantic patients in a hospital. So I did the only thing I could think to do—I pulled out my index card and began to read: ‘Padre nuestro…’ The Lord’s prayer. I’m sure my pronunciation was horrible. But the woman stopped. She smiled softly at me, bowed her head, and whispering, joined in the prayer as I continued. Somewhere, across whatever chaos and division was between her and I, she had felt seen. Acknowledged. And so she was able to hear the calming words.”
These people in Jerusalem may have experienced something similar. Perhaps the miracle wasn’t merely that they understood, which they could have done in various languages. Perhaps the miracle was that they heard in their own languages—the language that requires no internal translating, the language in which all of your best memories are stored, the language of home.
If Pentecost is the birthday of the church, as our tradition claims, what does this mean for the church today? How do we speak in people’s native languages? I don’t necessarily mean actual languages, but metaphorical ones. How do we reach people who don’t already speak the language of church? Do people seeking God come into church and hear words like redemption, salvation, and doxology? Do they have any idea what we mean? (Do we?) Do we speak effectively in the language of technology? Do we speak effectively in the language of community?
It’s about more than words, of course. It’s the what/where/when of communication, but it’s especially the why and the how. Why do we want to invite people to church? Do we have anything to offer that they can’t find at their local microbrewery? We’ve been here for over 280 years. Why does it matter that we continue to exist? And how will we need to change if we’re to share the message of God’s inclusive love in ways that people outside these walls can hear? Does our style of worship meet the needs of those who need to be here? Contemporary church scholars say that preaching the way I do most of the time is passé—worship should be experiential. They say some hymns are OK but we need other styles of music, too. Most new churches do not have organs. We’ve been here for over 280 years; how much have we already changed with the times? And are we willing to do what is needed if we want to be here another 280? Change is not comfortable, and it is not easy, but it is crucial. And we’re not alone in our efforts.
Two weeks ago I preached on the passage from John where Jesus says he will send the Spirit, the advocate, or in Greek, the paraclete. I talked about how paraclete means “one who comes alongside.” I talked about how comforting this is, the ones who comes beside us, and we imagined what that might look like. But the Spirit is more than comfort. After all, look at this story from the Day of Pentecost. “The Holy Spirit isn’t comforting anyone or anything but instead is shaking things up…. There’s nothing particularly comforting about the rush of a ‘violent wind,’ let alone descending tongues of flame…. The Holy Spirit is as much agitator as advocate, as much provocateur as comforter.” Yes, the Holy Spirit comes alongside us to comfort, but also to strengthen us, help us muster our courage, or even provoke us to action.
I experienced that kind of Spirit a couple of years ago at the Pride festival. I think I told you the story before, or at least part of it. We had a negative encounter with a group of men who were there promoting a different kind of Christianity than we practice. They tried to argue scripture with me, tried to tell me we were leading people to hell; you know, all the standard stuff. I tried to politely tell them we were never going to agree because we have different understandings of the Bible and what it is.
We finally got them to back off, but they didn’t go far. They stood a few yards in front of our booth and stopped every person who went by, sharing their version of God and God’s punishment for those who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender. I couldn’t let them do it—not right in front of us. I couldn’t let them get away with it. So, still shaking from our previous encounter, I walked up to them. The leader said, “What do you want?” rather aggressively. I said, “I’m just here to correct your theology for anyone who stops to talk to you.”
It was not my best pastoral moment, I’ll admit! But that’s all I could think of to say. And that’s when I felt a presence alongside me—behind me, actually, right over my shoulder. It was a presence that said, “I’m here with you. I’ve got your back.” OK, most people would not have said it was the Holy Spirit. Most people would have called him John McCall! But John was the Spirit, the advocate, the paraclete to me. It was the perfect response. He didn’t step beside me or in front of me—as always, clear in his boundaries as former pastor that this was my battle, not his, but also clear in his support and encouragement. He came alongside me—not to comfort, but to support my stand.
What if that’s the job of the Holy Spirit for us as the church? To support our stands. To challenge us to take risks. To motivate us to make a difference. To goad us into action. Even to give us a quick kick in the behind when we get complacent. To that I say: Come, Holy Spirit, come.
 Allen, Amy. “The Politics of Language.” Political Theology Today. May 2016.
 Lose, David. “Pentecost B: Come Alongside, Holy Spirit!” davidlose.net