St Johns, Johnsonville and Holy Trinity, Ohariu
Readings: Genesis 11:1-9 & Acts 2:1-21
Once upon a time, before history started, the whole earth had only one language and the same words. But human beings got above themselves and decided to make themselves famous by building a great tower – so high that it could reach the heavens. But God took one look and said, “One people, one language; why, this is only a first step. No telling what they’ll come up with next—they’ll stop at nothing! Come, we’ll go down and garble their speech so they won’t understand each other.” Then God scattered them from there all over the world. And they had to quit building the city. That’s how it came to be called Babel, because there God turned their language into ‘babble’ (that’s what ‘Babel’ means). From there God scattered them all over the world.
That old story is a way of talking about how the human race came to be how it is now – scattered across the earth with different languages – and how people are hostile to each other and don’t understand each other. We know how it is, that people talk past each other, without understanding each other. Too few people are willing to really listen and try to understand, willing to risk learning a language not their own.
I’m no linguist. I find it hard to learn even a few words of someone else’s language. Visiting Germany I remember how strange it felt to be in a place with people talking a language that I didn’t know. It was isolating, even a bit scary at times – and very frustrating when I was seeking directions. With the few German words I did know, I felt self-conscious trying to buy something in a shop. But after a while, as I practised, I gained some confidence, and used the little I knew, and the locals would respond with patient understanding, respecting my desire to talk in their language, even if only a little.
Language is a very powerful thing. It’s at the heart of a people’s identity. As Maori have rediscovered their identity and culture, the emergent use of Te Reo has been a vital element in that renaissance. Language is vital to life. It binds and unites. In first century Jerusalem something else happened with language. It was as if the curse of Babel was reversed and people were united as together they understood what God was offering and doing.
When the day of Pentecost had come they were all together in one place. And suddenly … all of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability … and the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.
Here’s Peter and all the others, suddenly spouting off different languages – so well, that people could understand their message in their own language. The disciples aren’t scared, they aren’t self-conscious – they confident and passionate, talking like natives. They’re telling the crowd what the prophets had said. God was calling everyone to a new life, a life full of the Spirit. And God wanted to make it easy for everyone to hear about this, so the Spirit made it possible for people to listen to this good news in their own language.
There are two interesting points in this story that we might overlook. The first: that the disciples had been gathered together in a house when God poured out the Spirit upon them. It was a wonderful experience. But what do they do then? They go outside and share the good news of Christ with others. God doesn’t bless us so that we can keep the blessing for ourselves. It’s given to us to share. The love and grace we receive in this house of God isn’t given to us to keep to ourselves. It’s given for us to share with others in their own language. And the Spirit helps us to do that.
The other point: the people gathered for the Pentecost in Jerusalem were all Jews and they would’ve probably have been able to understand Greek or Aramaic – or at least enough to get by on. So Peter and his friends could’ve used these common languages. But no – they use the people’s first languages. The Spirit came, and made it easy for them to understand and respond. God, you see, wants to give everyone the best possible chance to hear the good news and to respond in faith. God doesn’t require that people first learn to speak a certain sort of religious language before they get told about the love and grace of Christ. They hear about God’s love in their first language.
That was Pentecost 1 AD in Jerusalem. What about Pentecost 2013 in Johnsonville? We’re rather short of Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and Mesopotamians. But actually, the Church hasn’t changed since that day in Jerusalem. We’re still the community of faith that’s open to all, whatever their age or experience, culture or background. Our task (the one given to us at our baptism) is to leave the house and communicate with others in their own language – to make it easy for people to understand and respond to God. Not with words and jargon that only those on the inside can follow, not with a culture that’s strange and foreign to them, but speaking in a way that can easily connect with who they are and where they are.
Who are the foreigners for us here today? What are the languages that are really strange? Perhaps it’s those of another generation – the teenagers who communicate with each other through strange text language; or maybe its people who understand computers and talk about megabytes and downloads. Or those from another culture or even another part of town – people whose values, and social and cultural background is different from our own. And let’s not forget, that for many of those who haven’t grown up in the life of the Church – we are the ones who are speaking the foreign language, and we have to learn how to communicate in their first language.
So what do we do about this in Johnsonville 2013? Are we prepared to take a deep breath and ask ourselves: are we willing to let God’s Spirit translate us into other languages, so that we can bring God’s presence to those who aren’t the same as us? Are we willing to learn to speak another language – to learn to talk so that others can understand what we’re saying? This might start with our family or the neighbour in the street. When we’re willing to do that, we’re letting Pentecost happen in Johnsonville.
For many of us, talking about God and God’s grace and love is a new thing – especially to people who don’t think about God from one month to the next, or to people we don’t know very well, or even to people who are our friends or our family. God doesn’t seem to fit into an ordinary conversation as well as the weather, or the budget, or how the Black Caps are performing at Lords. We’re scared that if we mention God it’ll come out funny – or that the other person will think we’re silly. But like me learning to use my very limited knowledge of German, we have to be prepared to practise – because that’s the only way we’ll grow in talking with others about God. At first you feel you sound silly, but keep practising, and in time it becomes easier. Here at church, over morning tea, or when we meet up in the Mall for a coffee, is a good place to start. Then branch out with your grandchildren or your neighbour. Share with them what God means to you, and I’ve found that over time it gets easier and feels more natural.
At that first Pentecost, God was at work, filling the disciples with the Spirit. Then they went outside and began to speak in foreign languages, communicating to others about God. They found themselves filled with new life and energy – with a new confidence and power. But that wasn’t a one-off event. God’s Spirit is still at work today. The Spirit that was given to us at our baptism will work through us, here in Johnsonville – because there are people here who need to hear the good news of God’s amazing love for them. And these people won’t get to hear about how a relationship with Jesus can enrich their lives unless you and I start speaking to them about God. So today, let’s remember that we have God’s gift, within us. We’ve God’s power and love in our hearts, and with that, we’ve the power to do things we would never otherwise be able to do. So let’s practise talking about God and who God is for us, and begin to talk with others in their own language.