Parthians, Medes, and Elamites;
Visitors from Mesopotamia, Judea, and Cappadocia,
Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia,
Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene;
Immigrants from Rome, both Jews and proselytes;
Even Cretans and Arabs!
“They’re speaking our languages, describing God’s mighty works!”
My Masters program, studying languages and how we learn them, also happened to be a Christian university. Genesis 11 and Acts 2 came up at least every semester. I feel like I should’ve exhausted my ability to reflect on the Christian story of the confusion and subsequent redemption of language.
And maybe so, on a rational level.
But this week was Pentecost Monday and I spent it in a country where people were more aware of having the day off than they were of the Holy Spirit. Also, a country where I can’t speak the language.
Do you know how it feels to have someone speak a million miles an hour in a language you don’t understand? Do you know what it’s like to understand just enough to know that you don’t quite fit in or belong? Do you know what it feels like when, in the midst of that, someone does speak your language?
You can’t make people laugh if you don’t know the language. You can’t voice your opinions if you don’t know the language. You can’t convey intelligence if you don’t speak the language. Without language, you can’t be funny, charming, smart, or unique. You become overwhelmingly unknown.
Nothing makes you feel stupid and powerless quite like the inability to communicate. It’s why babies scream. It’s why we give up on it. Nothing brands you as an outsider, shouts “you versus me,” like being excluded from the conversation, the space, or the table.
In the 1st century, not only did geographical and cultural divides separate people with language, but even the religious texts were comprised of language reserved for the elite. They were not words for Gentiles, outsiders, or the uneducated.
The Holy Spirit breaks through and swings wide the doors of inclusion.
And while I’m sad to see the ways that we’re still trying to force them closed – drawing dividing lines of who’s in and who’s out – I found a strange kind of hope this Pentecost. A renewed profundity of what the Holy Spirit did that day. It was power, but not like anyone expected.
It was the power to welcome, to extend hope, and to invite others into the kind of belonging that comes with being deeply understood. The power to both understand and be understood.
A radical welcome for all the peoples, brought about through the new, normal believers who, it seems like, didn’t get much of a say in what came out of their mouth.
I kind of love that.
Surely at least one of these disciples was speaking a language that they had previously held some bias towards. One where, if given the chance, they would’ve drawn lines of exclusion. What a mark of our humanity (and, we see Peter try to do it later with the entire population of Gentiles).
Eugene Peterson’s translation adds the word “even.” Even Cretans and Arabs. Someone, maybe someone who hadn’t previously thought that Cretans or Arabs or immigrants from Rome should be included, was speaking the Good News in their language. The language of shocking, sometimes uncomfortable, inclusivity.
Based on their reaction to hearing their own language, it almost seems like the people themselves couldn’t believe they were being invited in. We know it’s only 9am, but they’re just drunk, right?
All the sudden, it was the language of the immigrants, the slaves, the women, the marginalized, the sinners – the “evens” – that were hearing about Jesus. Maybe it was a little uncomfortable for some of the disciples. But their “yes” meant that their comfort was never the point. It’s not like they hadn’t seen Jesus touch, hug, and befriend against their religious rules before.
Now, the very Spirit indwelling them was doing the same thing.
What would it have felt like to be in that crowd? How overwhelming it must have felt to hear, understand, and be invited in. How meaningful that it wasn’t a new common language, some divine lingua franca, but the alphabet taught to them around a childhood kitchen table. The words at the core of their being and thinking, inviting them into an eternal Hope and relationship, capable of celebrating differences with seemingly impossible unity.
What a day, that first Pentecost.
What a Spirit, that continues to shatter my ceilings and boxes.