What does this mean?

And they were all filled with the holy Spirit and began to speak in different tongues, as the Spirit enabled them to proclaim… At this sound, they gathered in a large crowd, but they were confused because each one heard them speaking in his own language… They were all astounded and bewildered, and said to one another, “What does this mean?” But others said, scoffing, “They have had too much new wine.

And we have the full spectrum of human encounter with the living Word of God fueled by the Holy Spirit. If you think about, they were not confused by the message itself – that came through loud and clear; it was comprehensible, each in their own native language. The part that bewildered and confused was the meaning of the message itself. Some just stayed in the betwixt-and-between unsure about the meaning. Some openly scoff and dismissed the message, the meaning, and the messengers. But a great number accepted it all and that day were baptized. Such different reactions. I wonder why.

Of course, each reason is as unique as the person holding the reasons. But I wonder if at the center of each reason, accepting or rejecting, is core question: would God really speak to them in their own mother-tongues, so intimately, with the rhythms of words and expressions that echo their experience and memories of home, childhoods, their beloved towns and countries, and their people? Is God that personal, that close, that caring? Can my language carry the words of God? Is this a moment when God said to all who would listen: “This Spirit-drenched people, this church, this new Body of Christ, is yours.  You don’t have to feel like outsiders here; we speak your language, too.  Come in and feel at home.”

Christians sometimes speak of Pentecost as the reversal of Babel, the Old Testament story in which God divided by multiplying their languages and human communities broke into parts. But Pentecost didn’t reverse Babel. When the Holy Spirit came, humanity was not restored to a common language; rather all languages were declared holy and equally worthy to tell God’s stories.  Pentecost wove diversity and inclusiveness into the very fabric of the Church.  He called the people of God to the One and the Many.

If you speak more than one language you more easily understand the significance of this moment. Each language holds far more than the sum of its grammar, vocabulary, and syntax.  Languages are the carriers of understanding, cultures, histories, and spiritualities. It is why poetry and jokes don’t translate well.  To speak another’s language is to place oneself differently in their world — to see differently, hear differently, and understand reality differently.

At the birth of the Church, the Holy Spirit empowered the first Christians to speak in an unmatched diversity of languages. In effect, God directed that his Church, from its very inception, needed to honor the boundless variety and creativity of human voices. God called the church to proclaim the great deeds of God in every tongue — not because multiculturalism is fashionable, or because the Church is a “politically correct” institution — but because God’s deeds themselves demand such diverse means of telling the greatest story ever told.  No single language on earth can capture the fullness, the mystery of God. In the new telling, is a new listening, from which blossoms a new perspective and understanding that adds to the fullness of how God reveal’s God’s self to us.

At the birth of the Church, the apostles came to realize how small their world really was and what a challenge they faced in taking this message to the ends of the earth as Jesus commanded. They were not going get to huddle in the Upper Room. The Spirit was upon them, opening doors and windows. The firm hand of God ushered them into the highways and byways to the places where fear and silence were no longer an option. Apostles who spoke Aramaic and a little Greek, now had to brave languages outside of their comfort zones.  They had to risk vulnerability in the face of difference and do so with no guarantee of welcome.  They had to trust that no matter how awkward or inadequate they felt, the words bubbling up inside of them — new words, familiar words, sacred words — were all now essential words — words precisely given for their time and place.

At the birth of the Church, the crowds who listened had to take risks as well.  They had to suspend disbelief, drop their usual defenses, and make a fundamental choice for wonder instead of contempt.  They had to let their worlds get bigger and welcome strangers with different ways into their midst.  It didn’t always work out. Some, like their ancestors at Babel, who scattered at the first sign of difference, the word of God was dismissed as the babble of intoxicated strangers. But it worked out for some. They listened and God breathed the Spirit into them, the newness of life.

Something happens when we speak each other’s languages — be they cultural, political, racial, religious or liturgical.  We experience the limits of our own perspectives.  And in that moment, that mini-Pentecost, we can make a fundamental choice for wonder or contempt. We can choose to repeat the Tower of Babel or we can learn to be curious and listen to the stories of the other.

We speak our stories in the words that matter most to us – as do the folks around whose words are unsettling, misunderstood – but are the stories that matter most to them. We are called to be a church that says to any who would listen: “This Spirit-drenched people, this church, this new Body of Christ, is yours.  You don’t have to feel like outsiders here; we speak your language, too.  Come in and feel at home…because we will hear your story”

Can we hear what the Spirit continues to say to us, his people?  God is doing something new, and we can be a part of it.  We can be the One and the Many.  We can choose wonder. We can be on fire for the healing of the world.


Thanks to Debi Thomas at Journey with Jesus.

2 thoughts on “What does this mean?

  1. Thank you so much for this reflection. It is changing the way I look at things now! You wrote so well. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

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