© 2022 Evan D. Garner
Imagine waking up every morning and starting your day by anticipating all of the encounters you expect to have so that you can translate them ahead of time from the language you know best into one that everyone else will understand. If you are not fluent in the language that everyone else around you takes for granted, you have to take that extra step in order to live in their world. Who will you meet? Who will you talk to? Your clients, coworkers, and boss. Your teachers, bus driver, and friends. The person at the Starbucks drive-thru. The cashier at the grocery store. The doctor who evaluates you. The police officer who pulls you over. Everyone and everything outside of your own cultural community requires translation.
Once, at a train station in Catalonia, I spent five minutes trying to recall what I had learned back in high school Spanish so that I could ask the station attendant whether the luggage lockers, which advertised a price for 24 hours of storage, would automatically spring open when the time was up. I was pretty impressed with myself when the question rolled off my tongue without too much trouble. But I was in no way prepared to understand or respond to whatever it was that the attendant said back to me in Spanish. Remembering the vocabulary and grammar of a language is a long way from knowing that language because really knowing a language requires knowing a people.
When the day of Pentecost had come, the disciples were all together in one place, waiting and watching and praying for the Holy Spirit. Before Jesus had ascended into heaven, he told them to remain in Jerusalem until they had received the power of the Holy Spirit. He had explained to them that with the Spirit’s might they would become his witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and even to the ends of the earth. But none of them could have expected what happened when the Holy Spirit showed up.
Like an untamable wind, the Spirit filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, descended and rested on each one of them. Wind and fire—symbols of God’s awesome presence and power that were as ancient as God’s relationship with Israel—those were the signs that the Spirit had come upon the disciples just as Jesus had promised. But, when the violent rush was over, instead of wielding the power of God to triumph over their enemies or secure their place in the courts of power, the disciples opened their mouths and began to proclaim the mighty acts of God in the language of every nation under heaven. And the crowd that had gathered because of all the commotion was amazed.
“Aren’t all of these men Galileans?” they asked. “How is it, then, that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? How is it that we, who have come from all over, can hear these simple tradesmen proclaiming the stories of God’s power in the languages of our birth?”
You may have noticed that, even though the crowd included individuals from all over the world, everyone who was there that day was Jewish—either by birth or by conversion. After listing all of the places from which the crowd had come, Luke, the author of the Acts of the Apostles, identifies them all as “both Jews and proselytes,” another word for converts, who we are told included both “Cretans and Arabs.” The feast of Pentecost, after all, was a Jewish festival that had brought together faithful Jews from around the world. But it’s easy to forget that anyone who had made that pilgrimage from another land would have expected to hear the stories of their people’s salvation spoken in the language of Israel—in Hebrew with, perhaps, a little Aramaic thrown in from time to time.
Whenever someone from the diaspora who was born somewhere like Pontus or Asia, Egypt or Libya, came to worship God, they would have to translate their prayers from the language of their birth into the language of the temple. And, if they wanted to share fully in the celebration, they would need to reimagine the mighty acts of God, taking them from the Hebrew in which those stories were told back into the language they knew best.
Imagine having come to the capital city of your religion, the center of your people’s spiritual life, prepared to transact your religious business in the language that you’ve been taught is the only one that God will accept, only to discover that a ragtag group of barely-literate men from out in the country are proclaiming the central stories of your people in the same language that your mother used when she sung you to sleep. What would that tell you about the nature of God and what God was trying to do in that moment?
This phenomenon was so unbelievable that some in the crowd could only make sense of it by appealing to the effects of alcohol. “These men must be drunk!” a few exclaimed, “filled with new wine,” though that possibility didn’t really make any sense either. What was God doing in that moment? Peter stood alongside the other disciples and explained what was happening, saying, “This is what was spoken through the prophet Joel, when God declared, ‘In the last days, I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your little ones shall see visions, and your old folks shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, no matter their gender, I shall pour out my Spirit, and all people shall prophesy.’”
A long time ago, centuries before this day of Pentecost, God had promised through the prophet Joel that a time would come when God’s Spirit would be active not only among the official, institutionally appointed prophets, but among all types of people—young and old, male and female, rich and poor, slave and free. In those last days, there would be no limit on whom God would use to proclaim God’s salvation. And Joel promised that those last days would be a sign that the end was near—that all of God’s promises were coming complete, that God was preparing to rescue all of God’s people and bring back together into one those who had been scattered across the nations of the world.
Peter and the other disciples, who had been told by Jesus nothing more than that they should wait for the Holy Spirit, looked around and realized that this was it. This was the moment when those last days were beginning to unfold. This was the sign that God was bringing all things to their completion. This was how the salvation of the world, which had already been accomplished in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, would take hold among God’s people—by a radical, Spirit-empowered proclamation that had no linguistic or ethnic bounds.
But this was more than mere translation. Instead of God’s people having to work their way back to God, God was prepared to meet them wherever they were—not only by inhabiting the language they knew best but by coming into every aspect of their lives. Every story, every celebration, every joke, every nuance could now be infused with the saving love of God. Nothing was off-limits anymore. That’s the power of the Holy Spirit. No translation or cultural adaptation was needed. God had always promised to bring God’s people back together again, and now God was doing that not by imposing upon a dispersed people a mandated uniformity but by offering them a universal intimacy. And, eventually, that same Spirit would carry the good news of God beyond the people of Israel, including even the Gentiles in the reconstitution of God’s covenant people.
The disciples couldn’t have imagined what sort of power the Holy Spirit would give them, but should it surprise us that the God whose Son died for our sake would seek intimacy with the world even while we are still scattered in our own various ways? Should we be surprised that the way that God brings God’s people back together is by coming to them—to all of them—in order that they might know God’s saving love as intimately as their mama’s voice? The good news of God that we proclaim today is that you don’t have to become someone you’re not in order to find God. In Jesus Christ, by the intimate power of the Holy Spirit, God has already come to you no matter who you are.