I find that business travel is fun for about three days. After that, I’m ready to be back home. Have you ever felt that special kind of boredom that sets in when you’ve already explored every inch of the hotel room, every channel on the television, every piece of cardio equipment in the hotel gym but still have four more nights? If so, I bet you’ve seen that little slice of Pentecost in the first few pages of the Gideon bible in the drawer beneath the telephone.
I’ve always been fascinated with the dozen or so translations of John 3:16 that are included in the hotel bible, you know, just in case the next business traveler only reads Kemak. For starters, I’ve looked at the images on the page—markings I cannot even begin to distinguish—and wondered how they represent a text I know so well. I’ve also debated in my mind whether John 3:16 is the best verse to have translated in this miniscule representation of Pentecost. Why not Exodus 20:2? Matthew 28:19? 1 John 1:9? Hebrews 12:12? And so on. And I’ve also wondered what it feels like to be in a place where you know very little of the language and open that hotel bible and see at least one sentence in a familiar script and language.
Pentecost, of course, is that moment when the Holy Spirit alights upon the apostles, who are then able to carry the good news of Jesus Christ to all nations, beginning with those gathered in Jerusalem for the festival (a different sort of Pentecost). The text we read in church this Sunday (Acts 2:1-21) is full of drama, but I still think it fails to convey just how chaotic and wonderful and confusing yet clear that day was. In a powerful moment directed by God, barriers of language seem to dissolve away. Nothing can stand in the way of the gospel’ proclamation to all nations.
But are languages still the biggest barrier we face in spreading the good news to all peoples? Does this Pentecost from 2000 years ago still represent to the modern world what it meant to those apostles and the crowd gathered there? It isn’t personal or efficient or always accurate or reliably available, but Google can translate most of what I say it to just about any other language. Is the most substantial obstacle to the kingdom of God spreading throughout the world still linguistic? Surely there’s another way we need the Holy Spirit to break through.
Maybe it’s cultural. Maybe it’s intellectual or philosophical. Maybe it’s economic. Maybe it’s political. But how do we need to translate the news of God’s kingdom so that it can take root in the hearts of all people? Perhaps we should first ask what is the greatest separation between us.
I can’t say for sure, but Acts 2 seems to present a moment in which language as the greatest obvious barrier between peoples is broken down. There are other barriers, of course, like the economic stratification addressed in Acts 4 or the religious separation tackled in Acts 10. But this great opening up of the world at Pentecost is about language. What is the equivalent in contemporary society? From my perspective, the greatest thing separating people from each other in the 21st century is money. But what does an economic Pentecost look like?
Is that what liberation theology is all about? Maybe, but I think there’s more to it than that. Liberation theology is a way of emphasizing salvation not merely through the forgiveness of sins but also in the setting free of the poor and oppressed from their unholy circumstance. But I want a Pentecost to go further than that. What would it mean for rich and poor, developed and developing, well-educated and illiterate, opportunistic and oppressed, to “hear” the good news of Jesus Christ in a way that tears all of those barriers down?