Language is essential to human beings. Language, as you know, is the way in which people communicate with one another, with words or gestures, or both. Believe it or not, scholars cannot pin down the origin of language on earth. The 6,000 languages we speak around the world today are relatively new, developed within the last 50,000 years. And yet humans have existed on earth for 6 million years. Surely they communicated before 50,000 years ago. We know they did. Yet no one can find their languages. They have simply disappeared.
Our languages do keep evolving. New words are introduced to the dictionaries every year. Already in 2016, Merriam-Webster Dictionary has added new English words including: belignorant (of being belligerent and ignorant); Breakfunch (a small meal eaten between breakfast and lunch); concharge (to be in charge and in control); definotly (definitely not); and jokative (causing laughter). Do you know any of those words? I don’t. We have abbreviated languages on Twitter and messaging that some know well, and others know not at all. We have colloquial expressions, and cultural words and phrases that only those in a certain culture understand. Language and communication seem to get harder, not easier, as times goes by.
My Seekers study group has been reading a book about prayer, called "Beginner’s Grace" by Kate Braestrup. This week’s chapter on "Finding the Right Words," told us this, in a section where she was talking about the words of the Bible:
"But one of the problems with words that were written down long, long ago, is that words and phrases occur and are transmitted within the context of the surrounding culture. They do not exist in pure isolation, independent of the people who wrote or spoke them. When I say something in English to another American, we are using words that not only signify specific things but convey additional, usually unspoken meanings based on common cultural references. I demonstrated this to the whole roomful of people once by saying the words, ‘plop, plop, fizz, fizz.’ ‘What comes next?’ ‘Oh, what a relief it is,’ came the answer, but not from the entire crowd. Those under the age of thirty-five or who had been born or brought up overseas responded with confused silence…" (Braestrup, p. 141). ( Those of us Americans over about 35 know this from an Alka-Seltzer commercial on TV. Some younger than us may not even know what Alka-Seltzer is!)"
As we discussed this chapter, one of the members of Seekers told us about a conversation recently with her teenager about some friends of hers. "They’re shipping, Mom," the teenager said. "Shipping?" said Mom, "Are they on a boat, or are they shipping something to someone far away?" Likely with an eye roll because Mom did not understand, the girl replied, "No, Mom, they are in a relationship – you know, shipping!" Communication can be hard!
Both of today’s passages are, at least in part, about language and communication. Many have seen the Genesis passage as a way to explain why there are so many languages on earth. There are other such stories from sources other than the Bible that also try to explain the reason for so many diverse languages. The story in Genesis has long been seen as a troubling one, one where God seemed to be dissatisfied with the people and scattered them and their language, because they were trying to stay together and to build a tower to reach God. But scholar Walter Brueggemann reads this passage differently. The people did not want to be scattered, he says, but God wanted them to be – yet not for bad purposes, but to do just what God wants us all to do – to spread the message of God’s love. If the people stuck together, they would not spread the message, they would keep it to themselves. They would stay with like people, and never know others. So God gave them different languages and sent them to different parts of the world, all the while supposing that they would still live faithful lives, and would share their faith with those around them. Maybe this is a better interpretation. After all, Jesus sent the disciples out, saying to them, "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you…" (Matthew 28:19-20). Going out from the safe sanctuary and the people we know and love can seem like punishment, but maybe it is just the way to share with others something about a good and meaningful way of life.
Many have interpreted the Acts passage as reversing the scattering of the Genesis passage. Instead of people speaking different languages and not able to understand one another, at Babel, those gathered together in our Acts passage were speaking different languages, and yet they all understood one another. But perhaps again we need to look deeper at the meaning of the story. The most startling aspects of the story catch our attention – the rush of wind, the divided tongues, everyone speaking in different languages. This was so astounding to the bystanders that they thought the disciples must be drunk. And not everyone present received this miraculous gift. The miracle may be that those who did all understood one another. The miracle occurred in many people, so it was not just for one or two people. It was for everyone, even though some still did not get it. But for those who did, a whole new world was opened up. It was the beginning of a new era, one where different people could understand and communicate with one another. The gift was given to those gathered as a faith community, the beginnings of the church, and it was meant to unite the people as a church community.
Yet still we are struggling to understand one another, in our world, in our country, in our community, in our churches, and even in our homes. We may speak the same language, but we are often still not hearing one another. Maybe the broad experience of life makes it harder for us to truly hear one another. Maybe we are simply bombarded with too many communications – TV, internet, smart phones, 140 character Tweets – whatever ways we communicate just rain on us all day, and often also at night.
Richard Lischer, a professor of preaching at Duke Divinity School, says, "The average American is subjected to approximately 6,000 messages a day (6,000!). Why," he asks, "should one of them called ‘gospel’ stand out? What is one little message among so many? The Word of God," he says, "is brimming with vivid images, but they pale beside the creations of Madison Avenue [and Hollywood and the internet]" (Lischer, p. 13, 18). The way the media bends the news also does not help us to communicate, and we are bombarded with varying, and often opposing, views. Lischer also says, "Mass violence overrides the significance of language…The first casualty of the information age is truth" (Lischer, p. 5).
And so perhaps the greatest miracle of that Pentecost day was that everyone – well, almost everyone – understood one another! They were not speaking the same language, and yet they understood. Some try to explain away the miracle by assuming that there were gestures, or inflections, or enough common sounds that people were able to make out what was being said. Yet the story says "in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power" (v.11) With the help of the Holy Spirit, they truly listened. Immediately afterward, Peter began to preach. I suppose they still were able to understand in their different languages. And Peter preached about God’s deeds of power in the story of Jesus Christ. He witnessed about his faith.
We celebrate 17 confirmands today (two will take place in a couple of weeks). These young folks have worked hard all year to communicate about faith. Some came willingly to class, others because Mom and Dad told them they had to come. But they all engaged in the process by asking questions, sometimes hard questions, and by sharing what they think, honestly, verbally and on paper. They respectfully listened to their teachers and to one another. And hopefully they all come today because they want to be here, they want to make this step of confirming their faith, at least as they understand it at this point in their lives. (Remember, confirmands, that) For all of us, our faith lives are always evolving. We all, of any age, learn new things every day, if we but listen!
On this miraculous day of Pentecost, something new is being born, for the church, and for each of you. We are in this journey together. By being confirmed, you tell us that you are willing to keep growing. You tell us that you are willing to continue to be in dialogue about the things of life that matter to you, and to us, and that we can work on this together. This is not the end of the process, for you, or for any of us. It is a beginning, an exciting, miraculous, glorious beginning!
Language and communication are so key in our walk of life together. Without communication, we are separated. With communication, we are no longer alone. It is okay to disagree as we communicate, but only if we do so respectfully, hearing one another’s differing views and loving one another anyway, seeing every other human being as the child of God that we all are.
"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…" (John 1:1). The Word was, and is alive! With the gift of the Holy Spirit, the Word of God lives on in each of us. We have been given this gift, and many varying gifts, so that we can be the Body of Christ, God in the world. It is a big gift and a big responsibility. The world needs communication and a mutual understanding, desperately. The world needs good news. And we have a good story to tell, one with a good ending, one full of love and respect and justice and peace for every human being.
Maybe we Presbyterians need to call more on the Holy Spirit. So let’s sing and pray at the same time, this time with motions – "Spirit of the Living God."
Come, Holy Spirit, come! Amen.