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Politics of Scripture

The Politics of Language—Acts 2:1-21 (Amy Allen)

Beyond mere understanding—which we can arrive at with languages not our own—God’s communication in people’s native tongues at Pentecost manifests a deeper commitment to the recipients of revelation. The Holy Spirit addresses us in the language of our hearts and our dreams.

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2 And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3 Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

5 Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6 And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. 7 Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 9 Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11 Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” 12 All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” 13 But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”

14 But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. 15 Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. 16 No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: 17 ‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. 18 Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy.19 And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. 20 The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. 21 Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’

One of the great deficiencies of most American born citizens is the tendency to only learn one language fluently from birth. Equally troubling, most American school children do not study another language until intermediate or even high school—long after our greatest propensities for language learning have subsided. In most other cultures, including Jerusalem of Jesus’ day, this is not the case.

When I studied abroad in Namibia, my four-year-old host brother could speak as many languages as he was years old, and he was far from the exception to the rule. So, even though English was not the first language of many of the people whom I encountered, most were able to accommodate by using English in my presence.

Similarly, in Jesus’ day, multiple languages were spoken. Latin was the official language of the Empire; however, most of Roman daily affairs were likely conducted in Greek. Likewise, Hebrew was the religious language of the Jewish religion, but many of the Jews in Israel at that time conversed in Aramaic.

Of course, in Jerusalem itself, as a cultural center, there were multiple other languages from the reaches of the empire and beyond as well. Not every resident or visitor of Jerusalem would have been expected to know all of these languages, but it is likely that most were conversant in at least a couple.

Thus, while it is possible that the Holy Spirit’s gift of languages (Acts 2:4) allowed the apostles’ preaching to reach some who had been previously unable to hear the gospel directly, most would likely have already have been able to hear in a second or third common language. Given this, the real miracle of Pentecost seems not to be so much the fact that the apostles were able to communicate, but rather, that the “devout Jews from every nation under heaven” were able to hear in their “own native language” (Acts 2:8).

Let me say that again in another way: The miracle of Pentecost is not so much a miracle of understanding as it is of hearing. What caught people’s attention, what gave them pause, and led even to the frantic search for explanation, is that these Galileans were now speaking in the people’s own native languages.

Like the many gracious people during my time in Namibia who accommodated me by speaking in my native language, the apostles, who up until this point in Luke-Acts have behaved as a fairly cloistered group, are now suddenly proclaiming widely the love of God through Jesus in each resident’s own native tongue.

And when someone reaches out to you like that—when someone sees you for who you are at your core, it’s a lot easier to hear what they have to say in return.

When I was a seminary student, I worked as a chaplain at a large public hospital in Dallas, Texas. Many of the people who came into the hospital were Hispanic, and so, as a part of my orientation, I was given a set of index cards with simple Spanish phrases and prayers. One day, not long after I had begun this position, I was called to the room of a frantic elderly woman. The nurses were trying to calm her down, but she was clearly agitated and angry, chiding them in Spanish.

“What can you do, Chaplain?” they asked.

I was twenty-one years old. I knew only the Spanish that was written on my little index card. And I knew even less about how to calm down frantic patients in a hospital. So I did the only thing I could think to do—I pulled out my index card and began to read: “Padre nuestro…” The Lord’s prayer. I’m sure my pronunciation was horrible. But the woman stopped. She smiled softly at me, bowed her head, and whispering, joined in the prayer as I continued.

Somewhere, across whatever chaos and division was between her and I, she had felt seen. Acknowledged. And so she was able to hear the calming words of her savior anew.

This is the miracle of Pentecost. But it goes so far beyond tongues of fire and a solitary speech. Indeed, throughout the rest of Acts, the apostles engage in proclamation and mission that goes out to people of all nations, that accommodates different diets and cultural practices, not demanding that converts come to them, but rather, bringing the good news of Jesus to meet everyone where they are.

Language is certainly about being understood and understanding. It’s about learning and communication. But it’s also about so much more than that. It’s about hearing and being heard. It’s about seeing another person for who they are as a unique and valued child of God, not as a communication obstacle to be overcome.

And so, even if many other people can speak English or whatever the common language of your church may be, the call of the Gospel is not to settle for that. The call of the Gospel is to speak God’s word of love in as many languages, in as many ways, with as much passion as there are stars in the sky. The miracle of Pentecost is that the Holy Spirit comes, the Holy Spirit speaks to us in our native language—the language of our dreams, and the Holy Spirit bolsters us to dream new dreams and engage in bigger realities because of this presence.

Veni Spiritus. Come, Holy Spirit, come.

The Rev. Amy Allen is an adjunct professor of New Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary and an ordained minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in  America.

One thought on “The Politics of Language—Acts 2:1-21 (Amy Allen)

  1. Liked the chaplain story. I will use it in my sermon this week.
    I live in a place where English is often not the first language. At First Presbyterian Kissimmee, Florida we have services in Portuguese and Korean in addition to two services in English. As you say it’s not just about language but also about accommodating our lives for the sake of the gospel.

    I attended Columbia Seminary long ago. Glad to hear you are teaching there.

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