The Wonder of Words

Acts 2:1-13

All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them. (Acts 2:4)

For those of us growing up in families and situations that are bilingual and bicultural (and this is true for most of us here today), we often run into “language situations” that can be frustrating, amusing, or just plain interesting. Here are a few I’ve had:

  • I occasionally run into a situation or conversation where I can’t say exactly what I want to say except in Japanese. I know that there are many ways to possibly say the same thing in English…but because I have spent so much time in the Japanese culture, society, and language – the Japanese word, for some reason, seems to fit the best – and to express my feelings and thoughts most accurately.
  • During my formal study of the Japanese language one of our teachers made the wise suggestion that all of us (the class members were all newly arrived missionaries) needed to be careful about the attitudes which we held and portrayed toward the Japanese language. If we weren’t careful, it would be possible to be frustrated and give the impression that the difficulty of the Japanese language was in some sense a “wall” or “barrier” to our work. Instead, we needed to see each word as a “bridge” that would help us connect with Japanese. This was more important than just a switch from “negative” to “positive”. We needed to actually “love” the language… if we were to reach Japanese. Another way to say it would be that Japanese would not judge us for our mistakes or lack of knowledge….. but they would not feel open toward us if they sensed that we didn’t appreciate the beauty of their language. In other words, it was not our skill level that was most important, but the humble attitude of a learner and lover of the language that would prove effective in our communication. “Not a barrier…..but a bridge…”
  • As a pastor I’ve often found myself preparing a Japanese sermon for Sunday…..only to realize that I didn’t have the necessary language skill to convey a particular concept or idea. While the thought that I wished to share seemed important, I wasn’t able to say it well in Japanese. Often, because there was no time to learn new Japanese phrases, I would simply “adjust” my sermon to fit what I was able to say. I’ve often laughed about this and wondered if my lack of variety in sermons was a result of my lack of eloquence in Japanese. While it was easy to think “I could speak so much better if I could do it in English…..” the truth is that in ANY language, we need to lean more on the Holy Spirit, and less on our own eloquence if we truly desire to communicate a spiritual truth.
  • Many other “language experiences” could be added to this list. But most of us have found that it’s difficult and risky to speak another language…. a second language…… This is particularly true for adults. We sometimes feel silly and feel like a child. This can be more difficult for some personality types than others. Vulnerability and the willingness to make mistakes are necessary…..and hard for most of us.

Which brings us to today’s text. We’re told that on the day of Pentecost 120 believers of Jesus are gathered in Jerusalem when suddenly the sound of wind and a great shaking take place. Small tongues of fire appear above each of the disciples and because of the miraculous power of the Holy Spirit – they all begin to speak in various languages. Jews from all over the world are gathered in Jerusalem for the festival. These Jews of the diaspora come from different countries and different languages. Yet, they are all able to hear the disciples speaking to them in their own languages. Shock. Amazement! What’s going on here?? People come running and gather around. But not all are impressed. Some begin to scoff. “They’re obviously just drunk….”

I listed a few of my own “language situations” above…. but here was truly an unusual language situation. Words were clear….and understood….and amazing….. all at once. Our text for today ends here…. but if we read to the end of the chapter we see how Peter addresses the crowd, explains this miracle of the Holy Spirit, preaches to them about Jesus, and challenges them to believe, repent, and be baptized. Three thousand individuals answer his call that day and are added to the church.

What does Pentecost… and that day’s experience teach us? What does it mean that on this “birthday of the church”….when a new mission was just starting….that the disciples were “pushed” to speak in all languages.

All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them. (Acts 2:4)

I list only a few thoughts below as a starting point:

  • Is it possible that diversity…and different languages….. are part of God’s design? This would only emphasize the truth that no one language or culture could ever fully encapsulate the gospel message! All languages and cultures would be needed to fulfill this mission.
  • On this day God required the disciples to speak out in new languages, not by their own eloquence or skill, but through the miraculous power of the Holy Spirit. It was fitting that they (and subsequently, we) should all recognize that power and effectiveness in our words will always be through God’s power and not our own. As a preacher, I feel this every week!
  • What languages will we be required to learn and speak? Here at JCC we already pride ourselves in communicating through English and Japanese. In a more metaphoric sense, will the Holy Spirit push us out to speak yet other languages? In our polarized nation and communities….will we be required to speak “republican”, if we’re “democrat”? or “democrat”…..if we’re “republican”? Will it become important to speak “gay”….in order to reach our neighbors? Is that even a language? Do we have close friends in that culture? And these are just the beginnings of our language learning.
  • Finally, it becomes clear that the miracle of Pentecost was both a miracle of speaking and a miracle of hearing and listening. It was a powerful day…..and the Holy Spirit was at work with both the speakers….and the listeners.
  • Words are wonderful. But the power of our communication will not be our own. It will happen through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.

Good luck this week Church….. in your language learning!

(The above is a summary of the message shared on June 5, 2022, Pentecost Sunday.)