Native Languages - Acts 2:5-8
|A Medieval depiction of Pentecost by the Italian painter Giotto, c. 1300.|
5Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. 7Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?”
Acts 2 (NRSV)
What language do you speak?
I’m not talking about English. Within every society there are language subsets; ways of talking about meaning and truth that orient people. In Ukraine, for instance, the separatists in the country’s east believe that the new government in Kiev is led by neo-fascists. At this point it doesn’t matter whether the new government really is fascist. Within their language they’ve labeled the government and are living out of that label’s definition. Language is typically a collective organism, shaped and amended by the perspective(s) of groups. In this case, the collective definition of a group is driving violent upheaval.
So what language do you speak?
I know of a whole group of people who are often labeled “liberal” who use a certain set of definitions that vary widely from another group of people labeled “conservative” who use the same words with different definitions. A few examples: justice, freedom, economy, equality. So when these groups “talk” to each other they often get nowhere, because they aren’t speaking the same language. The same thing happens when Calvinists and Wesleyans try to have a conversation or people living through poverty with comfortable middle class folks.
Even within the labels, though, there are still further individual languages. So the labels are often misleading. These individual languages are often subtle, but they’re there. For instance, if I said, “I need to go for a run,” someone who doesn’t know me very well might think I mean that I need to exercise. Those who know me know that my “need” to run has almost nothing to do with exercise. It’s a pursuit of my limits, a desire to test myself. But you wouldn’t know that unless you asked or had a chance to listen to me talk about running.
There’s the point I’m trying to make: listen. In a world filled with so many languages we cannot expect to communicate well with people if we have not taken the time to understand their language. My goal, and I hope our goal, is that everyone might hear in their own native language. When we interact with our neighbors we really do have to take time to understand them, to catalog their lexicon. When we buy into labels and refuse to really listen we create a gulf between us and people who perhaps really need to meet Jesus in their own language. We become separatists instead of reconcilers.
So what language do you speak? Let’s listen and find out.
 All that really means is that they think they’re associated with Nazis.
 I realize that Pentecost was a unique miracle, a work of the Holy Spirit. You might think I’m dodging the point of the story by not talking about relying on the Holy Spirit, but I think the Church really slowing down to listen and understand languages would be a miracle equal to Pentecost.
 A lexicon is an index of words and their definitions.
 A quick historical note, the Jews in this story would have almost undoubtedly spoken Greek as a second language. They would have used Greek to communicate with people in public settings. But the Spirit doesn’t settle for second languages. The Spirit is always intimate and cuts to the deep reality of where we are. So Greek wouldn’t do. It had to be their native language.