Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, ‘Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.’ All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, ‘What does this mean?’ But others sneered and said, ‘They are filled with new wine.’ (Acts 2.5-13)
It’s always a challenge to read this passage on this Sunday; this list of names, some familiar to us, some unfamiliar, some almost unpronounceable. Was someone taking notes, taking a roll call of the crowds gathered there? ‘Where are you from?’ But however the list came about it is fascinating and exciting. This was a multi-cultural, diverse community. They were united by their common faith – they were all Jews – but they were from a huge variety of places and they spoke many different languages.
There are many in society who are not excited by diverse community, who find it a threat or a challenge. Any difference is too much for them – the colour of ‘their’ skin, the language ‘they’ speak, the traditions to which ‘they’ hold, even the food ‘they’ eat. The fear of the other and the despising of the other is a frightening part of our modern culture and finds its way into our politics. And we should have nothing to do with it, because God has nothing to do with it.
The glory of Pentecost is the diversity of this moment and the real reminder to us that the church does speak in every language. One of the positive outcomes of the Reformation was the release from the practices of the past to actually embrace the vernacular, to speak in the language understood by the people. It took many centuries for the whole of the western church to embrace this principle, but now that we have who could imagine the church behaving in a different way. Each hears the gospel in their own language. And this is not just about formal language – liturgy and preaching in English or French or Shona or Mandarin or whatever it is. It is the church finding the right way of speaking, the right register in which to tell about ‘God’s deeds of power.’ When we fail to speak so that others hear and understand then we are not the church of Pentecost.
God, who on the day of Pentecost
gave to the apostles the gift to speak
and be understood;
give to us that same gift
that we may so speak
that others will hear
and tell others
of your deeds of power.