"Speaking The Language"

Scripture:  Acts 2:1-21

Speaking The Language

Over the past four years, I have been blessed with the opportunity to live in three different regions of the country.  When I first left Washington and moved to Rhode Island to work at a church camp, I was surprised to find that even though I spoke English, I didn’t know how to speak the language of New England.  It turned out that many of the words that I knew and used for 18 years had no meaning in that part of the country, and words that they used had no meaning to me.

In my first week of counseling at Camp Aldersgate, a camper came up to me with a simple request.  He asked me, “May I use the bubbler?”  I had no idea what a bubbler was, so I just stood there and looked at him confused for a minute.  I had no idea what a bubbler was, but he didn’t seem to be trying to trick me into letting him do something dangerous or mischievous.  Finally, I responded.  “Maybe.  But first, I need you to tell me what a bubbler is.”  It turns out that a “bubbler” is what I have always referred to as a “drinking fountain.”

From that point on, I learned that I needed to learn the language of the people who I was talking to, whether children in Rhode Island, classmates in Boston, or members of my congregation in Kentucky.  I also learned that if I’m going to order a soft drink in Kentucky, I need to ask for a “soda” or a “coke” rather than a “pop.”  If I’m in Boston and I have a hankering for what I would call a milkshake, I should ask for a “frappe,” because a “milkshake” might literally be milk and flavoring syrup shaken together.  And, perhaps most importantly, I have learned that if somebody invites me over for “supper” or “dinner,” I should ask them to specify what time the food will be served.

Americans have a phrase to refer to this clash of cultures – we say, “You have to speak the language.”  Sometimes it is meant literally – we need to speak a common language so that we can understand one another, and our words and ideas will have the most impact.  But it can also have a more figurative meaning.  We have to establish common ground when we are talking to people, to use language and metaphors that will be understood – even though we are, technically, speaking a common language.

I did a Google search of the phrase “Speaking the language” and had a number of responses, mostly from the business world.  One website promised to help businesses “Get more customers by speaking their language.”  An article in the New York Times was written for businesses and advertising agencies and it described how to create advertisements that – quote – “Speak the Language of Social Media.”  And in the Church, it’s not uncommon to hear that if we want to reach our mission field, we have to learn to speak their language.


When the passage from Acts opened, we found the leaders of the Church gathered together on the day of Pentecost, which was a Jewish feast day also known as “The Festival of Weeks.”  But while most of the Jews were joining together to celebrate the day that the Israelites first received the Torah on Mount Sinai, the followers of Jesus were gathered in seclusion, once again, in a secret room.  The setting in this passage reminds me a lot of the setting of our reading from the second Sunday of Easter, which began by saying, “It was evening on…the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews.”  I wonder if the house mentioned in the passage this morning might even be the very same one.  Whether it was the same or different house, it seems that they had a habit in those early days of keeping themselves, their movement, and their message hidden from the general public.

What the apostles were doing or discussing as they met in the house on Pentecost Day remains a mystery.  Perhaps they were trying to work out a game plan together for how to best bring the message of Christ to the world.  They didn’t know how to speak in a way that the people would hear and understand the Good News.  Maybe they were reflecting on the words that Christ left them with before he ascended to heaven, when he told them that “In only a few days, you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit” and “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses to Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”  “What did Jesus mean when he said those things?” they may have wondered.  “How will we even know when the Holy Spirit has come?”

Pentecost Day

If that last question is what they were actually discussing, then what happened next must have been quite an amazing answer.  The Spirit descends upon them, and there is no mistaking what is happening.  The promise of the Spirit is now fulfilled in a way that must have exceeded the expectations of even the most faithful apostles.  The Holy Spirit bursts into that room, and suddenly there is new life, new passion, and new energy filling the apostles.  Each of the apostles was filled with the Spirit, and began speaking in the various languages of all the people who had gathered in Jerusalem for the Festival of Pentecost.

It’s not clear whether the apostles were immediately aware of what, exactly, what was going on…  But apparently they figured it out at some point, because the apostles left the house where they were gathered and went outside, speaking and proclaiming the Good News to the public.  With the help of the Spirit, the apostles were finally able to speak the language of the people who needed to hear the message.  The pious Jews who had gathered for the festival took notice, and a crowd quickly gathered to listen. 

I can’t help but wonder if the gift of speaking and sharing was at all what the apostles were hoping for or expecting as they awaited the Spirit that Jesus promised.  After all, Jesus told them that they would “receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon them.”  I don’t know about you all, but I know that when I think of power, I think of might, and stature, and political clout.  I think of some sort of authority that puts one person above another.  I think of superpowers and big muscles.  But that’s not what happened on the Day of Pentecost.

Instead, the power given at Pentecost was the ability to speak confidently, clearly, and passionately.  It was the gift of having the right words to deliver to the people who had gathered to listen.  If there is power in Pentecost, it’s more like the power that Jesus himself had, power that often looks more like weakness and vulnerability than physical strength or political stature.

Pentecost Power

Rather than worldly power, it is the gift of being able to speak the language of the people who need to receive the message of Christ – literally and figuratively.  The Spirit offers a challenge for the followers of Christ to leave their comfort zone and take action that will lead to the transformation of the world.  When the Holy Spirit came to the apostles, it led them from fear to action.  It moved them from silence to proclamation.  It inspires all of us to move beyond our locked doors to engage the world in the love of God.

I think we have a tendency to read the story of Pentecost as a story about something that happened long ago…  We read it and think, “That must have been amazing!  I wish that could happen to us today!”  But you know what?  I think it does, every single day. 

When Dr. Elizabeth Kubler Ross was working on her famous book called, “On Death and Dying,” part of her research involved interviewing dying patients in the hospital, trying to find out how they felt and what they thought as they faced death.  As she went from room to room in the hospital, she began to notice a remarkable pattern.  Sometimes she would go into a dying person's room and the person would be calm, at peace, and tranquil.  She also observed that, often, this was after a certain hospital orderly had cleaned the patient’s room.  One day, Dr. Ross happened to run into this orderly in the hall, so she asked her, "What are you doing with my patients?"

The orderly thought she was being reprimanded and she said sternly, "I'm not doing anything with your patients."

Dr. Ross told her, “No, it's a good thing. After you go into their rooms, they seem at peace. What are you doing with my patients?"

"I just talk to them," the orderly said. "I've had two babies of my own die on my lap.  But God never abandoned me.  I tell them that.  I tell them that they aren't alone, that God is with them, and that they don't have to be afraid.”[1]

That is the gift that the Church receives at Pentecost: the Word to speak in the brokenness and tragedy of the world, a word of good news and comfort and hope that is unlike any other message out there.  The message that Christ lives, and that God is still active in the world.  A message of hope that overcomes despair.  Love that is stronger than hate.  Life that is stronger than death.  The gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost is the promise that this good news that we have received isn’t just for us, but is for all people.  This is exactly what Peter proclaims when he quotes the prophet Joel at the end of the passage: “In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people…and everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”

But the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost isn’t only the message to share, but also the promise that we can trust in the Spirit to give our words and actions meaning and use them to transform the world and all of its people.  It’s the gift of confidence to meet people where they are, using the words and language that speak to their experience.  All we have to do is step out with a willingness to share the love of God that we already know.

[1] Rev. Dr. Thomas G. Long, “What’s The Gift?”  Accessed at http://day1.org/3822-whats_the_gift.