19 May 2013
Carolyn L Roberts
What language does God speak? Does God speak Swahili? Mandarin? Tagalog? How about German? Russian? Spanish? Does God speak even English?
During my years of seminary, and for ten years after that, I served on the former United Church Board for World Ministries. It was the predecessor to our current Global Ministries, and served as the governing body for UCC global missions. I was always inspired by those such as Michael Joseph, who currently serves on our behalf in Colombia, and Dawn and Jon Barnes, who served in South Africa and Mozambique. Not only were they leaving everything familiar to answer God’s call in a completely different cultural, geographic, and ethnic setting, they had to learn a new language, a new vocabulary, a new syntax, with all the richness and subtlety that requires...just to be able to communicate with people in their native setting. Not an easy task.
Even by the vintage years of the 1970's, we’d learned a lot about how to help new missionaries. We gave them a certain period of language study so they had some basic language skills in their new tongue. We shared information with them about the history and culture of the people to whose home country they were going. So they weren’t starting out with a completely blank slate. But sometimes learning the language and culture of another country is far more abrupt.
The movie Amistad tells the true story of a group of Africans captured in Sierra Leone and sold into slavery in Cuba in 1841. They are then taken on board a small schooner to be transported to their new owner. But they rebel and some six weeks later are captured by Americans off the coast of Long Island, then jailed in New Haven while various parties argue over their fate. Two abolitionists take up the Africans’ cause and hire a lawyer. But even with the efforts of Josiah Gibbs, a linguist at Yale, it becomes very clear that none of them can do much until they learn the Africans’ story. So Gibbs learns to count ten in Mende, the native language of the Africans’ leader, Cinqué. And Gibbs goes to the docks of New York and finds a black sailor in the Royal Navy, James Covey1–who had once been sold into slavery himself. Covey becomes the interpreter for the jailed Africans, and because he can speak their language as well as English, their story is told, and people hear first-hand the brutalities they have endured.2
Our scripture tells of people filled with the Holy Spirit, speaking in other languages as the Spirit gives them ability. It tells us they are amazed and astonished when Galileans begin speaking in the native languages of Egypt and Libya and Mesopotamia. Can you imagine how James Covey felt when he heard Gibbs–a white professor from Yale–calling out One, Two, Three, E-ta, Fe-le, Sau-wa.3 How the African prisoners felt when they could tell their story in their own language? For the captives from Sierra Leone, God speaks Mende. And God speaks compassion. And God speaks justice.
More than 100 years later, on 26 June 1963, President John F. Kennedy speaks from the Rathaus Schöneberg, deep in East Germany after the erection of the Berlin Wall:
Two thousand years ago, the proudest boast was civis romanus sum, ["I am a Roman citizen"]. Today, in the world of freedom, the proudest boast is "Ich bin ein Berliner!"... All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin, and therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words "Ich bin ein Berliner!"4
Our scripture tells of people filled with the Holy Spirit, speaking in other languages as the Spirit gives them ability. It tells us they are amazed and astonished when Galileans begin speaking in the native languages of Egypt and Libya and Mesopotamia. I don’t have to imagine how it felt for Berliners to hear those few words of German from an English-speaking President. Our friends in Berlin have told us: they felt as thought they counted, as though the world had not forgotten them in their isolated and difficult struggle between freedom and totalitarianism. For Berliners in 1963, God speaks a smattering of German. And God speaks hope and solidarity and courage.
These two incidents have something to tell us about our story of Pentecost. It’s a parable of extravagant welcome. The disciples have followed Jesus during the year of his wanderings of teaching and healing, his year of sharing meals with women and men, with saints and sinners throughout the Galilee. They have followed Jesus to Jerusalem and witnessed the brutality of his crucifixion and death. And they have experienced the life-giving presence of the risen Christ in their midst. Now they are filled with Christ’s spirit, and it compels them to speak up and speak out, to share those experiences and invite others to share them too.
These disciples no longer identify themselves primarily by their Galilean heritage, but by their relationship to God in Christ. Their message is that their proudest boast isn’t their nationality, or even Roman citizenship, if they’d been able to claim it, but that there is a whole new perspective on understanding who they are. They tell others that Roman citizenship isn’t required to be a member of the body of Christ; that even one’s adherence to Jewish practices isn’t required to be a member of the body of Christ; that God’s love is unconditionally available to all people, regardless of nationality or religious affiliation.
What language does God speak? God, our still-speaking God, speaks the language of love and compassion, justice and hope. In every tongue. God’s holy Spirit lives within each of us, and gives us the power to act in God’s ways. God’s holy Spirit lives within each of us, and gives us the power to speak in God’s language.... Are we speaking the language of God?