(A sermon for the Feast of Pentecost)
The closest I have ever come to experiencing anything like what the people of Jerusalem experienced on that first Pentecost came at the death of the late Pope, John Paul II. Like many around the world, I tuned in through the televised broadcast to watch the huge crowds gather in Rome for the funeral in Vatican Square. It was with grateful surprise that I realized, “I understand the words!” My rudimentary high school Latin, augmented over the years with some church Latin in a rather hit-and-miss fashion, kicked into gear at hearing the words of the Mass.
“Dominus vobiscum.” “And with thy spirit,” I replied to the television set. Not exactly a miracle, and certainly not in the category of what happened on that early morning in Jerusalem; and yet I and countless thousands were joined as one through what is usually described as a dead language. Perhaps this is a needed reminder that, with God, what seems dead is improbably alive, and what is old and dusty in human terms can be made new in service to the eternal Word.
Whether it is the church speaking in one universally understood language, such as Latin, or the church attempting to speak in as many human languages as possible, the struggle to bring the Gospel of Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, to all nations and languages and peoples is at the heart of this day. I often tell my students in confirmation instruction that each time the Bible has been translated, the impetus has arisen out of the need to bring the story of Jesus to more people in yet another language. From Hebrew to Greek, Greek to Latin, and then Latin into countless languages, the Holy Spirit has unscrambled the confusion created at Babel for the purpose of witness and proclamation. But unlike the construction of the tower, this single purpose and voice is to proclaim not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord: crucified, dead, buried, and then risen from the dead, now living and reigning to all eternity.
This work of translation and proclamation to all peoples in all places has not been without controversy, opposition and even danger. The history of the translation of the Bible into German, English, French, Spanish, and other emerging languages in Europe in the time of the Renaissance is one of daring as well as scholarship. Earlier, missionary bishops who traveled into the Northern reaches of the known world spoke the story of Jesus Christ to those who had not yet heard, often struggling to learn the native tongues of various tribes and peoples who as yet had no written language. Other Christians, finding themselves among those who had never heard the Gospel, took upon themselves the task of preaching the good news, and of translating this Word into words understandable for generations, even centuries, to come. A few days before Pentecost this year, the Church remembers just such a missionary, John Eliot, a Puritan emigrant to the Massachusetts Colony in 1631 who took up preaching to the Indians of New England, learning their language and translating the entire Bible into Algonquian, the dialect of the native people in his area. In 1663 this became the first Bible in any language to be printed in North America. This came at a time when many good Christians argued whether the native peoples in the Americas even had souls, and could become Christians at all.
Recently, I and others in the ELCA have had the experience of hearing the Gospel preached back to me from those who only a few generations ago were the recipients of missionaries from this country. The Oromo people of Ethiopia, a number of whom have immigrated to the United States, have become partners with those of us here in the ELCA. I have heard some of their preachers, both ordained and lay, proclaim the strong message of the good news of Jesus Christ, that death cannot stop him or his Advocate who comes bearing witness to the truth. They have told me their stories of courage in the face of persecution, of witness in the face of prison and death. They have learned my language in order to bring back to me a reminder of what being a disciple of Jesus Christ is all about.
At times it seems that the Church, rather than being a place of clear proclamation spoken with one understandable voice, is instead Babel reborn. Different denominations speak in a confusion of tongues, emphasizing matters that seem to run contrary to one another. All point to the one Lord and one Scripture, but the differing interpretations seem to bring many to increased perplexity rather than enlightenment. The Church seems to be obsessed with an inner dialogue, even argument, with itself, splintering over and over again in quarrels great and small, over matters at times gravely important and at other times gravely non-essential. We appear to be so embroiled in disputes among ourselves that the work of bearing the Gospel to the nations and peoples at times falls to the wayside; and in fact, in many places modern Christians contend that this type of proclamation is misguided, oppressive and just plain wrong.
But today, in my own language, I hear a different word. I hear it from the Oromo churches in Minneapolis and Saint Paul; I hear it from the Rosebud Reservation, and from the Woyotan Worshipping Community in Rapid City; I hear it from Pastor Natanael Lizarazo, ELCA pastor from Colombia; I hear it from Bishop Victoria Cortez of the Nicaraguan Lutheran Church of Faith and Hope; I hear it from Pastor Constanza Hagmaier, an ELCA pastor from Germany. I hear that the Word became flesh and dwells among us, and that his light shines in the darkness and nothing can extinguish it. I hear that the Advocate comes to bear witness to the truth that Jesus Christ is risen from the dead, and that, in the words of Peter, “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” (Acts 2.21)
The Advocate continues to blow the Word of God into and through the Church, sometimes in spite of the Church as an earthly institution, always calling the Church back to its true vocation as witness and proclaimer. Without his presence, we are still in the upper room, talking amongst ourselves. But Pentecost morning dawns once again, and a rumbling and a rushing sound of a mighty wind is coming: to us, through us, lifting us up and out into the streets and highways. The Word speaks again, using our voices, and we hear the voice of the Lord coming out of us, and out of you, and out of those whose languages we did not know. And with one voice we begin to speak: “In the name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.”