No More Others
One of the best, most profound, most spiritually enlightening Pentecost sermons I ever heard was by a professor of mine at Wesley Theological Seminary. And the guy wasn’t even United Methodist or ordained! For his inaugural sermon when given tenure, Dr. David Hopkins preached on the link between the story of the Tower of Babel and Pentecost. Remember that among the many amazing moments of that day, each person in Jerusalem for the Pentecost feast heard Peter preaching in that person’s native language. It wasn’t that Peter was speaking their language. The Scriptures are clear on this point. Not only does this mean the Gospel message knows no barriers. It also means, of all the curses laid upon humanity in the first 11 chapters of Genesis, even the curse of linguistic barriers is now gone. Humanity is no longer separated by an inability to communicate. The Gospel knows no barrier; it can even overcome the curse laid upon humanity when they tried to reach the heights of God. Now we can, indeed, be perfect as God is perfect, but not through our own efforts.
In Douglas Adams marvelous Hitchihiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, there’s this creature called a Babelfish. You put it in your ear, and it can translate any language (alas, even Vogon poetry). It’s a nifty story device, to be sure, filled with humor and Adams’s cleverness and attention to detail. Yet, we humans living in the early 21st century have to realize we have a real Babelfish, and no I’m not speaking of the lousy program that let’s you read things on the internet written in other languages. We have the ability to speak the Good News of salvation, and others can hear it in their own language. Now, we can get into details such as contextualization and translation and what-not, but what I want to focus on is the reality that we human beings are united not by biology, but grace. We are no longer divided by nationality or language or skin color or sexuality. We are brought together as adopted children of God because of the Gospel, first preached and heard in the tongues of the Roman Empire, two thousand years ago.
We often forget this. We insist that “to be a Christian” means we need Others to adopt not only the faith as we understand it, but our social and cultural habits as well. The sad history of missionary work is bloody thanks in no small part to the mistaken belief that the Gospel is “ours” in some way that demands compliance to strange ways. One of the lessons of Pentecost is that the Word can be heard in strange languages, understood and lived out in ways that are different from ours, yet remain the Gospel. The Holy Spirit’s arrival at Pentecost, the very first preaching of the Word by the infant Church shows us that there are Others no longer. There are just those who hear in their own tongues, offered the opportunity through the Spirit’s intervention to be about the work of the crucified and risen Christ, in their own ways, in their own lands. The Gospel breaks down the one barrier to human unity, our inability to communicate with one another.
All the curses are lifted. We should be far more bold in our preaching, knowing it is reaching out beyond the barriers of language and nationality and culture and race and all the other ways we continue to divide ourselves, creating Others who are strange and in need of change. All they need is our love, and the message of God’s grace, preached and lived. The rest, as Pentecost teaches us, is in the capable hands of the Holy Spirit.