The Language of Life and Faith



Language Fails

How many of you have lived in or traveled in in a country where you did not speak the language? Some of the confusion can be pretty funny, like when I meant to say that I had lived on bread and cheese when I was visiting France, but instead said that I had loved on bread and cheese for a week.  Or when the Russian Orthodox bishop asked me how hard it was to stand during their long worship services, and I thought he was asking me how warm my boots were, and told him they kept me very warm.

My favorite though is a story told by Mark Twain in his essay The Awful German Language. In German if you have good luck, you say you had a pig. “I had a big pig today,” means I was very lucky today. So Twain was at party, and a man asked him if he had had the opportunity to dance with his wife yet, to which Twain replied, “Nein, dieses Schwein hatte ich noch nicht.“” No, I have not had the pig yet.


Language is one of the most basic elements of human life. Although other animals can communicate, it is generally thought that we are the only species that has raised language to an art. I hear that whales communicate through song, but I would bet nothing they say is half as interesting as The Brothers Karamazov or even the Letters to the Editor page in the Mail Tribune.

Language defines us.

The way we speak a language forms how we think. In German, for example, the verbs often come at the end of the sentence–and they have some wicked long sentences in German! So when you listen you learn to bracket things along the way. Chinese is a tonal language. Each word can be said with a rising tone, a falling tone, a rising and fall tone, or a flat tone. As it turns out the Chinese are able to discern tones in music much better than non-Chinese speakers.

And language separates us. One of the issues for the Basque separatists, a small regional group in Spain who advocate seceding from Spain, is the language. They speak Basque and not Spanish, and they don’t want to be identified with those Spanish speakers. You can tell how well an immigrant is assimilating into their new home country by how well they speak the language.

I have heard people say they were with someone who spoke a different language, and “Even though we couldn’t speak each other’s language, we still communicated!” to which I say, “But you have no idea what you really communicated. One of my colleagues at the Alaska legislature had a tattoo of a Japanese word on his leg. I asked him what it meant, and he just laughed. “Well, I got it in Japan,” he said. “I asked them to tattoo the work for ‘peace’ on my leg, but a few days later I was at a Japanese bath, and one of the other bathers, a Japanese man, asked my why I had the word for peanut butter tattooed on my leg. I thought he was pulling my leg, but every other Japanese person who saw it told me it was the word for peanut butter.”


On the day of Pentecost, many strange things happened. There was the sound from heaven, “like a rush of violent wind.” Flickers of flame seem to rest over their heads. The experience was so powerful they appeared to be drunk–all boozed up at nine o’clock in the morning. But the thing that got the attention of the crowd around them is that they were all speaking in different languages–the languages of the many people who were visiting Jerusalem from all over the known world, to make their sacrifice at the temple.

Jewish Pentecost

Christians did not invent the feast of Pentecost. It was originally a Jewish festival called Shavuot, a harvest festival celebrated seven weeks and one day–fifty days–after the Feast of Unleavened Bread, which was loosely tied to Passover. It was also called  “The Feast of the First Fruits,” because on this day people could bring the first fruits of their harvest to the Temple to be offered in Sacrifice to God.

Later, after the destruction of the Temple by the Romans, when people could no longer bring a sacrifice, the day took on a totally different meeting. Instead of being a harvest festival, it celebrated the giving of the Law to Moses on Mount Sinai. The feast was given the name Pentecost, which means fifty. Whether it was the feast of the first fruits or the giving of the law, it was celebrated fifty days after.

So on that Pentecost, the year of the death of Jesus, there were Jews from all over the known world, who had come to offer the first fruits of their harvest to God. There were “Parthians, Medes, Elamites, residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt parts of Libya, as well as  visitors from Rome.  And they saw something that stretched their beliefs.

Christian Pentecost

But for the Church Pentecost has a difference significance. It is the birth of the church, so today is officially the birthday of the Church of Jesus Christ. It signifies the coming of the Holy Spirit to the Church. In Acts chapter one, just before Jesus ascends to heaven, he has a little encounter with his disciples. They ask him, says, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” Jesus gives one of those cryptic answers: “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. 8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

It does not sound like he is answering their question. “Jesus, now that you all resurrected and everything, don’t you think this would be a good time to kick out the Romans, and start our own little country?”  Jesus replies, “Well, the timing of all this will surprise you, and the way it happens will surprise you even more, but yes, something is going to happen along those lines and its going to happen fairly soon. It will happen when God’s Spirit comes down, and surrounds your life. When that happens, that will be your source of power. You want political power, but you are selling yourselves short. I want to give you the power to be a part of the Kingdom of Heaven.”

So Pentecost goes from the being the feast of the first fruits of the harvest of local farmers, to the feast of the first fruits of the Church of Jesus Christ.  Those early disciples didn’t bring first fruits–they were the first fruits.

The spirit came down on them, and changed them.They went from being an unorganized, rag-tag group who just lost their leader to a committed and powerful group who went on to change the world the message of God’s love.

Pentecost Today

But what does Pentecost mean for us today? How is this event, which happened almost 2,000 years, important for us today? How does that remarkable experience of the early disciples affect who we are and what we do today? Or, to put it another way, as I heard one pastor ask his congregation, how has the Holy Spirit affected our church? If the Holy Spirit was somehow taken away from us, what would change? Would we be any different?

I started this sermon by talking about language, and I want to pick that up again. I said that language separates us. At Pentecost we see that separation completely overcome. It is no accident that the fire that comes upon the people comes as tongues of fire that unite the people in spite of the language. They are all hearing the Word of God in their own language. If there is any proof of the presence of the Holy Spirit, it is this–people who are different from one another experience unity. The miracle of the tongues referred in Acts is more about how the walls of division, and in fact one of the highest walls, is overcome by the power of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit came upon the disciples and suddenly they were speaking in other tongues.

Different languages of faith

I think that still happens today, but not necessarily the same way as what happened in Jerusalem 2000 years ago.  We have our differences today, differences that need to be overcome. And by we, I mean both the world-wide church of Jesus Christ that includes everybody from Bible thumpin’ fundamentalists to middle of the way Presbyterians to High Church, smells and bells Orthodox and Roman Catholic Christians. We are all in this together, but there a a multitude of ways we are divided.

I also mean the group of people who gather here and call ourselves the First Presbyterian Church, or in any other congregation. When it comes to our spiritual life, many of speak different languages. For example, some people best experience God through prayer and Bible study. Others through music and worship. Others through service to others, for some acts of compassion and for others in advocating for people. Some experience God though fellowship with other Christians, while others feel closer to God is solitude and silence. Some through reading and studying, and some through discussion. When it comes to our relationship with God, each of us speaks a different spiritual language.

I remember in my second church we started an early service, that met before the Sunday school hour. We only had fifty minutes for the service, so we could not replicate the full service we had at 11. Some things had to go, and part of the time savings came through cutting the amount of hymns we sang. When of the long time members of the church came to me after we had been doing the service for about a month and said, “I really love this service. There’s not much singing and I hate music.” I pressed him on that, and asked, “you mean you hate singing hymns. Right?” and he said, “No, I just hate music.”

Now I have to say, I do not understand that at all. How can someone hate music? Not a type of music, but all music. But God made us all different, and that’s the way God made him.

We are all somewhat to a great deal different from one another. We have different ways of experiencing and expressing our spirituality. What makes us a church is when we accept and affirm one another in spite of our differences. What is when we know the Holy Spirit is truly at work among us. It is tempting to think everyone is just like us, that their spiritual life should look just like ours, but that is not the case. We are all different. When it comes to spirituality, we speak different languages. And that is ok. What is not ok is trying to get other people to fit into our mold.

The Greatest Miracle of All

The Holy Spirit came down to the disciples and drew them together as the people of God, as citizens of the Kingdom of God. We are all part of the people of God, citizens of the Kingdom of God. What brings and knits us together is not what we have in common, but how we let the Holy Spirit work through our differences. You see, none of have the market cornered on spirituality. We all have things to learn, and we learn from one another. That is also the Holy Spirit at work.

On that Pentecost day 2000 years ago, miracles happened. But the greatest miracle was, and continues to be, the knitting together of the random batch of people who go by the name Christian into the Body of Christ.


About tmrichmond3

I am the pastor at the First Presbyterian Church in Medford, Oregon. I believe that faith should be able to sustain us, not oppress us.
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