Acts 2:1-21 – Pentecost Sunday – for Sunday, May 19, 2013
“And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?” (Acts 2:8)
I was born and raised in California where Sacramento, Los Angeles and San Francisco are prominent cities. Rivers flowing within the state’s borders include the San Joaquin and Merced. The Golden State is famous for the El Camino Real, the wandering trail linking the twenty-one Roman Catholic missions founded by Father Junípero Serra between 1769-1823.
History shouts out a lesson in Spanish nearly everywhere you turn in California.
In elementary school, learning Spanish was required. Though not as extensive as the proverbial 3 Rs of reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmetic, we studied the language of Father Serra and those famous missions.
I went to school by Sacramento, the town of the sacrament. My grandparents owned a farm near the Merced River, the river of mercy.
I was lousy at Spanish, even after dabbling in it for those elementary years. At most, I can count to ten: uno, dos, trace, cuatro, cinco . . .
In middle school, German became an option. I jumped the Spanish ship and boarded the German train. I started well and continued German in high school. My grades plummeted and by my sophomore year, the early As and Bs had devolved into dismal Cs with a glimpse of the basement called D.
Eins, zwei, drei, vier, funf . . . and don’t forget Montag, Dienstag, Mittwoch, Donnerstag, Freitag, Sonnabend and Sonntag. (But please don’t ask me the days of the week in Spanish.)
At the start of college, imagining myself a future attorney, well-educated and well-versed in Latin, I took a class for an immersion in that wonderful, essential dead language. I think my final grade was C+, but only because the professor liked me (and likely pitied me). Don’t ask me to count in Latin, though I can still interpret all of the years of the Super Bowls!
In seminary, my Presbyterian brothers and sisters were required to learn both Hebrew and Greek. Not we weak-willed, my-heart-is-strangely-warmed United Methodists! Back in the day, we only had to survive a solitary semester of one ancient language.
I chose Greek.
Today, I can’t count to one in Greek. I’m writing the first draft of this essay on a Friday, which in German is Freitag, but in Biblical Greek, today would be . . . well, I have no idea. Maybe once, near the end of my anguished semester of Greek, I could’ve faked some knowledge—because I passed the course!—but now?
Languages befuddle me. Spanish, German, Latin and Greek were part of my past, but never became a lively part of my present. I’m envious of those who are bilingual, and can’t imagine how anyone understands three or more languages.
In the time of Pentecost, the backwater, can’t-count-to-ten-unless-both-hands-are-available Galileans suddenly spoke many languages. Jesus’ disciples, a rag-tag bunch of ne’er–do–wells and misfits, chatted and chortled in the language of the Parthians, Medes, Elamites and so forth. Acts 2:8-11 listed at least sixteen different locales, with likely different languages, whose citizens all heard the bumbling, spirit-filled disciples speak words they understood.
They weren’t babbling unintelligibly, but conversing in plain English!
Okay, English didn’t make the list, since it didn’t exist then, but by gosh those Phrygians and Mesopotamians sure got an earful. They heard about God’s deeds of power and didn’t need a translator or to pay for an online Rosetta Stone class.
I love the celebration of Pentecost. It’s viewed as the birth of the Christian community. Within the Roman Empire, this band of believers was no more than a single stalk in a thousand acres (or iugeras) of Roman wheat. Pentecost served as the symbolic beginning, the flash of faith; it became hope ablaze, God’s spirit compelling Jesus’ heartbroken followers to emerge as heartfelt leaders.
They prayed and preached . . . and all understood.
Hey, I can barely manage English!
And yet, a voice whispers within . . . don’t take Pentecost so literally. If I can’t speak two or ten languages, if I can’t remember childhood Spanish or ever risk a conversation in Pamphylian, I can still respond to God’s spirit.
Which sometimes, in the spirit of Pentecost, will have nothing to do with furious flame, the wild rush of wind or ancient linguistics.
When I was a hospice chaplain, I visited a woman in her fifties dying of cancer. Among the many assaults on her body, she had a tracheotomy and could not speak. But somehow, we communicated. I’d ask a question or make a comment. She’d nod or shake her head, blink her eyes or raise her eyebrows. She’d frown. And oh how she smiled! I prayed with my eyes open. She prayed with her whole body.
Though it’s been years since our visits, I recall how much she adored her red Mustang, the first new car she bought. As a flight attendant, she’d visited scores of places across the world and had favorite cities and towns she’d never want to see again. She planned her memorial service and was adamant her ashes would nestle in a columbarium above the ocean near her California hometown.
Often we only held hands, silence our companion.
I believe God’s spirit—the mighty deeds of God—joined us and guided us. Always, that was just enough.