8Philip said to [Jesus,] “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” 9Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? 10Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. 11Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. 12Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. 13I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. 14If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.
15“If you love me, you will keep my commandments. 16And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. 17This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.”
A few years ago, I had the opportunity to spend time in Tanzania, visiting the Lutheran church based in Arusha right at the tip of Lake Victoria. In Tanzania, as in many countries in Africa, children growing up in villages first learn the language of their tribe, the language spoken by the people they live with every day. If their parents came from different villages, they may learn two languages from the time they learn to speak.
Once they start school, they begin to learn Swahili, if they haven’t already learned it at home. And they not only learn Swahili, they learn IN Swahili. Swahili is the language that bridges all villages in Tanzania, the language that all Tanzanians learn to speak if they are going to communicate with people beyond their village. By the time a child is 10 or so, they already know at least two languages.
For those fortunate enough to have the opportunity to go on to high school, English becomes the language of instruction. Many students board at school, because their villages are simply too far to travel every day, and from the time they wake up to the time they go to sleep, students are encouraged and rewarded for speaking English at all times, so they become as proficient as possible. English is the language that bridges Tanzania to other African countries, and the world at large. By the time they are 18, Tanzanians who have gone to high school and have a capacity for languages are trilingual.
As we travelled, we visited a music conservatory, a university of sorts that focused on music. Our guide and translator translated some of the songs, but not all, and after the concert, she explained why. Some of the songs were in Swahili, which of course she knew well. One of the songs was in a tribal language she had grown up with. And the rest were in languages she didn’t know, and couldn’t translate. She explained that many of the people, as they add language to language as they grow older, become immersed in Swahili and English, and often will lose some of their tribal language along the way. And as they lose the nuances of their tribal language, they also lose the music that is unique to their language, their culture. You lose your language, and you lose your culture.
In today’s reading from Acts, we enter a scene that, like the big cities of Tanzania, includes people from many different places, speaking many different languages. They may have had language in common, as the Tanzanian people do, but finding someone in Jerusalem who speaks YOUR language—the language you grew up with, the language of YOUR people—was probably very rare. You lose your language, you lose your culture.
And then, the Holy Spirit comes in. The apostles had been told—Jesus had said the Spirit would come to them and teach them all they needed to know—but I would guess that what happened was not at all how they might have pictured it. The wind blows. The flames appear. They are all touched by the Holy Spirit’s inspiration. And, suddenly, all of those people from far off lands heard something they may not have heard for a long time: the apostles came out of the room, began to preach, and everyone heard them speaking THEIR LANGUAGE. The language of their lullabies. The language of their parents. The language of their prayers. The language of their hearts.
When we went to worship in Arusha, it was in Swahili, and although we didn’t know it, the service was familiar enough that, for the most part, we had a pretty good idea of what was happening. There was much, though, that we didn’t understand. We knew they were reading from the Bible, but what passage? Prayers were being offered, but what for? What was the pastor saying, as he preached? Fortunately for us, our two guides were there, like modern day apostles, to bridge the gap. One of them wrote notes on scraps of paper, summarizing what was happening—she would write a sentence, and pass it down our pew. Write another sentence, and pass it down. Another sentence, pass it down. Over and over, for the entire service. Our other guide was not so subtle—for those close enough to hear her, she just translated out loud what was being said. Everyone, they thought, should hear what was happening in their own language.
The story of Pentecost shows us that God agrees! The people gathered to hear the word of God didn’t magically learn a new language, or hear the apostles speaking just any language. They heard the promise of God in their language, the language of their heart. And the Spirit empowered the apostles to speak in languages they didn’t even know, so that could happen. Once again, the word of God meets us right where we are, speaking to us in the language of our hearts. And we are sent to meet others where they are, empowered to share the boundless love of God, in the language of their hearts.
The love of God is not limited to any particular language, or gender, or age, or social status, or culture, or place, or time. God’s Spirit flows through and in all of us, and as we hear in Acts today, it can sometimes look so different from what we expect that we don’t believe it at first glance. The Spirit blows into every corner, comforting and guiding and healing and inspiring each of us, as individuals, and all of us, as a community. Open the doors and windows, because here she