I invite us to take just a moment to reflect on the words of Jesus that he spoke to Philip and the disciples…
אֵן רֹחמִין אנ֖תֻ֗ון לִי פֻ֗וקדֹ֗נַ֯י טַרו
וֵאנֹא אֵבֽעֵא מֵֽן אֹבֽי וַא֖חרִנֹא פַ֗רַקלִטֹא נֵתֵ֗ל לכֻֽון ד֗נֵהוֵא עַמכֻֽון לעֹלַם
I’m sorry, do you not all speak Aramaic? That’s curious. I was told this was a pretty well educated congregation.
Okay, fine. I’ll use a translation. Okay, once more, the words of Jesus…
Ἐὰν ἀγαπᾶτέ με, τὰς ἐντολὰς τὰς ἐμὰς τηρήσετε· κἀγὼ ἐρωτήσω τὸν πατέρα καὶ ἄλλον παράκλητον δώσει ὑμῖν, ἵνα μεθ᾿ ὑμῶν εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα ᾖ,
Not even Greek?
Well, that curious. Jesus didn’t speak English. Jesus spoke Aramaic. And the New Testament wasn’t written in English, it was written in Greek. Seems awfully odd not to quote Jesus in the language he was actually talking in. Seems to me that if Aramaic was good enough for Jesus…
Well, of course, we know that idea to be absurd. Today is, after all, Pentecost, a holiday on which we commemorate the birthday of the church, the descent of the Holy Spirit on the apostles, and their first mass conversion—a few verses after the excerpt we read earlier, we are told that some three thousand people were baptized that Pentecost Sunday.
Three thousand people, among whom were pilgrims to Jerusalem who had come from every corner of the Roman world: Parthia, Medea, Elam, Mesopotamia, Judea, Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt, Cyrene, Rome, Crete, and Arabia. And they heard the apostles’ proclamation not in the Galilean flavored Aramaic of the apostles, but in Persian, Akkadian, Greek, Phoenician, Latin, and Arabic, among others.
Through the power of the Holy Spirit, the church was launched in translation. From the very beginning, the gospel is rendered into a language that the people can understand. Each heard it in their own language. And translating it into the local language has been an important part of Christian witness from the very beginning.
I mean, other than that centuries-long period where worship in the Western church took place entirely in Latin, Christians know better than to try to proclaim the Christian message in anything other than the language that people understand. Or do we?
II. TRANSLATING INTO ORDINARY LANGUAGE
For example, we in the church in this time and place may speak in English, but not necessarily in an English that anyone understands. Let me give you some examples.
When was the last time you heard anyone outside the church or outside of a church context use the word “fellowship”? Oh, perhaps in an academic context, when someone has just been awarded a fellowship that usually comes with some kind of cash prize. But beyond that, I can tell you the only time you’ll hear that word outside of church: when someone is talking about The Fellowship of the Ring from The Lord of the Rings. Do we ever consider that when telling people that we have “fellowship” after services? Or invite people to the “fellowship hall”? We speak in jargon so much that we have no idea that it is jargon. And then we wonder why people are not quickly drawn to what we do.
Consider this, too: where else in your experience is a conference a geographical term? To outsiders, our talk of the boundaries of the annual conference sounds as bizarre as someone saying that their yearly meeting occupies most of Maryland, the District, and parts of West Virginia.
This is to say nothing of words like narthex, chancel, nave, lectionary, sacristy, and vestry. “Hey Dave, great to see you. Is this your first time in our conference? I’d love to take you to fellowship after services. Meet me in the narthex!” That is all ostensibly in English, but it is a kind of English only understood by people who are already on the inside.
And then when we invite people to stewardship, or discipleship, or covenant community. The ordinary life of the church frequently takes place in a language that most people do not speak.
And our theology is just as fraught with difficulty. Have you ever heard anywhere the word Triune? We also use the word Wesleyan a lot without explaining who Wesley was and why it matters. (This one may just because it’s painful for Methodists to imagine that anyone could not know who John Wesley was). And that’s not even getting to prevenient, justifying, and sanctifying grace.
And then there’s salvation. When we talk about a saving experience of Christ, do we bother to consider that most people will have no idea what we’re talking about? Telling people “Jesus saves!” frequently results in mystified expressions. From what? Eternal hellfire and damnation? But what if the person you’re talking to doesn’t feel that that’s a pressing concern? What if our talk about salvation itself sounds vaguely archaic and out of touch?
III. TRANSLATING OUTWARD
And this is where we run into even bigger problems. It’s not just our language that needs translating. It’s our experience.
And some of the best evidence for this is right in front of us: church signs. Church signs are awful.
I don’t mean the one out front here; that’s very nice. You know the ones I mean. The ones with the movable letters. If you don’t happen to live near a church with one of those signs, there are plenty of examples online to browse. Now, for those of you who think I’m being harsh in my appraisal, let me read you some examples of church sign wisdom.
First there’s the corny: “Having Truth Decay? Brush up on your Bible.” “The economy is down but Jesus is still on the rise.” “Sign Broke; Message Inside” “Best vitamin for a Christian is B1”
Then there’s the bad theology: “Read the Bible; it will scare the hell out of you” “If you think it’s hot now…” “I’m also making a list and checking it twice – God.”
And the shameful attempts to be hip: “Friend request from Jesus: Confirm/Ignore?” “God always answers ‘knee’ mail” “Check out God’s MySpace: The Bible”
I’ve seen a lot of these kinds of signs traveling the country and they have helped me to understand very clearly why the church is struggling in membership.
Whenever I see such a sign, I think to myself, has any of these signs resulted in a single convert? Has a single person ever looked at one of those signs, especially the ones that threaten hell or the ones that shame you (“Christmas comes once a year, how often do you?”) and ever thought to themselves ‘Now that’s something I want to be a part of’?
These signs are symptomatic of a deeper crisis in the church of how we share our message. Of how we fail to translate that message.
The big problem with the way we do church isn’t so much that it’s inartful (as these signs are), it’s that it’s inward. That is, the reason that the church gets a lot of mileage out of corny signs and clumsy appeals to pop culture is that those things seem to appeal to people who are already involved in church. The problem isn’t that we have a bad or corny sense of humor. Half of the jokes every dad in the world makes are similarly corny and we appreciate that corniness on a level of deep affection. The problem is that we don’t realize just how insider oriented these appeals are.
When I was a law student, I remember standing around at one law school gathering with a bunch of folks and everyone was making really bad law student jokes. The kind of jokes that only a law student would find funny. And even at one point, one of the guys said, “Ah yeah—law school humor.” And we all laughed because we knew it was ridiculous. And that kind of humor is fine in those contexts. My pastoral interns and I make all kinds of obscure theological reference jokes with each other. And we’re convinced we’re hilarious. But we know that no one else without having studied theology would ever think so.
No the problem is not the humor. It’s that there is no attempt being made to consider whether the people we are hoping to draw in with such tactics will respond to them. We use insider language, insider ideas, insider thinking when trying to reach out to outsiders. Often without any realization—as my law school classmates had—that no one on the outside would find this appealing. So much of our faith goes untranslated. Consider the following.
- In teaching a summer course in New Testament, I asked my students why study of the New Testament was important. One of them quoted 1 Timothy about the scriptures being the inspired word of God. I asked my students if there was any problem with that statement as far as they could tell. It did not occur to any of them that Christians making appeals to their scriptures in conversations with outsiders only works with people who already accept the authority of the scriptures. If I don’t believe in the Christian faith, you telling me that the Bible is inspired because, well, the Bible says so, is utterly unconvincing. Christians would be unimpressed if someone tried to persuade them to a course of action using the Bhagavad Gita of Hinduism, and yet we act like the truth and the authority of our scriptures are self-evident. And it is. To us on the inside. But there’s no reason that someone on the outside should find that convincing.
- Or this: Christians will often refer to those who are not inside the church as “seekers”—as if we have what they’re seeking and all we have to do is let them know it’s here. And so a lot of those church signs seem to address this perceived need of the outsider: “Life without God is like an unsharpened pencil—no point.” “Stop Drop and Roll Doesn’t Work in Hell”. “Wal-Mart is not the only saving place.” “Call 911: This church is on fire for God!” But we don’t stop to consider that there may be people out there who are not necessarily troubled by the notion of hell (or don’t believe in it). Or who don’t necessarily think about questions of deliverance. Or who don’t necessarily long to be “on fire” for anything. Christopher Hitchens, the noted and famous atheist writer, chafed at the idea that his religious friends could never accept the fact that he was not in fact looking for a religious experience. He scoffed that he was, as his friends would describe him, a “seeker”.
IV. TRANSLATING INTO ORDINARY EXPERIENCE
So, we’re good at translating the Gospel from ancient languages into the vernacular of the age, but not necessarily into the same vernacular of people outside the church. And we’re not very good at translating the experiences of the Gospel into experiences outside the church.
Which is a shame, because some of our most successful outreach efforts did exactly that.
St. Paul understood how to do this, it was his whole modus operandi. He said that “To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law. 21 To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law) so that I might win those outside the law.” (1Cor. 9: 20-21).
Paul understood that in order to preach Christian faith to those who had not heard, it had to make it sensible in ways that people could understand. And this meant that he had to explain Christian faith to his fellow Jews in a Jewish way. He had to explain it to the Torah observant in ways that made sense to them, and so on.
Paul was a master at meeting people where they were. Of understanding the different ways necessary to proclaim the gospel. Of translating the experience. He was the consummate missionary.
It was a lesson that the famous Methodist missionary E. Stanley Jones came to understand the hard way. After failed attempts to Christianize India, he realized that the answer was in listening to the Indian people, to discover where it was Christ was already present and how to help them to see Christ in their context. It was a revelation that revolutionized modern missionary work.
In our own way, campus ministries try to do this. Like any good missionaries we learn the language. We all speak ‘young adult’. Well, a dialect of ‘young adult’ anyway, called ‘college.’ There are other dialects called ‘twentysomething’ and ‘thirtysomething’. We have to be familiar with all manner of terms like throwing shade, tl;dr, FOMO, and so on.
But far beyond the language requirements, like any missionaries, we have to understand the contexts of the communities we find ourselves in. We have to be able to translate the gospel to the college context.
When we seek to make Christian faith intelligible to people in diverse places, we will find that we will serve them best when we, like Paul, like E. Stanley Jones, meet the people where they are. When we speak to them “in their own language.”
So, here we are on Pentecost Sunday. The Sunday we celebrate the birthday of the church, the alighting of the Holy Spirit upon the apostles, and the beginning of the great mission into Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and all the world. A mission that began with translating the gospel into the language of the people being reached. So that they might hear a word of grace in their own language.
That task remains before us. Jesus promised us that he would send us an Advocate, who would be with us forever. This Advocate, the Holy Spirit, continues to drive us toward this sacred task. And this same Holy Spirit, if we are open to the Spirit’s presence, will continue to give us the ability to speak to people in their own language.
There may be people who don’t know what salvation is; but they understand the need to be rescued from the brokenness of their world, or their own lives. They understand what it means to be sick and in need of healing. When speak to that need, we embody that same Spirit that worked through the Apostles.
They may not know what redemption is, but they know the feeling of being in deep trouble and needing to be bailed out. When we help them to understand that the Gospel speaks to that very real world need, we embody that same Spirit that worked through the Apostles.
They may not know theologies of atonement or understand just how a crucifixion works, but they know the experience of the innocent suffering at the hands of the principalities and powers of the world. When we speak of the hope for the marginalized, the oppressed, and the victimized, the trampled down by the system, we embody that same Spirit that worked through the Apostles.
They may not understand the word fellowship, but they know loneliness and the need for genuine human relationships. When we share with them a gospel of welcome and inclusion, of community and love, we embody that same Spirit that worked through the Apostles.
They may not understand the concept of divine grace, but they know what it’s like to feel left out, unworthy, unloved. When we witness to a community of welcome for all people, regardless of race, sex, gender, orientation, ability, class, age, and regardless of perceived faults, we embody that same Spirit that worked through the Apostles.
This takes a little work. It requires us to step outside of our comfort zones, to be critical of our own presumptions and habits, to be aware of our own jargons, our own conventions that we’ve come to assume are normative. But then again, doing the work of the Gospel never is easy. But it is what we are commanded to do and just as Jesus said: Ein rohmin antun li, puqdonai Taru…: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.”
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”
But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: ‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’
Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” Jesus 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’? Do 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. Believe 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. Very 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. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.
“If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This 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.”
 Christopher Hitchens, god is not Great.