אַשׁלמֵתֽ לכֻֽון גֵ֗יר מֵֽן לֻוקדַֽם אַיךֽ מֵדֵ֗ם ד֗קַב֗לֵתֽ משִׁיחֹא מִיתֽ עַל אַפַ֗֯י חטֹ֯הַין אַיכַ֗נֹא דַ֗כֽתִֽיבֽ ודֵֽאתֽקבַֽר וקֹם לַתֽלֹתֹֽא יַומִי֯ן אַיךֽ דַ֗כֽתִֽיבֽ
|About This Sermon|
Rev. Mark Schaefer
Cheltenham United Methodist Church
May 31, 2020—Pentecost Sunday
Acts 2:1–21; John 20:19–23
I’m sorry… I’m being told that people don’t understand Aramaic. That’s a little surprising, don’t you think? I mean, after all Jesus spoke Aramaic and we’re supposed to follow in his example. Should I have not assumed that Christians everywhere understood Jesus’ language perfectly well? Should I have not assumed that Christians were completely in step with Jesus’ teaching in light of its historical, linguistic, cultural, and theological context?
Oh, I see.
Well then, I guess then I’m going to have to translate some this message. Will Greek do? No? Latin? Okay, English, then.
Now, this is a perilous undertaking. People don’t like it when you translate things. They like it when things stay as they are.
When St. Jerome set out to revise the Latin translation of the Bible—now the text called the Vulgate—he did so by translating the Old Testament directly from the Hebrew text rather than from the Greek version. In so doing, his revised translation upset some people because it changed the wording of some of their favorite verses.
In the fourteenth century, English scholar John Wycliffe oversaw the translation of the Bible into English. The translation stirred controversy because now that people could understand the scriptures, many of them began to challenge church doctrine. This led to charges that Wycliffe was a heretic, his writings deemed heretical, and he was removed from his post at Oxford. After he was dead, a church council declared him a heretic, burned all his books, and had his body exhumed and burned, spreading the ashes onto the River Swift.
He was followed by William Tyndale, a gifted linguist and scholar who had long criticized the lack of proper biblical education, even among students of theology:
They have ordained that no man shall look on the Scripture, until he be noselled in heathen learning eight or nine years and armed with false principles, with which he is clean shut out of the understanding of the Scripture.
He also criticized the church’s teaching that only clergy could read and interpret scripture. He famously said, “I defie the Pope and all his lawes. If God spare my life, ere many yeares I wyl cause a boy that driveth the plough to know more of the Scripture, than he doust.”
He produced one of the great translations of the Bible into English, even though he and it were condemned as heretical, and copies of his translations were burned. He was betrayed and handed over to officials of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. He was tried for heresy, strangled at the stake, and then his body was burned.
In spite of that, his legacy was immense and greatly influenced the later English versions that would appear after the Reformation, including King Henry’s “Great Bible” and the King James Version. That version became the text par excellence of English-speaking Christianity that it became hard to dislodge when the need for a more modern, more accurate translation became clear. Even today, there are some fundamentalists who claim that the King James Version is the only English version of the bible that is permissible to use. Say what you will about the KJV, it is the only version with unicorns in it.
The American Standard Version came along in 1901 and made some tweaks to what had become known as the Revised Version of the King James. And then in 1946, the Revised Standard Version from the National Council of Church came along and represented a major revision of this old traditional text. Its stated aims were simply to “preserve all that is best in the English Bible as it has been known and used through the centuries” and “to put the message of the Bible in simple, enduring words that are worthy to stand in the great Tyndale-King James tradition.”
The reaction was not always so kind. Some reacted so hostilely to the new version (especially to its translation of Isaiah 7:14) that they staged public Bible burnings and some members of the editorial board received death threats.
Translation is a risky business, folks.
II. THE TEXT
Which is why it is so fascinating that the very first act of the Holy Spirit in the ancient church, was to translate the gospel. As we heard read to us in a variety of different languages a few minutes ago, it was on the Pentecost, the Jewish Festival of Weeks, marking seven weeks after the Passover, that the eleven disciples and the women and other companions were together in one place in Jerusalem.
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.Acts 2:2–4
So here we have the world’s first speed language course. Faster than Berlitz, Rosetta Stone, and Duolingo. The apostles, the women, and those with them, filled with the Holy Spirit are able to speak in other languages. For those of us who struggle to master the complex verb tenses or noun declension patterns of the languages we have studied, this instant ability to converse in a foreign tongue is enviable. In addition, there is a little wordplay going on in the Greek (and in some of our foreign language texts as well) in this passage where “tongues of fire” of the Spirit become “other tongues” that can now be spoken.
But it is important to note, that the languages the faithful begin to speak are not random—they are the very languages of those who are nearby and can hear them. That is, they have the ability to communicate in the languages of those who are in Jerusalem for the festival, which judging by the list of nationalities in verses 9 through 11 would be at least Parthian, Persian, Elamite, Aramaic, Akkadian, Ugaritic, Greek, Phrygian, Coptic, Latin, and Arabic. The languages necessary to speak to everyone in their own idiom. For people to hear the gospel in their own way.
Now, in the tradition of Luke and Acts, at his ascension ten days before, Jesus had told the disciples to remain in Jerusalem until the Holy Spirit came to them and they received power. He gives no timeline for this, but it makes sense that this should happen on the Pentecost.
See, the Jewish Festival of Weeks, known in Hebrew as שבוע שבעות Shevua Shavuot, commemorates the date when the Torah was revealed to the people Israel. To this day, it is celebrated by staying up all night and studying the Torah.
Seven weeks after the events of the Passover and the Exodus from Egypt, upon the mountain at Horeb, Moses received the law from God. Although the Israelites had a common ancestry and tribal relationships, it is this moment, with the giving of the Torah, that they become the covenant community of Israel.
And so, in the same way, here on the Pentecost, the disciples receive the Holy Spirit and fulfill the words of the prophet Joel who had declared that God would pour out God’s spirit upon “all flesh,” and they become the covenant community of the Church. Christian tradition has long celebrated this day as the birth of the Church and this is why.
The church, then, is born in fulfillment of God’s declaration in 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.Joel 2:28/Acts 2:17
This is such a meaningful vision to me. So much so that I embroidered the words “I will pour out my spirt on all flesh” in Hebrew on the stole I was ordained in.
But it’s more than just beautiful language. It is meaningful to note that the Church is born with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit to the prophetic task. “Your sons and daughters shall prophesy”—the sons and daughters of the Church in Jerusalem do just that: empowered by the Spirit they boldly proclaim the word of God.
But it is also meaningful to note that the Church was born in translation.
What this means is that the Church was born to be prophetic and to translate that prophetic witness into the lives of all who could hear it.
III. TRANSLATING THE GOSPEL INTO CONTEXT
One of the first ways that we do this is by translating context. This has been something that I have cared about for a long time.
See, as a campus minister I was insistent to the point of obnoxious that the work of campus ministry was an essential mission ministry of the church, but that it needed to be translated. That is, you couldn’t just show up on a college campus and do things the way that you did in the local church. For one thing, you had to stay up later, spend a lot more time buying snacks, and understand the particular challenges of emerging adults as they navigated their sense of self, their sense of call, and their place in the world.
It’s the kind of thing our missionaries are good at doing: sharing the gospel in ways that speak to the people their sharing it with. Good missionaries understand that God has already been at work in the places they go to and seek to discern along with those they serve how God has been working. This requires not just the translation of the holy text, but the translation of what it means into the experiences of the people they’re serving.
One of the most meaningful expressions I have experienced of this is the congregation of Cherokee United Methodist Church, who have sought to incorporate traditional Cherokee faith expressions into their worship. As a way of translating the experience of God into the local idiom. And so when you hear the opening prayer read in Cherokee and sing Amazing Grace in Cherokee, you cannot help but feel that God is at work in the translation.
This goes for urban contexts, rural contexts, White, Black, Hispanic, Asian, Native American, you name it. The translating church translates the witness of the historic church into the experience of the people they serve in the context where they are.
IV. TRANSLATING THE GOSPEL’S POWER
But there is another way we as church are called to translate. We’re called to translate the love, grace, mercy, justice, and power of the gospel into people’s lives in ways that matter and are relevant.
Now, relevance is one of those terms that church folks throw around a lot as a way of making sure membership is high. “We want to have relevant worship,” they’ll say, by which they usually mean a contemporary worship service with screens and perhaps nice lighting. Sometimes it means the pastor wears a graphic T-shirt and has tattoos.
But that’s not the kind of relevant that we’re meant to be as we translate the Gospel.
A. Translating to the Crises Before Us
We are not relevant at all if we cannot translate the meaning of the gospel into the challenges that we face as a society today. If we cannot translate the gospel to address questions of systemic injustice, economic injustice, and racial injustice, then we have no relevance whatsoever. Because it is in those crises that so many people are living and if we do not apply the gospel there, we will have failed to speak in the idiom of the people where they are.
If we cannot speak to the murder of George Floyd at the hands of an officer who knelt on his neck for eight minutes as he cried out that he couldn’t breathe and called out “Mama,” all because he was suspected in using a counterfeit $20 bill then we have failed to translate the words of the prophet Ezekiel: “Thus says the Lord God: Enough, O princes of Israel! Put away violence and oppression, and do what is just and right.” (Ezekiel 45:9)
If we cannot speak to the weaponization of white privilege and the police against Christian Cooper, birdwatching in a park, by a white woman who was upset that he’d called her out for not leashing her dog, then we have failed to translate Jesus’ injunction that we must not lord authority and power over one another. (Mark 10:42–44)
If we cannot speak to the fact that people are more upset about Colin Kaepernick kneeling during the national anthem than about the unjust deaths, like that of George Floyd, he was trying to highlight, then we truly have failed to translate Jesus’ teachings on “the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith.” (Matthew 23:23 NRSV)
If we cannot speak to the murder of Ahmaud Arbery while he was out jogging in his own neighborhood, then we have failed to translate Jesus’ command that “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Mark 12:31 NRSV)
If we cannot speak to the murder of churchgoers in Charleston by a white supremacist terrorist and explore the reality of white supremacy and terror, then we have failed to translate the words of Jesus that “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force.” (Matt. 11:12)
If we cannot speak to the ongoing system of white supremacy wherein white protestors are able to enter public buildings heavily armed without consequence but 12-year old Tamir Rice playing with a toy gun gets fatally shot within two seconds of police arriving on the scene, then we have failed to translate Peter’s statement, “For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.” (Acts 2:39 NRSV)
If we cannot speak to systemic injustice that perpetuates discrimination in the enforcement of and punishment for breaking the laws, then we have failed to translate the Leviticus’ injunction that, “You shall have one law for the alien and for the citizen: for I am the Lord your God.” (Leviticus 24:22 NRSV)
If we cannot speak to the long habit in the media and in our national discourse of treating white violent offenders as “lone wolves” with “mental illness” while violent members of minority groups are indicative of the entire group, then we have failed to translate Paul’s admonition that “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28 NRSV)
If we cannot speak to religious leaders who continue to give voice to hate, to promulgate racist ideas, and who confuse loyalty to power with fidelity to God, then we have failed to translate the words of Zephaniah: “Its prophets are reckless, faithless persons; its priests have profaned what is sacred, they have done violence to the law.” (Zephaniah 3:4 NRSV)
If we cannot speak to the ever-growing long list of names of those who have died unjustly on account of their race—Trayvon Martin. Akai Gurley. Eric Garner. Terence Crutcher. Tamir Rice. Mike Brown. Freddie Gray. Philando Castille. Breonna Taylor. Atitiana Jefferson. George Floyd. Alton Sterling. Rekia Boyd. Antonio Martin. Walter Scott. Jamar Clark. Aiyana Jones. Korryn Gaines. Sandra Bland, and on and on—then we have utterly failed to translate the idea that every single human being is “made in the image of God.”
If we have nothing to say about all these and so much more, then we are as out of date as the King James Version and have even more fanciful notions than unicorns.
B. Translating into Action
But even more so, if we cannot translate these statements of the Gospel into meaningful action, then we have failed to do the core of the Gospel command. We have failed to follow in Jesus’ footsteps. We have failed to engage in the imitatio Christi, the imitation of Christ.
Jesus befriended those who were outcasts and marginalized. He included people on the margins in God’s plan of salvation. He exercised mercy for those who were under judgment. And he witnessed to a power greater than that of the Empire, raised the cause of justice, proclaimed the power of the Kingdom of God, even when it was politically dangerous for him to do so, even when it would cost him his life. Are we to be so timid in our own engagement as a church? Are we to fail to translate his life, witness, and passion into meaningful discipleship?
When we’re facing systemic issues of injustice, our feelings and our sympathies are not enough. We must translate our faith into meaningful action. Action that ends our complicity in injustice and that testifies more powerfully to the Kingdom of God and God’s love, grace, and justice than any sermon by a middle-aged white guy ever could.
The Church was born on Pentecost. It was born to prophesy and to translate. Doing so is written into our ecclesial DNA and we ignore our birthright when we fail to do so.
There is one last point to be made. In the passage from Acts it says, “All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages…” All of them. Not just the Apostles. But all of them. All of the believers were empowered for this work. Not just those whose careers would affix a “St.” before their names. Not just the Twelve. Not just the leadership. All of them. This is a reminder that the power of the Spirit and the work of the Church are the inheritance and the responsibility of us all.
Translation remains a risky business, folks. Because if done right, when we translate the gospel into new contexts and into new circumstances—or new iterations of some very old circumstances—we place ourselves firmly on the side of the marginalized, the oppressed, the afflicted, the poor, and the rejected. That’s going to put us at risk.
But we are not alone. That same Holy Spirit that descended upon the Apostles and gave them the power to speak the gospel in the native language of each, that same Holy Spirit that impelled them across the known world to proclaim the good news, that same Holy Spirit that gave them power to speak before councils and kings, that same Holy Spirit that empowered them to witness to the love, grace, justice, and power of God before a powerful and oppressive Empire—that same Holy Spirit goes with us still.
That same Holy Spirit will rest her tongues of fire on us, empowering us to speak into the lives and the experiences of those we serve, and to speak powerfully and prophetically to the present age.
That Spirit gave birth to something powerful all those centuries ago and if we open our hearts to the Spirit’s prompting, something new and powerful can be born again, capable of transforming the very world itself.
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.’”
When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”