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Pentecost & Our Native Tongue

Sermon 349

St. Martin’s 105


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.”

Acts 2:1-21

Losing Your Native Tongue

I came across an article this week entitled, “Can You Lose Your Native Tongue?”[i] The journalist who wrote this piece described growing up with an American mother and a French father. They split up when she was only 3 months old, and so she would speak English with her mom in New York, and French when she visited her dad in France.

The languages were as distinct as her experiences in those two countries until she moved to Paris in 2020 when those distinctions began to meld together in some surprising ways.  

After some time in Paris, she noticed the slower cadence and formality found in the French language began to seep into her English conversations. She would unwittingly have a French accent when she called her mom in New York. Soon some of her American editors were sending back more notes on her articles, as if she was beginning to forget some of the basics of English grammar.

Linguists long assumed that your mother tongue was deep in your bones—like riding a bicycle. But in the past few decades, they have started to use the term “language attrition” to describe the experience of forgetting your first language.

Instead of your native tongue being the foundation upon which you build your vocabulary and learn other languages, scholars now see languages competing against one another for our mental real estate, like siblings fighting for attention.

Studies have shown children between the ages of 3 and 8, who move to a new country with a different language, are highly likely to forget their first language.

Not only that, but those who lose it early in life and then try to relearn it in grade school, are no better than their peers who are learning it for the first time. It’s as if they are starting from square one. When it comes to your mother tongue you gotta use it or you’ll lose it.

Pentecost I’m saying all this because today is Pentecost. This is the watershed moment for the disciples who have been waiting for something that Jesus promised them before he ascended to heaven. And as in all things, Jesus is faithful to his promise. It wasn’t a matter of if something would happen but when.  

So, on the Jewish Feast of Weeks, also known by its Greek name, Pentecost, Jesus’ promise is fulfilled, and a gift is given to the disciples. This Festival commemorated the first fruits of the harvest season, but it also was the celebration of God giving the Law to Moses and the people of Israel.

And so, it seems appropriate on a day when people celebrated one gift from God, that he would give a new gift: this time not only for Israel but for the entire world.  

First the Law and now the Spirit. But the links between the two are eerily similar. The Jewish writer Philo painted a colorful picture of God giving the Law on Mt. Sinai when he wrote, “Then from the midst of the fire that streamed from heaven there sounded forth to their utter amazement a voice, for the flame became the articulate speech in the language familiar to the audience.”[ii]

Fire. A voice. A flame. Articulate speech in a familiar language. Philo was talking about Exodus 24, but he could’ve easily been describing Acts 2.

Does this mean whenever God acts there is fire involved?

Fire may not be the sole indicator of God’s action in the world, but transformation is. For with the Holy Spirit’s descent into the hearts of the disciples, the church has officially been born, and the Missio Dei (the Mission of God) can now continue in and through the Body of Christ, which is the Church.

As one writer put it, “Without the coming of the Spirit there would be no prophecy, no preaching, no mission, no conversions, and no worldwide Christian movement.”[iii] In other words, the Church was stagnant, stuck in a small Upper Room in Jerusalem until a spark would ignite the hearts of Jesus’ followers—transforming them from timid cowards into bold evangelists.

Peter is certainly the prime example of the redemptive and restorative work the Holy Spirit does in the lives of believers. To go from him saying, “I do not know this man,” on Maundy Thursday to “God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses to the fact.”[iv] Now that’s what I call a transformation.

On that first Pentecost, the disciples were experiencing a promise being kept, Jesus told them he’d send an Advocate and a Comforter. But this day also marked a prophecy fulfilled. Habakkuk’s vision that one day the earth would be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea; that was happening.[v]

The world would know of God’s glory now that the Spirit had arrived. Just as the disciples were “filled with the Holy Spirit,” now they would become filled-and-overflowing evangelists for the sake of the gospel. Parthians, Medes, and Elamites would all hear in their mother tongue the saving works God in Christ.

Native Tongue But the gift of language goes even further. What the Holy Spirit did that day and still does today is help us recover our first language. I’m not talking about another human language or speaking in tongues, but the love of God.

If you hear nothing else today this is what I want you to remember: The Holy Spirit helps us recover our first language, which is the love of God.

This native tongue of divine love was forgotten oh, so long ago. Remember what the studies said about our mother tongue? If we don’t use it, we lose it. And we humans lost it. Humanity had become so preoccupied with the languages of pride, greed, lust, and envy that they had forgotten their first language.

But Peter reminds the crowd in Jerusalem of this first gift by telling them that Christ crucified and risen was the purest act of love this world had ever seen. It was through Jesus, and in the power of the Holy Spirit, that we could recover our mother tongue, and love as Christ loved us.

What did Jesus say the two greatest commandments were? Love God with all you got (heart, soul, and mind), and love your neighbor as yourself. The Holy Spirit was the missing link to us relearning this divine language of love.

Switchfoot My favorite band is Switchfoot, and may God have mercy on your soul if you’ve never heard of them. A few years ago, they came out with a song called Native Tongue.

In it they talk about how our heart, our head, and our soul are a long way from our lips, lungs, and native tongue. In the chorus, they sing:

My friend, where did we go wrong? My Lord, we forgot our song My soul, such a long way from My lips, my lungs, my native tongue …Love’s the language, love’s your native tongue

It ends with:

I want the world to sing in her native tongue Maybe we could learn to sing along To find a way to use our lungs for love and not the shadows

Love truly is our native tongue, and though we forgot our song, the Holy Spirit helps us recover it. It is a gift for us, but it is a gift to be shared. Because we are loved, we are then sent out to love by the power of the Spirit.

This reminds me of a story told by Thomas Laqueur who grew up speaking German at home in West Virginia. Because the rest of his life at school, with friends, was all in English, Thomas thought German was a secret family language.

One day, he and his brother were arguing over a Popsicle in front of their neighborhood grocery store, and as he recounts:

“A lady came up to us and said, in German, that she would give us a nickel so that we could each have a treat of our own. I don’t remember buying a second Popsicle, but I do remember being very excited at finding someone else of our linguistic species. I rushed home with the big news.”[vi]

We Christians are of the same “linguistic species” because we share the divine language of love.

The Big News that God has raised Jesus from the dead, and he had ascended to the right hand of the Father, was not a secret to be kept “within the family” of his followers, nor was it to stay within the house of Israel; instead, it was to be rushed out from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth.

And it was for all people, of all cultures and languages who would be united by the one Spirit, members of the One Body of Christ.

As Paul said in 1st Corinthians, “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.”[vii]

The article at the beginning of the sermon may have been right; live long enough in a faraway land and you very well may lose your mother tongue. But for followers of Jesus, like you and me, we have been given a gift, the very Spirit of God who constantly reminds us—and calls us—back to our native tongue. Love’s the language, love’s your native tongue.

[i] New York Times May 14, 2024. “Can You Lose Your Native Tongue” by Madeleine Schwartz.

[ii] The Acts of the Apostles. Ben Witherington III, 131.

[iii] The Acts of the Apostles. Ben Witherington III, 130.

[iv] Acts 2:32, NIV

[v] (Hab 2:14)

[vi] Quoted in the New York Times article. Original story from Julie Sedivy’s Memory Speaks.

[vii] 1 Corinthians 12:12-13, NRSVUE

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

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