Saturday, 8 June 2019

In Other Tongues

"In the beginning was the Word", says St John. And the Word was both with God, and was God. That's how powerful words are - that God's son is the ultimate Word.

Because words are so natural, so normal, so everyday we forget how powerful they are. Using words, I can tell someone what I would like to eat. Can tell someone where the station is. Or scream for help if I've fallen off a cliff. I can use words to describe something to someone else who's never seen it. I can use words to tell you how I burn my hand on the mocha pot earlier. I don't need to burn it again to explain. If I want to tell you about fire, I don't need to set fire to your curtains. It's when someone's language is limited that we realise just how powerful it is. When a child is learning a new concept. Or someone after a stroke is struggling to find the words they do know to explain something they once knew.

In the Tower of Babel, God says - given how bad for each other people are - imagine how much trouble they'd be if everyone could communicate freely. And it's got to be said, Twitter and Facebook suggest God had a point.

 So words are not just powerful for good. They're a source of hurt and division. We can use people's languages and accents to try and put people - literally - in their places. George Bernard Shaw said that "it is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him. " Given my accent - a typical Bedfordshire combination of East of England and pre-war Cockney - people can have trouble pinning me down. Most people from elsewhere assume we're just Londoners. Someone once accused me of being from Norfolk. But one person was so much more specific "are you from Bozeat?" I mean. Why Bozeat?

The way we talk - the words we use, the language we speak, the accent, the dialect words - they give us identity. We don't just express ourselves in words, we define ourselves.

And so the gift of tongues is given at Pentecost. But firstly - the disciples are filled with the Holy Spirit. Peter goes on to tell us this is the fulfilment of the prophecy of Job. In the old days, the Spirit was only given to certain to people - to the prophets, to David, to Moses, to Saul pretty much by mistake. But now, says Peter, he's available to everyone.

And when Peter says everyone, that's what he means. "Even on God's servants, both men and women". The old and the young, and - incredibly - all nations.

So the disciples praise God in other languages, and all the people gathered hear them in their native languages. God has reclaimed the power of language, reversed the curse of Babel, and opened up God's love to everyone.

Remember how, when Jesus died, the veil of the Holy of Holies was torn? This was God saying that the perfect sacrifice was made for everyone. And now, in the Spirit's power, God's love is poured out on everyone. The priesthood isn't just for the people born into it, it's for all people. We can all come close to God.

So there is - as Paul tells us later in Romans - no Greek or Jew. No slave or free. No male or female. And I'd personally add, no gay or straight. Everyone is God's child. There's no barriers to God's love, no special language, no right set of genital equipment, no class, no race, nor right age that makes you further from God or any closer.

I worry. My whole lifetime - and I know I've had a relatively privileged lifetime - the world has seemed to become more open. The Soviet Bloc which was such a menace when I was a child fell, bringing the Berlin Wall with it. The European Union opened borders in a way we had not known in centuries. People travelled quite freely over large parts of the world.  We saw increased respect and equality between men and women, between races.

And now it's closing in. The language of the hatred of immigrants, of people of colour, of Jews - from Britain to Austria to the USA - has hardened. People shout abuse at each other on Social Media. A young gay couple is attacked and robbed on a bus in London, just for being gay.

But I do believe God is always leading us the other way - to light the fires of Pentecost, to be open to people not like us, not near us. To believe that at the end - and Pentecost is the beginning of that end - the tree of life will be for the healing of all nations, and God will make us all one.

God's Word made the world. And God's words in the story of Pentecost are a song of freedom and love. God's love flows like fire, pours down like rain, blows away cobwebs like the wind and hovers like a dove. It makes all things new, and all things good.


  1. Well said. Blessings to you, particularly at Pentecost

  2. Well said Archdruid, thank you

  3. Thanks for this post, it has given me a few things to think about (no mean feat).


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