The kingdom tongue

Luke paints a big picture on a big canvas, a map of the world with Jerusalem at the center. Jesus, risen from the dead, had told the disciples, “Stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.” They had no idea what exactly they were waiting for and what it would feel like to walk around dressed in power and what sort of power it would be. But devoting themselves to prayer, they waited.

And then it happened. It started with a sound like the rush of a violent wind that filled the entire house, and then it burst into tongues like firy flames, one resting on each of them, and all of them began to speak in languages none of them had ever learned, and the house could not contain all that. A crowd gathered and they were bewildered, because each heard them speaking in their own native language.

At this point, Luke adds a list dreaded by most when called upon to read Scripture in worship on Pentecost. We know how to say Egypt and Libya without a question mark at the end of each syllable, but the rest are like me trying to pronounce the names of Welsh hymn tunes or Icelandic volcanoes—my tongue just goes stumbling.

But the challenge here is not just a matter of pronunciation. The world’s finest New Testament scholars wrestle with what to make of the nations listed here. Jacob Myers writes about “Luke’s wonky list of Pentecost observers gathered in Jerusalem – a motley patchwork of Elamites, Cretans, and Arabs sewn together with folks from Egypt, Lybia, and Rome!”[i]

Elamites? The Elamites had been nearly wiped out by the Assyrians in 640 B.C.E., and the Medes had been extinct as a distinct ethnic group for over five-hundred years! What are Elamites and Medes doing in 1st-century Jerusalem?

We can’t ask Luke, but we can look for hints. In the first chapter of Acts, the disciples asked the risen Jesus, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” Their deepest hope was long-held and concrete, God’s Messiah would restore the kingdom to Israel; the only open question was when this would take place. But the outpouring of the Holy Spirit expanded their vision far beyond what they could imagine. God’s redemptive work would extend not only to the ends of the earth in geographical terms, or from Pentecost into the future in historical terms, but also into the past to include Elamites and Medes and every tribe and nation under heaven.

“Whoa, preacher, easy now,” some of you might be thinking. “The part about being witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth – that we can see, that we can trace on our maps, and the spread of the good news into Asia and Africa, Europe, the Americas and Australia, that we can follow – but Elamites? I don’t know, preacher, are you sure it was only coffee you were sipping this morning? We hear words like bewildered, amazed, and perplexed in this story, and they capture well how we feel, we’re baffled.”

No wonder some of the observers in Jerusalem concluded the disciples were drunk. But Peter said they weren’t. “It’s only nine o’clock in the morning,” he said, as though inebriation followed a schedule — not exactly what you and I would call a strong point. But then he started reciting the bold prophecy with Joel’s name on it. In the last days God’s Spirit would be poured out upon all flesh – not just some people, note just male people or church people, but all people – male and female, young and old, slave and free. All would see as prophets see, and tell as prophets tell, and the dreams of all would be given voice. God’s Spirit would blow across all borders, through any of our boundaries defined by ethnicity, culture, status, and language to bring us together in unity.

Pentecost was the eruption of God’s vision for humanity: it was resurrection writ large, all of creation transformed, all things made new, even the past. Those first disciples were indeed drunk, not with wine, but with life and the promise that it would be whole and one. The church wears red on Pentecost, because the passion, the fire and light of the Holy Spirit is loose in the world, claiming us as Christ’s own, empowering us to live and proclaim that vision of a world at peace.

In 1492, as in any time and season when the church has sought to live inspired and empowered by the Spirit of God, other visions reigned. Christopher Columbus was on his way West to the lands beyond the ocean, when in Salamanca, Spain, a scholar by the name of Antonio de Nebrija presented to Queen Isabella his latest book. Gramática de la lengua castellana (Grammar of the Castilian Language) was the first textbook of what would become known as Spanish. Nebrija had already written a grammar of Latin, the language of the church, of the law, and of scholarly treatises, but this was a grammar of the ordinary language spoken in fields and markets, in homes and on the streets.

When the book was presented to Isabella, she questioned what the merit of such a work might be; Fray Hernando de Talavera, bishop of Avila, answered for the author in prophetic words, as Nebrija himself recalls in a letter addressed to the monarch:

After Your Highness has subjected barbarous peoples and nations of varied tongues, with conquest will come the need for them to accept the laws that the conqueror imposes on the conquered, and among them our language.[ii]

In his dedication Nebrija wrote to Isabella that language was “the instrument of empire” and suggested that his grammar would prove useful as [her Highness] conquered peoples who spoke languages other than Castilian.[iii]

“I have found one conclusion to be very true,” he wrote, “that language always accompanies empire.”[iv] Wherever the conquerors landed, the natives had to learn the imperial tongue – be it Spanish, Portuguese, French, Dutch, English, Italian or German. But on Pentecost, a very different vision and reality erupted in the world.

Amazed and astonished, people asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? … In our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.”

In the kingdom of God, there is no imperial tongue. In the kingdom of God, differences of culture and language are not violated and eliminated under mandatory sameness, but affirmed and honored. The Holy Spirit, free and uncontrollable, allows all of us to hear and become the good news of God. The Holy Spirit sanctifies our differences in a kingdom culture that affirms who we are and celebrates where we have come from and glorifies God in every tongue and every ear.

Amazed and astonished, we wonder, “How can this be? What is drawing us together in this miracle of community? What explanations can we stammer when all we know is that it is not our doing?” Jesus told the apostles to stay in the city and wait until they had been clothed with power from on high. And clothed they were along with all who heard them. All they could say was, it didn’t begin with us; something, someone got a hold of us in ways that didn’t violate who we were and allowed us to see a world where all of us can be who we are and yet be together. It was, and continues to be, God’s initiative, God’s mission, with us as the body of Christ in the world, for the sake of the world and life’s wholeness.

During his final meal with the disciples, Jesus said to them, according to John, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”

He had told them he would go away, but that he wouldn’t leave them orphaned like abandoned children, and that we would come to them.

Where Luke describes the drama of Pentecost with stunning visuals and spectacular sound, John presents a quiet scene of profound intimacy, defined entirely by the words of Jesus.

“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”

The next day he was crucified, and their hearts were troubled. And on the third day, the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene came back from the tomb and told them, “I have seen the Lord.” They didn’t know what to make of her words. And that evening — they were together, hiding behind closed doors for fear that the darkness they saw all around might overcome the little light of love Jesus had lit in their hearts — that evening Jesus came and stood among them, and he said, “Peace be with you.”

And their hearts were no longer troubled, and their fear was driven out by the love they remembered and experienced anew in the presence of Jesus, risen from the dead.

“Peace be with you,” he said. “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”

The world’s hostility did not keep Jesus from embracing it in love, and that evening he sent his friends to continue his mission.

As those who witness to the love of God in Jesus, we will experience the world’s hostility, and not just in others, but in our own resistance to the demands of his love. Jesus was the divine Word embodied in human flesh and blood, and on the evening of that first day he sent us to make him known in the same way: not as conquerors, but as a community in whose life and ministry the world would continue to encounter his presence and peace. In our life together, in our small and bold commitments to love each other well, the world would continue to meet the God whose love knows no end.

“How can this be? How can we be the living proclamation of life in communion with God, we who struggle daily with our failure to love God and neighbor? What is drawing us together in this miracle of community?” It can only be because we are participating in God’s loving movement into the world. It can only be because we aren’t being sent by some far-away monarch who resides in his castle beyond the clouds, but by the God who desires to be at home in the world – for the sake of the world and life’s wholeness. It can only be because Jesus, that night, breathed on his friends and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” There was no sound like the rush of a violent wind, there were no divided tongues, as of fire, only Jesus breathing out peace and new life, and his friends breathing in — and out, clothed with power from on high.


[i] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1296

[ii] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gram%C3%A1tica_de_la_lengua_castellana

[iii] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antonio_de_Nebrija

[iv] Isaac S. Villegas https://www.christiancentury.org/blog-post/sundays-coming/unconverted-difference-acts-21-21

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