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Lost and Found in Translation

May 13, 2016

As a child growing up, the second chapter of Acts was confusing to me. The image of “divided tongues as of fire” resting on congregants who were speaking to one another in different languages all at once (and understanding each other!) during worship (Acts 2:3) was very different from my traditional liturgical worship experience.  Even in Mrs. Micelli’s 7th grade Introduction to Languages class, where we were introduced to many languages over the course of a year, beginning with Greek and Latin, we only spoke one language at a time.

Acts 2 is more understandable today, when we have apps for our mobile devices to help us translate languages around the world. You can point your iPhone at a sign or text on a page, and the translation appears instantly.

Is it any surprise that God had the translation algorithms centuries before Google did?

Language emerges as a key theme in this week’s scripture lessons[1] as we see how God uses language to shepherd us.

Genesis: Lost in Pride—Language used to discipline—Speaking at each other

In the Old Testament reading, we learn that people built a tower to their greatness—to show how god-like they were. They were lost in their pride. They all spoke one language, but God introduced many different languages so that they couldn’t understand each other. They babbled at each other. God used language as a disciplinary tool to whip them back into shape: “Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, so that they may not understand one another’s speech.” (Genesis 11:7). It was a deflating experience for them to realize that they didn’t know everything. As our loving Father, God knows that we occasionally need be taken down a notch or two when we get too big for our britches.

John: God speaking directly to the people

These things I have spoken to you while I am still with you. But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you” (John 14: 25-26). In the hours before he was crucified, Jesus gave his disciples a course on the Holy Spirit. He assured them that while he was leaving them, another would come and continue to guide and shepherd them.

Acts: Found in Unity—Language used to unify—Speaking to each other

Pentecost (also called the Feast of Weeks) was held 50 days after Passover. It was one of the three major feasts—for harvested crops. Jesus was crucified at Passover time, ascended into heaven 40 days later, and 10 days later, at Pentecost, Jews gathered from all over to celebrate this feast.

In the second reading, we see that on the first Pentecost of the new church the people were “filled with the Holy Spirit” and understood each other in their own languages. Here, God used different languages to unify the first Christians.

Dr. Creasy points out that Pentecost 32 AD was the birth of the church under grace; God sent the Holy Spirit to help guide us in our faith journey. Peter’s speech was given to an international crowd, where 3,000 people were converted to Christianity (Acts 2:40-43). It is a direct literary parallel to 1446 BC, the birth of the church under the law, when 3,000 people died (Exodus 32:28).

People of all cultures and languages came together on that first Pentecost marking the birth of the church under grace, and they could understand each other in their own languages. It would be like holding up an iPhone and having the speech instantly translated—but better. They understood each other telepathically. Understanding one another in our own languages pulls us together. It unifies us. We are each a unique part of the body of Christ.

The folks described in the Old Testament reading were sorely mistaken in their belief that they could do anything by themselves without concern for God.   In her devotional, Jesus Calling, Sarah Young, speaking in Jesus’ voice, says “Although self-sufficiency is acclaimed in the world, reliance on Me produces abundant living in My kingdom. Thank me for the difficulties in your life since they provide protection from the idolatry of self-reliance.” (p.137). In the second lesson, we see people from different cultures and geographical locations working together in unity of purpose according to God’s plan.

These scriptures teach us that when we use our unique gifts and talents in reliance on God and in unity with God’s plan, the Holy Spirit will shepherd us along, and will bless those efforts.

Diane Cieslikowski Reagan




[1] The Scriptures for the Day of Pentecost are Psalm 143; Genesis 11:1-9; Acts 2:1-21; John 14:23-31.


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