With many cell phones having cameras and the ubiquitousness of social media, we live in a culture where any one of us can be recorded anytime and anywhere. One of the cell phone videos gone viral this week captured a New York attorney berating an employee at a deli for not speaking English. You can hear the man questioning the person’s immigration status and threatening to call ICE, the federal agency for immigration and customs enforcement.
Seeing the video brought to mind other recent instances of suspicion towards different languages: a young man pulled off an airplane after speaking Arabic into his cell phone before departure, and young women wearing hijabs removed from their flight for reading Arabic. I’m hearing with increasing regularity: “Why can’t they just speak English? This is America.”
An intolerance for hearing people speak in other languages has really struck me this week in considering the story of Pentecost in Acts 2. Jesus has ascended, and the disciples are all together in Jerusalem. Jesus’ last words to them were to wait there together for the gift of the Holy Spirit that would empower them to be his witnesses to the ends of the earth. I wonder what they imagined over those ten days about what the gift of the Spirit would look like or enable them to do.
Then, all of a sudden, it happens. A sound like a rushing wind fills the room. Something like tongues of fire appear above their heads. And when they open their mouths, words come out they’ve never spoken before. The house is filled with the sounds of many languages.
The gift of the Holy Spirit in Acts is that in an instant, the disciples are made multilingual. They can now speak about Jesus - all that he said and all that he did to anyone they encounter, no matter their country of origin. This gift of being multilingual is exactly what an illiterate, uneducated band of fishermen would need to share the good news with all the earth. The disciples are equipped to reach people who weren’t born where they were born, or live where they live. They have what they need to reach people who aren’t like them.
In a time when xenophobia - the fear of strangers - seems to be on the rise, it is striking that the very first gift to the church is a miraculous ability to speak to strangers. In a time when some of our elected leaders speak in derogatory terms about those who are foreign born or have different colored skin, it is striking that the Spirit has equipped them to go out beyond the known and familiar to foreign lands.
Consider for a moment that God could have reversed the miracle - made everyone monolingual, fluent in Aramaic, the native language of the disciples. But that God chose the gift of many languages shows God’s delight and intention for human differences.
In July I’ll head to Austin for the Episcopal Church’s General Convention. This is our governing body made up of our bishops and elected representatives from 109 dioceses across 17 countries. One of my favorite parts of our triennial gathering is daily Eucharist. The worship is crafted with intention and care for our international composition, so we hear scripture read and sing hymns in different languages. When it comes time to pray the Lord’s Prayer, the Celebrant always invites the people to pray in the language of their birth. As I hear people praying in dozens of different languages simultaneously, a passage from Revelation 7 comes to mind. It is a vision of heaven, where saints from every tribe, language, people and nation are gathered around the throne of God in worship. This is the church at the end of time, and whatever gap exists between that future vision and our present reality means there is still work to do.
The Church’s celebration of Pentecost is a timely reminder for American Christians that God is not an English speaking Caucasian deity, but the Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer of every human being. The Spirit always gifts the church in every age with exactly the tool necessary to reach across whatever it is that divides us to speak of the all inclusive radical love of Jesus.
As the children’s song goes - red and yellow black and white, they are precious in his sight, Jesus loves the little children of the world.