Learning New Languages: A Reflection on Pentecost

by Jacob Juncker

This reflection was offered at Christ United Methodist Church on Pentecost Sunday, May 27, 2012.  The Scripture lesson was Acts 2:1-21.

The disciples were together in one place.  We’re not quite sure where in Jerusalem they were hiding out, other than it was near a main thoroughfare.  It was during the Jewish Feast of Pentecost—celebrating the giving of God’s law to Moses on Mt. Sinai.  As the disciples were celebrating, something happened.  A loud sound from above, like the howling of a fierce wind enveloped them.  They saw what appeared to be wisps of fire above each other’s heads.  And, they felt the indwelling of the Holy Spirit which enabled them to speak in languages they did not understand.  In confusion, they left the room and entered the streets of Jerusalem where Jews from all over the world were gathered in celebration of the feast.  And, all these outsiders and foreigners were mystified, surprised and amazed that these ordinary people were speaking their native languages.

The disciples were speaking an unfamiliar language to an unfamiliar people who understood with complete familiarity.  Through the power of the Holy Spirit, the disciples were speaking new languages, reaching new people with Good News of Jesus Christ.  The Scriptures record that “God brought three thousand people into the community on that day” (Acts 2:41, Common English Bible).

At the General Conference of The United Methodist Church, the gathering of United Methodists from all over the world who decide the missional focus of the denomination, a presentation was made that stated that if the UMC continued to hemorrhage members at its present rate, in 50 years there will be no United Methodist Church in the United States of America (to see this presentation click here–the presentation starts around the 30 minute mark).  The United Methodist Church is dying.  Church decline has become such a part of our culture that we have devised elaborate ministries, programs, even buildings to try and lure people to the church.  And, they do, at times, work with marginal success in terms of numbers and discipleship.  But, on this Pentecost Sunday, I would like to remind all who will listen that the way we grow the church is by learning new languages and engaging people in a familiar tongue.

The story of Pentecost reminds us that it is irresponsible to assume people can speak our jargon (“Christianese”), our Christian language.  Pentecost reminds us that, through the power of the Holy Spirit, the Church can reach all people wherever they might be, whatever language they might speak.  The question is: are we willing be listen to the promptings of the Holy Spirit and learn a new language so that the Good News can be heard (and understood) by all? 

Are we willing to set aside the languages that are familiar to us so that an unfamiliar people might learn the Good News of the Gospel in a way that is familiar?