In Barabara Kingsolver's novel titled The Poisonwood Bible, one of the main characters, Reverend Nathan Price, is an American missionary to the people of the Congo. Failing to understand the nuances of their language and insisting on the primacy of the King James Translation of the Bible, he proclaims to them that Jesus is Bangala! Thinking he was saying that Jesus is supreme. Of course the villagers simply looked confused since what he really said was "Jesus is Poisonwood" -- meaning Jesus is a noxious plant. But since the King James was the only true translation of the Bible, he refused to substitute another word.
The problem is that while there may be one gospel, and one story about God-with-us -- God becoming human and healing the sick and feeding the hungry and being killed for it all and then defeating death itself -- while there is this one story, there are countless ways of understanding it. There are countless images and words and music and cultures which serve to tell that story.
When we hear the gospel in our own language, our own culture, our own art, often we then proceed to conflate or confuse the gospel itself with the form in which we understand it. I really believe that God came and got me through the Lutheran liturgical and theological tradition. I had already in my life experienced the fact that I am simultaneously sinner and saint, the fact that God's grace is a gift freely given to me. I had already experienced the fact that I can't make my way to God but that God always comes to me. So when I was exposed to this Lutheran stuff, I thought, "Well, of course! I've already experienced all of this to be true." I felt like God led me to the thing that would make sense to me.
What becomes problematic is then assuming that the way I understand God is the only way God can be understood correctly. What becomes a problem is when I insist that there is one language in which the gospel can be preached and it just so happens to be the language, or the art, or the culture I understand. I've then confused the ethos and the logos, the wrapping paper with the gift.
In last week's Pentecost reading from Acts 2: 1-13, we hear that there were those from every nation living in Jerusalem. The point is that Jerusalem under Roman occupation was a multicultural scene. We are told that there were people living in Jerusalem from every nation who gathered around when they heard the sound of the Spirit's mischief that Pentecost morning. When these people from every nation gathered they heard these Galilean followers of Jesus tell of God's great deeds of power. But they heard this in their own native languages, in their native tongues. If they were living in Jerusalem they all would have, to some extent, spoken Greek, the language of the empire. An empire which spread it's language and power and culture over three continents. They surely shared a common language. Yet the Spirit scoffed at using the language of imperialism and dominance. The 120 original members of the church very well could have communicated to those from every country living in Jerusalem in Greek, but instead the Holy Spirit chose to reveal the truth about God's great deeds of power in Medeish and Parthianese and Ebonics and Spanglish and slang and in the Queens English and in Arabic and Farsi and on and on. Because language is powerful. And God just kind of comes and gets us through whatever means and whatever language necessary. The text reads:
"In our own languages we hear them speaking about God's deeds of power"
Before Jesus left his disciples he told them about this day. "Power will come over you" said Jesus, "when you receive the Holy Spirit." And in the gospel reading for today we hear that this is a Spirit of Truth -- to receive the Holy Spirit is to receive the power of Truth. And yet no one single language or culture or denomination or tradition has sole ownership of that truth. There is a Sacred Promiscuity to the Holy Spirit. And I find it endlessly irritating that God's redeeming work in the world isn't politely limited to the language and theology and means that I happen to agree with. But for a long time in the church we have acted as if we have sole ownership of God's Truth. As though it's only truth when stated in the language we understand which, by the way, you must conform to. But that's not what we hear about today. The Kingdom of God is not an empire which has language laws. We humans may exercise power through Imperialistic conformity laws. But God doesn't. "In our own languages we hear them speaking about God's deeds of power"
God comes to get you by whatever means necessary. So today let's be part of a Pentecost that celebrates how God communicates through languages we don't understand and by theology and means with which we don't agree. Because that means that God comes also to us. By any means necessary. Amen.
Nadia Bolz-Weber is a Lutheran pastor living in Denver, Colorado, where she serves the emerging church, House for all Sinners and Saints. She blogs at www.sarcasticlutheran.com and is the author of Salvation on the Small Screen? 24 Hours of Christian Television.