Day Ninety Six - Each in their own language
Acts 2:1-14 (yes, 14!)
The book of Acts is the second volume of a larger work beginning with what we know as the Gospel of Luke, both dedicated to Theophilus. Luke’s Gospel states the aim: ‘after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you’. It’s actually more like editing than writing – collecting the eye-witness accounts of the life of Jesus and the early church, and assembling them into a continuous narrative.
In fact, there are lots of editors in the Bible. Scripture is a breath-taking cornucopia of exciting narrative, fabulous poetry, fearless prophecy, collections of proverbs . . . It could have been a complete jumble of experience, pouring forth from the generations of people who knew what it was to be God’s People – just like the day of Pentecost! We need help to understand what is happening.
‘Listen to me’ says Peter (Acts 2:14), and I will explain. And behind him is Luke, who says, not ‘listen to me’, but ‘listen to them’. He stands in a tradition going back to the beginning of the Bible, of patient collectors, editors and compilers, who saw the immense treasure they had in the experience of prophets, kings, and midwives, and poets, and dissidents, and presented it to future generations, in readable and understandable form.
These are among my (many) heroes, because I am an editor too. I too am given priceless treasures: hymns, articles, stories – and my job is to polish them so that their brilliance shines through, put them in a setting that shows off their glory, and hold them out to others: ‘Look, listen to these!’
And, like Luke, I work in a number of multilingual settings. By accident of birth, I am a native user of what has become a global language. I am aware of the unfairness of that situation, and the vast injustices of colonial conquest and the suppression of cultures by which this has happened. So, over the years, I have edited the work of people for whom English is not their first language, a kind of attempt to make some small reparation for those centuries of rape and pillage by helping to hear people into speech.
But there is too much joy in this work, to see it as plain service! Touching the edge of another language is like opening up a whole new treasury (it is no coincidence that the Greek for treasury is ‘thesaurus’!). Every language reveals whole new structures of thought and networks of meaning, unimaginable, and often inexpressible in another tongue. That’s the task!
For me, this really is a Pentecostal experience. I wonder what it was like to stand in that crowd on the day of Pentecost, surrounded by a Babel of different languages; then to hear the apostles, and, miraculously, to understand what they were saying. To understand the words, that is, but clearly it still didn’t make sense, not quite. They needed Peter’s: ‘Listen to me. Let me explain.‘ Now they really understood, and now they wanted to be saved.
And remember, we only know anything of this, because Luke carefully gathered all the stories about Jesus and the early church into an orderly account for his friend Theophilus, which, two thousand years later, is still speaking to us.
Let us pray
Pentecostal God: we praise you
for the raw experience of your power
poured out on your disciples in wind and flame;
for the wonder of that crowd, speakers of many languages
but hearing each in their own tongue;
for the power of Peter’s preaching
interpreting, without taming the Spirit,
till thousands longed for salvation;
and for Luke, and those patient collectors, collators and editors,
who gathered it all into scrolls and books through the centuries,
so that even we might read, and hear, and be saved.
Image: © Janet Wootton - T-shirts from Iceland (runes), Maynmar and Bulgaria, with their alphabets.