May 20th, 2018

Hearing the Gospel in God’s Native Tongue
Acts 2:1-13

You have a copy of today’s text printed on the insert in your bulletin. Typically, I read the text, but today I’ve asked a friend of mine to read it. Feel free to follow along as he reads today’s text from Acts 2:1-13. (Play, from your cell phone, a recording of today’s text read in Chinese.)

Well, that was certainly different wasn’t it? I’ve not been in Rutledge long, but I suspect we’re the only church in Grainger County where the Bible was read today in Chinese. I guess that’s a pretty big leap from the King James Version, isn’t it?

Now I realize most of you are conversant in Chinese, but for the few of you who aren’t, I’ll read today’s text in English. Here it is: Acts 2:1-13.

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2 And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3 Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

5 Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6 And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. 7 Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 9 Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11 Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” 12 All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” 13 But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”

Language. It’s the highway on which thoughts and feelings travel. If someone speaks in our language, we’re instantly open to what is being said. But if someone tries to communicate in a language we don’t understand, those words mean nothing to us, despite the fervor with which they are delivered.

I learned a lesson about language a few years ago when Pat and I were eating at a Mexican restaurant in Atlanta. I can speak a little Spanish but not much, just enough to be dangerous. Sometimes when I’m in a Mexican restaurant, I make a feeble attempt to order my meal in Spanish. Sometimes the waiters have difficulty understanding me, but they’re usually pretty patient because they realize I’m trying to show respect.

After the meal I went to the front counter to pay my check. A handsome Mexican man in his early forties greeted me. He introduced himself as the owner.

“Sir, did you enjoy your meal today?” he asked.

“Si,” I replied, “La comida era muy, muy buena!” (The meal was very, very good.)

Instantly the owner’s eyes brightened as he asked, “Hablas espanol?” (Do you speak Spanish?)
Shyly I answered, “Poquito.” (a little bit).

At that, he smiled and said something I’ll never forget. He said, “‘Poquito’ means ‘a little’ to you but, to me, it means so much. Even your worst attempt to speak my language means more than you’ll ever know.”

That’s the way it is with language, isn’t it? Our language is important to us and, even when people speak it poorly, we’re thankful for their effort to communicate with words we understand.

When someone speaks our language they create a bond with us. They make us feel welcomed and included but, when we find ourselves surrounded by those who speak another language, we feel vulnerable, left out; we feel like everybody around us is getting the punch line but we don’t know when to laugh.

How did you feel this morning when you heard today’s text read in Chinese? I’m sure you felt a sense of bewilderment. You knew God’s Word was being read, but there was a barrier to your understanding. And that barrier to understanding was language.

In today’s text, we read a story about God miraculously overcoming the barrier of language. This miracle took place in Jerusalem at the Feast of Pentecost. In fact, if you observe the liturgical calendar, you know that today is Pentecost Sunday, a Sunday when Christians – worldwide - celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit.

The events of today’s text took place in Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost. The Feast of Pentecost was a holy day for the Jews, a day much like our Thanksgiving Day, a day when the Jewish people gave thanks to God for the harvest. Additionally, it was a day when they celebrated God’s giving of the 10 commandments to Moses on Mt. Sinai.

In biblical days, nothing was more special for a Jew than to celebrate Pentecost in the Holy City, Jerusalem. Devout Jews and God-fearing Gentiles came to Jerusalem from all over the world to celebrate this special feast day.

In today’s text, Luke carefully details the cosmopolitan mixture of these pilgrims. He tells us that Jews and God-fearing Gentiles had come from all over the world; from the Mediterranean, from Jordan, from Asia, from Africa - even from Rome. And because they came from all over the world, Jerusalem became a cacophony of languages. Needless to say, many of those folks in Jerusalem knew very little Hebrew.

Now keep in mind that this event occurred around 50 days after the crucifixion of Christ. The disciples, and a band of about 120 other people, made up all that was left of Christ’s followers. To most people, the Christ event was past history and his name had all but disappeared among the Jewish masses. But there in Jerusalem, on Pentecost day, something happened that brought the name of Jesus “front and center.” Something happened that gave birth to the early church. In fact, Luke tells us that on Pentecost, over 3,000 people became Christians that day.
You see, on that day, God’s Holy Spirit came upon Christ’s followers in unique way, a way that empowered them to preach the gospel so that everyone could understand.

Luke tells us that while the believers were praying on the Day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit filled them and gave them the ability to break down the language barrier. As the believers went out into the streets and began preaching Christ, something miraculous happened. As they preached they found themselves with the ability to preach in languages they had never learned. And all of a sudden, everyone in this cosmopolitan crowd was hearing the gospel preached in his or her native tongue.

Yes, at Pentecost, God broke down the language barrier and made it perfectly clear that the gospel of Jesus Christ was not some regional religion reserved for Hebrew-speaking Jews. The gospel of Jesus was an international gospel, a gospel that transcends all languages, all traditions, all customs and all nationalities. Yes, on Pentecost, God made it perfectly clear that he was not simply a Jewish God. He was an International God and salvation through Christ was for all people, regardless of their background, their culture or their language.

So what is the lesson we find in today’s text? The lesson is this. God is at work in this world, breaking down any and every barrier that stands in the way of Christ’s life-changing gospel. Never do you see God building a wall to separate people from his love. Instead, God does whatever it takes to tear down the walls we humans erect, so that all people can come to the knowledge of Christ and his love.

Now when I mention wall, some of us start thinking politically, but my message today is not a political message. My message today is a message that reveals the heart of God; a message that reminds each of us that we should be about the business of tearing down barriers to the gospel. That we should be about the business of removing all those things that stand in the way of the all-embracing gospel of Jesus and his love.

To be perfectly honest, throughout history, we Americans have not done a very good job of breaking down barriers with the gospel. Instead, we Americans have been arrogant when it comes to Christ’s Church. We’ve seen ourselves and our nation as the centerpiece of Christ’s body, and in our arrogance we’ve assumed that the rest of the world ought to do church just like we do church. They ought to worship like we worship. They ought to pray like we pray. They ought to preach like we preach and sing like we sing. Yes, too often, the gospel we’ve taken to the rest of the world has been Americanized, laced with our traditions, steeped in our customs and wrapped in our stars and stripes.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with loving your country as you love your church. I would hope you love both; but let us remember that the church of Jesus Christ is not an American institution. The American church is only one small part of Christ’s international body, and as much as I hate to admit it, the American church has become one of the body’s weakest parts.

I don’t have to tell you that the American Church has been, for the last few decades, a church in decline. No longer are we the world’s premier bastion of Christianity. Gone are the days when the American church was a leader in community affairs. Gone are the days when the American church had a dominant voice in the world. Gone are the days when the American church needed to build bigger buildings for its ever-growing congregations. Gone are the days when the American church served as a model for the rest of the world. Sadly, the American church is now reaping the fruit of its own arrogance, pride and haughty self-centeredness. In fact, some have feared for the future of Christianity because of the American church’s decline.

But let me put your fears to rest. While we were building American barriers for the heathen of other countries, God was tearing those barriers down and doing a miraculous work throughout the rest of the world.
You see, God is not dependent upon America to save his church. God’s church is bigger than America and his mighty rushing Spirit is still advancing the cause of Jesus Christ throughout the rest of the world.
In Africa, thousands are coming to Christ each day. Recently, in Tanzania, a local pastor baptized 3,140 adults. He had so many to baptize it took him a week to baptize them all.

The same is happening in parts of South America. And in Asia, the church is experiencing a revival that supersedes anything you or I can imagine.

In 2008, I preached to a small congregation of 35 people in Chengdu, China. Now, that same church has two worship services each Sunday, with over 500 Chinese Christians in each worship service. And besides that, they’ve started a Christian mission on the other side of town.

So do not fear for Christianity. Despite its decline in America, the church of Jesus Christ is doing quite well throughout the world. Yes, God continues to break down barriers; barriers of language, barriers of politics, barriers of traditions, and barriers of culture, so that his gospel may be embraced by people all over the world.

Perhaps John Oxenham said it best in the words of his hymn as he writes,

In Christ there is no East or West, in Him no South or North;
But one great fellowship of love throughout the whole wide earth.
Join hands, the children of the faith, whate’er your race may be;
Who serves my Father as a child is surely kin to me.

Yes, you and I have kinfolks throughout this world, brothers and sisters who’ve embraced the gospel because God has broken down the barriers that once kept us apart.
As I conclude, let me remind you that we live in a culture hell-bent on erecting barriers between certain people and God’s love. Some erect barriers that turn aside people of other races. Some erect barriers that turn aside people of other religions. Some erect barriers that turn aside immigrants and people of other nationalities. Some erect barriers that turn aside people with suspect sexual preferences. But may I remind you, God is not in the business of erecting barriers. God is in the business of tearing barriers down, and if we’re going to be followers of God, that should be our business, too.

For when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, nothing will stand in the way of sharing God’s love. For in the end, all barriers will be torn down, by the miraculous power of God’s redeeming love!
So what is God’s native tongue? Is it Hebrew, Greek, Chinese or English? God’s native tongue is none of these. For in language, there’s always a barrier. So when God speaks, he always speaks in the language of unconditional love.