Today, we no longer need to suffer through these types of communication failures. In terms of text, most online pages, even entire books can be quickly translated. Now Google is working on earbud technology that offers real time translation between speakers of two languages. I really could have used that in Turkey!
Waverly Labs is reportedly developing an earpiece they call “Pilot” which is inserted into the ear. Each of the two speakers in a conversation must wear an earpiece as they begin to chat. For now, the set of available languages is limited to English, French, Spanish and Portuguese. The makers of the Pilot, which will sell for $249, claims it is able to translate speech like the Babel fish in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, or the Universal Translator device in Star Trek.
I thought of such devices as I read the scene described in Acts 2:1-21. The disciples and apostles were filled with the Holy Spirit, and suddenly could not stop talking. And as they began to speak to the international crowd gathered in Jerusalem from all over the world, listeners who did not expect to understand one word were amazed to hear their own language spoken fluently!
Neither the apostles nor anyone else who had poured into Jerusalem from all over the world had a Pilot or Universal Translating Device in their ear.
It would be more accurate to ask what they had in their hearts, what infused their very souls. The Holy Spirit -- that's what they had. It was those initial followers of Jesus filled with the Holy Spirit who on that day launched a new movement that would, in the words of some observers, turn the world upside down! (Acts 17:6).
If only we had the technology to help us relate to each other in our own language! What technology could we use at home that would translate conversations between married partners, or between children and parents? Is there a device that could help us communicate better at our work, with our neighbors, in our community?
Is there anything, and device that could help us avoid misunderstanding and wounded feelings because of an ill-spoken or misunderstood word or two?
The church is one place where we would hope a translator would not be needed.
It came into being on Pentecost and was given birth by the Holy Spirit, the One who intercedes on our behalf with utterances unknown to us. You'd think that any institution born of the Holy Spirit and infused and empowered by the Holy Spirit would be a boon to humankind. Surely, it would be a unified and powerful force in the world, united by a common language and proclaiming a message that is unarguably the most important news the world needs to hear.
But the history of the church belies that claim. Too often the church has seemed more like a dysfunctional family system- oppressing some members, belittling others; scheming to gain political power, wealth, and status in every nation, regime, and cultural era.
So on this, our 2018 birthday, let us remember together who and whose we are.
What is the church?
As we sang last week at the beginning of worship, The church is people: "I Am the Church, You Are the Church, We Are the Church Together! All who follow Jesus all around the world, we are the church together!"
Our text today says nothing about the church, even though this passage describes what we call the birthday of the church. The word "church" is not even mentioned.
In the Greek vernacular of the day, the word ekklesia had no religious connotation. It only meant an assembly of people. The word did not refer to an institution. It did not denote an organization. It was not descriptive of a building dedicated to religious ceremonies. A church was simply a gathering of people. The church is people.
At first, these people numbered about 120 souls (1:15 says "about") -- of whom 12 were designated "apostles." These 12 would be the ones specifically "sent" to preach and proclaim. The others served in different ways. Our text says that they were "gathered together." This, then, was the first meeting of the ekklesia, the people that becomes the church. It was a small "church." No pastor, no elder board, no trustees, no finance committee, no building, no pews, no hymnals; just around 120 people in a second-floor rented room ... and they became filled with the Spirit.
The church is ordinary people. Even more remarkable is that these people were unremarkable. The founding members of this ekklesia were not the best and the brightest. They were not high-powered tech wizards, or on the faculties of universities or roundtable discussions in conference rooms of multinational corporations.
These are ordinary good people. They had not been trained to be filled with the Spirit, because you cannot get training in the Holy Spirit. There is no tutorial for the Holy Spirit.
Some could argue that the apostles and disciples who traveled with Jesus had received some training. But a lot of good that did them! At the end, even Jesus declared that in despite their enrollment in a three-year internship, they still did not understand the Scriptures. In addition, they fell asleep during prayer time. They were still expecting Jesus to launch a political coup. And they even argued who would sit next to Jesus in power. They did not "get it" at all.
And when it was over, after the crucifixion, they went back to their homes, maybe a little embarrassed by how it had all turned out. No doubt, a family and neighbors few said, "I told you so!" They returned to their day jobs, hoping that they could live something like normal lives again. "Normal" was comfortable. It was who they were. Normal.
So there they were, normal – then came the Holy Spirit. They were ordinary; they were not remarkable people until the Holy Spirit came to them. On our birthday as we think about our plans and hopes for St. Nicholas, we could say that the church is unremarkable people doing remarkable things. Ordinary people doing extraordinary things. And the only common factor is the Holy Spirit; but what a common factor it is! Peter, who had trembled at the pointed finger of a servant girl only weeks before, now began preaching with courage. Later Peter would stand up to the Sanhedrin, the most learned body of men in Judea. Just a fisherman and follower of Jesus, Peter is now lecturing scholars of the Torah on the Messianic passages of Scripture, and what it means to obey God rather than religious laws created by humans. So, here we are, Ecclesia: The church, ordinary people doing extraordinary things -- united in a common cause. Those gathered in Jerusalem had no Babel fish in their ear, but they all understood the language the Holy Spirit was speaking. And when they spoke, everyone else understood as well: in this work, they were united.
They were united in their message. What Peter has to say in our text and the verses following makes it clear. The message is Jesus. Jesus was alive. Then he was dead. Now Jesus is alive again. And everyone who follows Jesus will also be alive – abundantly and eternally alive! This was the core message. This is the message repeated over and over, beginning in Jerusalem that Pentecost morning. No Babel fish translator was needed. As the people of God kept talking about Jesus, and living like Jesus, everything else seemed to work itself out. Which gives us much hope on our birthday today.
Clearly, they recalled what Jesus said before departing. "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age" (Matthew 28:18-20).
A time to reassess
Pentecost Sunday is an opportunity to reassess our mission, too. To ask what we, the people of God, are doing today. The Pilot may one day prove to be an extraordinary translation device. But it is not likely. In fact, the Babel fish pilot may be what Snopes.com calls the "Babel Wish." It's been more than two years since Waverly Labs made their first announcement, and no product has reached the marketplace. That this "Pilot" will ever be developed is doubtful. It may not be much more than a great idea.
But the Holy Spirit launched on Pentecost was a huge success. Because in the church, our "translator" is the Holy Spirit, the one Jesus said would be our guide leading us into the truth. It is the Holy Spirit who will remind us of our un-remarkability, while at the same time empowering us to do extraordinary things as we listen. As we listen, it is the Holy Spirit who will unify us in both message and mission. May God’s Holy Spirit be our Pilot, our Babel fish, inserted not into our ears, but into our hearts and lives.
Spirit of truth, Whom the world can never grasp,
Touch our hearts with the shock of your presence;
Fill us with desire for your disturbing peace;
And fire us with longing to speak your uncontainable word through all we say and do, through Jesus Our Christ.