Speaking the Language of God – Br. James Koester

Acts 2: 1-21

I must confess that I have always been envious of those who are able to acquire another language. I have always struggled to learn a second language.

As a child my parents enrolled me in private French lessons, but when French became available at school, it was like starting over again. Each year was the same. I struggled all year to learn a few basics, scrape by with a pass at the end of the school year, and then forget everything over the summer. I would start again from square one, once again, each Fall. I finally dropped both French and Latin in high school. In the first year of seminary, I enrolled in New Testament Greek. Early in the term the professor arranged for us all to take a language aptitude test. My years of struggling to learn another language all came together with that test. Finally everything made sense.

If you have taken the language aptitude test, you will know that it is based on learning a few simple elements of Kurdish. The idea is to see how quickly you can learn it and then answer some questions. A week or so after the test, I sat in the professor’s office to hear my results. He began by telling me he didn’t understand why I was having such difficulty learning Greek, as I had a perfect aptitude for foreign languages. Suddenly he stopped in his tracks. Mumbled oh and said to me, James I see why you are having such difficulties. I was reading the score backwards. You have absolutely no aptitude to learn a second language

I don’t know exactly how that language aptitude test works, but after years of trying to learn French, Latin and then Greek, I didn’t need a test to tell me what I already knew. There is something about my brain that simply can’t absorb languages. I joke that even after thirty years in this country, I still don’t understand and can’t speak American. It has been explained to me countless times, what freshman, sophomore, junior and senior mean, but it needs to be explained to me again each time someone uses those phrases. And please don’t tell me you are a rising sophomore because that will just confuse me even more.

With my inability to learn another language, I’m always amazed by this story from Acts. For no apparent reason, suddenly everyone was speaking a different language, and more to the point, others could understand them. I confess, I am more than a little jealous.

Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, ‘Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.’ All were amazed and perplexed…[1]

And I am jealous.

It is interesting to note, however, that it was not the speaking, but the comprehension that amazed and perplexed the visitors to Jerusalem that day, for the ones who were speaking were Galileans, but those who comprehended were from all over the world and heard in their own native languages.

The gift of the Spirit at Pentecost then, was not so much the gift of speaking foreign languages, but the gift of comprehension that resulted in unity and understanding. That is the gift that brought about amazement, and even healing.

In a world so divided by mistrust, enmity, even hatred and fear, the gift of comprehension feels elusive, and impossible to attain. Yet those are the very gifts given, when God poured upon those early disciples the gift of the Holy Spirit.

The thing is, Scripture is not Plimouth Plantation, a museum forever frozen in time. Rather it tells stories of the past, not to freeze them in time, but so that we can recognize their realities in the present. The gift of the Spirit of Pentecost was not given once, never to happen again. It is not just a story of a few Galilean fishmen who could suddenly speak other languages. It is not even a story about the ability to speak other languages. Yes, Pentecost happened that day long ago in Jerusalem. But that is not the end of the story. The story of the gift of the Spirit at Pentecost is the story of the gift of comprehension, unity, and understanding, as it is being given today. Every time comprehension, unity, and understanding happens, God’s Holy Spirit is poured out upon the world once more, and what is more, compassion, love, and healing follow

We live in a time when the story we constantly hear is the story of fear and suspicion. Is it any wonder then, that hostility and hatred are our daily diet? The world is griped by fear, suspicion, hostility, and hatred. But the answer to fear is not guns, and the answer to suspicion are not walls and laws. The answer to fear and suspicion is the Spirit of God which pours out upon this hostile, divided, and alienated world, comprehension, unity, and understanding, which turn into compassion, love, and healing.

The difficulty is that comprehension, unity, and understanding, require patience, and generosity. Those too are of the Spirit, for as St Paul reminds us: the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.[2]

It is easy for us to get sidetracked today by the images of rushing wind, flames of fire, and the speaking in tongues. But we lose the real gifts of Pentecost when we do. The real gifts of Pentecost are not tongues, but tolerance, not flames, but faithfulness, not wind, but wonder.

How different our world is when we approach one another, not with fear and suspicion, or with hostility, and hatred, but with wonder, faithfulness, and tolerance. When that is the case, it is truly be a Pentecostal moment and the gift of the Spirit is poured out once more. In those moments, all are amazed to see that love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control follow, and give birth to the comprehension, unity, and understanding we so desire.

The vision of God for humanity, is that we are multilingual, speaking the language of God, which is the language of compassion, unity, and understanding. Each time that happens, the Spirit of God is revealed in our lives once more.

The wonder of Pentecost then, is not that people suddenly spoke in foreign languages. The wonder of Pentecost is that people suddenly spoke in the language of God, the language of compassion, unity, and understanding. And like those early disciples, the gift to speak the language of God is ours for the asking.

Come, Holy Spirit, come, and enkindle our hearts with the fire of your love.

When we truly are people of the Spirit, we will be people of compassion, unity, and understanding, speaking the language of God, and the world will be amazed and astonished, once more.

Year B, Day of Pentecost

[1] Acts 2: 6-12

[2] Galatians 5: 22 – 23

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  1. Surya-Patricia Lane Hood on May 20, 2024 at 17:19

    Pentecost in the Episcopal church is a wonderful and fulfilling experience when members of the congregation begin to speak the reading in various languages. I speak fluent Danish so for years I have been one of the people speaking. Yesterday, Pentecost Sunday, I closed my eyes and listened with an open mind and heart to what happened and still happens when one wants to really understand what is being said.

    When I went to live in Denmark many years ago, I could speak 5 words in Danish. My brother-in-law, who had Down Syndrome, spent every Friday with me and he taught me words in Danish; I would point at something and he would tell me the word in Danish.

    Last night I watched Dr. Charles Stanley on TV speak of God’s limitlessness, how God reaches out to each and every one of us no matter how on or off the path we are. God does not give up on any of His/Her creations. Jesus made it clear in John 14 that we are all ONE although we are all different. Pentecost does something of the same thing. You are my brother and I am your sister.

    You said that it was “the gift of comprehension that resulted in unity and understanding” God’s language. We accept nothing from God when we reach out with closed fists and receive everything when we reach out with open hands, hearts, and minds. Your language ability is my math ability; our gifts are different yet the same.

    Thank you and God Bless you, Brother James.

  2. Malcolm Hayes on May 30, 2023 at 03:21

    Thank you for your reflection on Pentecost- yes understanding is so vital- as the father of three children under 5 I was recently inspired by someone who said that if we don’t listen to their little stories when they are little then they won’t tell us their stories when they are older – because it’s all big stuff to them – peace be with you all in Boston

  3. Judith Nicholas on June 9, 2022 at 21:00

    Thank you so very much, Brother James, for this deep and fresh reflection on Pentecost. You have greatly enlarged my understanding of ‘the gift of comprehension’ .This (to me) is a new and wonderful phrase which includes both ‘listening’ and ‘understanding’. Suddenly the whole Pentecost experience makes sense and has
    been enriched.

  4. Ann Trousdale on June 9, 2022 at 07:28

    Perhaps the most significant thing about speaking in tongues, for the speaker himself or herself, is that, in the words of one of my early Christian teachers, when we pray in tongues, our speaking with God “bypasses the educated idiot box”—i. e., the “educated” brain. We are praying “in the spirit,” as Paul says. Spirit to Spirit.

    I think it would also bypass whatever difficulty one’s brain has with “learning” another language. The brain doesn’t get in the way.

  5. Carney Ivy on June 9, 2022 at 06:45

    Beautiful! Thank you for those simple words that bridge the message of Pentecost from inception to the our current times. Those simple substitutions: tolerance not tongues, faithfulness not flames, and wonder not wind may be transformative for me as I try daily to live more in God’s world than in our earthly and humanly constructed world. Thank you Br. James.

  6. Barbara Early on June 9, 2022 at 05:43

    I have heard a Pentecost sermon annually for many years. Mostly they make me feel guilty (as did last Sunday’s!) urging me to get out there and share the Gospel with those who probably don’t want to hear it. That’s just something I’ll never be good at. But this message touched me, “The real gifts of Pentecost are not tongues, but tolerance, not flames, but faithfulness, not wind, but wonder.” That is something I can work on. Thank you, Br. James.

  7. Patricia on May 31, 2021 at 02:01

    I LOVE this sermon. If only we could consistently in all endeavors and professions and situations show up with wonder ( optimism, hope, be fit of the doubt) faithfulness (trust)and tolerance (respect and patience). What a posture to take! What a way to express our faith! To live the love. Requires daily meditation and reflection. Thank you for this inspiration.

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