s032a11 Pentecost 12/6/2011
'in our own languages we hear them speaking about God's deeds of power' Acts 2.11
I want to first point out that they heard the apostles speak about God's deeds of power – they didn't hear them reciting the Apostles, Nicene or Athanasian creed! These creeds came hundreds of years later, and it seems that they came to define what made the Christian religion distinct from others – a statement to which we shall have cause to return later.
The second thing that I want to comment on is the number of different languages the Spirit enabled the apostles to speak in order to proclaim the message. The list of nationalities covered the whole of the then known world. So the Church continues to have a task to do, to continue to learn the languages of the nationalities and cultures in which we find ourselves placed. There is no scriptural justification for deifying the language of the King James Version of the Bible, venerable though it be, and expecting everyone else to think in those terms and talk in that language. The Spirit isn't going to help other people learn our language, the Spirit enables us to learn the languages of others.
For anyone involved in translation, the 'problem' is that different cultures express things differently. When I attempted to learn French in High School – largely unsuccessfully – last century – I was told that while the vocabulary of the French language is much less than English, much of the nuances of meaning come in physical gestures. It uses dance to enhance the words. Sadly I'm a very undemonstrative person – I should have been brought up in France.
So to really communicate with another person we have to really get to know the other very well, both their language and their culture, and I am reminded of those words of Jesus: 'Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road. Whatever house you enter, first say, 'Peace to this house!' And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you. Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide, for the laborer deserves to be paid. Do not move about from house to house. Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; cure the sick who are there, and say to them, 'The kingdom of God has come near to you.'' (Luke 10.4-9) The paradigm of really getting to know others will spread through this example of the apostles. To eat and drink with another is to fully accept the other as he or she is. It is to say ‘Peace to this house!’ on the very deepest level. But just as the first apostles had to learn the languages and therefore the cultures of those they encountered, so we cannot inflict on others the necessity to learn the theological nuances current in 350AD, the mindset of the reformation and counter-reformation from 1500AD or the language and culture of England in 1604. This is to turn the work of the Spirit completely upside down, if such were in fact possible. Surely the church has to move on. The creeds were composed to counter the various theologies that explained God – the conundrum of a God both ‘other’ and ‘intimate’. The creeds actually say that God cannot be explained, and if someone could explain God, that person is the heretic. So, far from being a statement of faith implying that we ‘know’ God and derive special status for doing so, the creed tells us that God is essentially unknowable. So each and every one of us has an image of the divine, and the creeds include us and our images. The real God cannot be the sole possession of a person, a religion or a nation. Sadly the creeds have been made into statements of faith delineating who is ‘christian’ and who isn’t - when in fact they are statements of the limits of faith, inviting all into fellowship. So in my work in a hospital, I need to learn the language of the doctors, nurses and all the health professionals, the administrative and support staff, including the bureaucrats, who keep everything working. And the fact that the apostles didn’t begin reciting the creeds tells me that the expressions of our faith alter over time. The Greek and Roman cultures which produced the creeds do not exist nowadays, so our expressions of faith will necessarily be different. Indeed of course much of the language of the creeds reflects the tension between the differing Greek and Roman cultures. Neither prevailed over the other, they continued to exist, side by side. This also becomes an invitation to us, to explore our own expressions of faith rather than just accept hand-me-downs from past generations. The fact that we are invited to do so gives us a dignity. I often say that one of the things that distinguish us from the rest of the animal kingdom is that humanity thinks, and so our very thinking about faith is exercising that primal human dignity conferred on us all since the beginning of creation. Thinking, rather than obeying, is what makes us human. To want others to comply is to attempt to diminish their humanity – and this is not of God. The ancient people of God were commanded to not make images of God, and I wonder if this did not lead to a literary religion of which Christianity is a faithful imitator. Perhaps this was linked to the move from hieroglyphics to phonetic written language. But literary images of God are no less powerful, and can be potentially as idolatrous as graven images. We can worship the creeds rather than the God to whom they point. We can worship scripture rather than the God to which it points. We can worship our (religious) culture rather than the God to whom it points. The demons that we read about were demons precisely because they restricted human dignity and freedom. People were compelled. And the church has often used fear in her proclamation of the gospel – for it is a very effective weapon. And that conundrum of a God both ‘other’ and ‘intimate’ lies at the heart of this. God cannot be entirely ‘intimate’ for this may lead some to think that the divine is simply a personal possession of an adept. But neither can God be entirely ‘other’ for the temptation that such a conception of God is that we all have to strive for acceptance – and usually unsuccessfully. The gift of the outpouring of the Spirit on those first disciples that we celebrate today, was not unique to them. It is no less important for us, for it is the gift that unifies us and empowers people to seek to understand and speak to the human condition both of individuals and humanity. It is the Spirit that drives us out of our holy huddles into secular society, in love and acceptance and joy.