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Now you’re talking my language!

Posted by on Sunday, May 28th, 2023 in Minister, News
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Hespeler, May 28, 2023 © Scott McAndless – Pentecost
Numbers 11:24-30, Psalm 104:24-34, 35b, Acts 2:1-21, John 20:19-23

You might not know this about me, but I have a degree in Linguistics – the study of language. And that has always meant that I look at the famous story of the Day of Pentecost in the Book of Acts a little differently from most preachers.

I cannot just turn off the Linguist part of my brain when I read it. I cannot help but notice, for example, that, on one level, the miracle of people speaking in different languages was not really necessary for comprehension.

Everyone Spoke Greek

It is true, of course, that various people who lived in various places spread all over the known world at that time had their own local languages. But it is also true that, because of the conquests of Alexander the Great and the Roman Empire, many people had also learned at least one other language.

If you traveled or traded or dealt with government officials, you learned to speak Greek. You had to just to get by. And so, even if expatriate Jews and some Gentiles had travelled to Jerusalem for the festival of Pentecost, and even if they spoke the local language back home, they all had a very easy and convenient way to communicate with each other: just speak Greek.

What is the Point?

So, what is the point of these members of the church suddenly speaking in all these local languages from back home? What is it supposed to accomplish? It can’t be about comprehension, so what is it about?

Ah, but any Linguist understands that language isn’t just about comprehension. It also serves several social functions. So, I suspect that something else is going on in this story. But, to understand what it is, you may need to put yourself in the sandals of one of those outsiders who had come in for the festival that year.

A Visitor from Parthia

Shimeon was a Jew, but he was a Jew who had lived all his life in Parthia. And, for almost all of that life, the King of Parthia had been at war with the Emperor of Rome. Even though it was practically required of all Jews that they should travel to Jerusalem every year for the three main festivals, everyone understood that those who lived elsewhere could only make the trip rarely.

But when you live in a place at war with Rome, when you literally have to cross a demilitarized zone to get from your home to the temple in Jerusalem, you can imagine that even doing so rarely could become impossible.

A Wonderful Opportunity

The fact of the matter was that Shimeon had never been able to make the pilgrimage, not even once in his entire life. So, he had been so very excited when things had worked out and he was able to come down for the Festival of Passover this year. It was a wonderful opportunity to connect with the heritage and traditions of his people that had always been so hard to hold onto in far off Parthia.

As a Jew, a member of a minority community, he had always felt like an outsider in Parthia. He was excluded from all religious festivals and most other social gatherings in the mainstream society. So, of course he had been looking forward to being in a place where he was surrounded by Jewish people and by Jewish practices and worship. He had thought that he might find himself here. But, things had not quite gone as he had expected. A lot of it had to do with language.

Jews in Parthia

When the small Jewish community in Parthia gathered in synagogue, they sometimes did some prayers and rituals in the old Hebrew language. But the old language didn’t mean much to them. When the elders read the scriptures, they occasionally read from the few Hebrew scrolls that they had, but then they had to explain what they meant to the younger people in Greek. So, it was usually much easier to read from the popular Greek translation known as the Septuagint. These scrolls, that had first been published some two centuries earlier, were also easier to obtain in far-off Parthia than any Hebrew scrolls.

So, while Shimeon had heard some archaic Hebrew, he really wasn’t comfortable using it. But he hadn’t expected that to be a problem on this pilgrimage. Wherever he had traveled before, he had always managed to get by in Greek, surely things would be the same in Jerusalem.

Treated like an Outsider

But it had not worked out that way. As he dealt with the native Judeans – bartering for a place to stay or for food in the marketplace or even just asking for some directions – when he spoke to them in Greek, he could tell that they could understand him. When he asked for the price of the figs, for example, they looked right at the basket of figs in the booth, but then they stubbornly answered him in the local dialect of Aramaic.

Aramaic was somewhat related to old Hebrew, so he was sometimes able to work out what they were saying, but then, when he tried to answer them in the language that he had heard in the synagogue back home, they laughed at him, calling his accent strange and ill-tutored. They then used this as a ready excuse to overcharge him or deny him the goods he had been looking for.

Understanding the Judeans

You see, the Judeans, who had so long felt like outsiders in the big world of the Roman Empire, tended to make up for that by treating those who came from other places like minorities and outsiders. They refused to speak common Greek to them. They doubled down on the local Aramaic dialect and were only too happy to make fun of the way that the outsiders spoke.

They did this to all of the outsiders who came down to the festival, even those who only came from as close as Galilee. Galileans, in many ways, were the most like the Judeans, especially in their dialect. But the Judeans went out of their way to make fun of their strange northern accent.

So, even though participating in the events of the festival had meant a great deal to him, ever since he had arrived, Shimeon still felt as if he didn’t belong here either. It made him wonder if he really belonged anywhere.

A Sudden Disruption

The greatest day, the climax of the festival, was the day when the people brought their first fruits to present in the temple. It was a chance to give back to God from the very best that God had given to them over the year. And Shimeon was excited as he joined the throng moving through the streets. If he didn’t speak, no one looked twice at him and, for a few moments he could feel as if he was part of something much bigger than himself.

But suddenly, as he passed by a side street, he heard some shouting. It sounded… different. It didn’t have the same cadence and rhythm of the local Aramaic language. It seemed strange and out of place here, and yet the thing that really struck Shimeon about it was a strange familiarity. There was something in it that felt like home to him, as if he were suddenly back on the streets of the city in Parthia where he had grown up and played with the other local boys.

Galileans Behaving Strangely

And so, he turned aside, as did a number of other worshippers in the crowd. They soon came upon a small group of men and women who had gathered outside of a house. It was quite plain that all of them, by their clothing and their mannerisms, were Galileans. But, amazingly, they weren’t speaking like Galileans. To his wonder and amazement, Shimeon noticed that one of them, a young man, was shouting out praises to God in the local language of Parthia – the very language he had grown up speaking on the streets.

As he looked around at him, he saw many other pilgrims has been drawn to the spot. They, like him, had traveled from many places to be here for the festival – Mesopotamia, Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia. Oh, there were too many to name! And he could see by the looks on their faces and by the tears that they were wiping from their eyes that they were reacting much as he had. They also had felt completely excluded up until this moment, but they all suddenly felt that they belonged.

Judean Backlash

But they were not the only ones who had been attracted by the disturbance. There were also some local people too, some Judeans. And they were moved by what they heard as well, but not in the same way. Many of them were furious. For, in and amongst all of the various languages and accents that had been emanating from the group of Galileans, there were also words spoken in the local Judean dialect.

The Judeans in the crowd felt as if they were being mocked by these crude Galileans. Why, the very idea that their language, the language obviously favoured by God, could be counted merely as one among so many others was unacceptable. And so, they, for their part, began to shout out against these Galileans. “Don’t listen to these country Bumpkins,” they cried. “Here it is. Only nine o’clock in the morning and they are already drunk and raving like lunatics!”

A Galilean Speaks

But then the crowd fell silent as one of the Galileans stepped forward. Everyone wanted to hear what he might have to say about such wonders. “Fellow Judeans, and all who live in Jerusalem,” he said, speaking specifically to those who had been criticizing them. He spoke in very poor Greek, mixed with many Aramaicisms and a heavy Galilean accent. “Let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these people are not drunk as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning.” And so began the very first Christian sermon ever preached.

Something about the Early Church

When the writer of the Book of Acts started writing his account of the beginnings of the Christian movement, he knew a number of things about the earliest church. He knew, for example, that one of the practices of the church from near the beginning (and perhaps it continued into his own day) included believers speaking in strange languages.

It worked like this. Some believers, while they were gathered with the community in worship, would enter into an ecstatic state. This is something that human beings have been doing for a very long time. They get all worked up in a frenzy until they lose all ordinary control of themselves. It is something that still happens to this day in various settings including worship services and raves and even some practices that use psychotropic drugs.

Speaking in Tongues

In this state, the believers would sometimes speak in unintelligible languages. These were not actual languages, but more like ecstatic utterances. In his Letter to the Corinthians, Paul insisted that they could only be understood through a similar act of ecstatic interpretation by another believer.

But the act of speaking in tongues, as it was called, could be very moving and had the effect of deepening the worshipper’s connection to God and the community through the Holy Spirit. As a result, those who engaged in it seem to have sometimes thought that they were somehow better Christians than those who didn’t. The Apostle Paul saw that as a problem.

The Author of Acts Makes it Mean Something Else

The author of the Book of Acts obviously knew about this practice. But when he came to write the story of the origins of the Christian Church, he decided to present it in a different way. He decided, for just this one occasion it seems, to transform this speaking in tongues into something that wasn’t just ecstatic and unintelligible. He had the first Christians on that first day speak in the local languages of people from every corner of the known world.

Why did he do this. I think he was trying to say something – something that was probably more symbolic than it was literal.

A Writer who Knew About Being an Outsider

We don’t actually know who wrote the Book of Acts. Christian tradition says that it was a man named Luke, but we can hardly be sure of that. Whoever he was, though, he was almost certainly a man who spoke Greek as his first language. His Greek is excellent.

So perhaps he had had the experience, as a Greek interested in the God of Israel, of going to a festival in Jerusalem and being treated like an outsider. He knew what it was like to be the outsider who the locals thought talked funny. I wonder if that is why he reimagined the practice of the early church of speaking in tongues as something that could overcome that kind of prejudice and mistreatment.

If that’s what he was doing, he was putting forward something very hopeful. He was drawing a compelling picture of what the church could be – a community where there really was a place for anybody and nobody ever got treated as a second class citizen. That is an idea of the church that I still cling to and aspire to. If we could all aspire to that, I think that God would do some amazing things among us.

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Why do you stand looking up toward heaven?

Posted by on Sunday, May 21st, 2023 in Minister, News
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Hespeler, May 21, 2023 – Ascension Sunday
Acts 1:1-14, Psalm 68:1-10, 32-35, 1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11, John 17:1-11

On October 14, 2012, Austrian skydiver Felix Baumgartner got into a helium balloon and flew straight up into and beyond the atmosphere. He climbed 39 kilometres (or 24 miles) into the stratosphere. The blue sky turned black and the stars came out. He was wearing a specially designed pressure suit, of course, or he would have been dead before long.

He stood there at the door of his capsule and looked down. The curve of the earth’s globe was plainly visible beneath him. He leaned forward and then he just fell. Well, he didn’t just fall; he hurdled to earth in free fall. He fell for 4 minutes and 19 seconds before eventually deploying his parachute. During that time the black sky turned blue, the whole earth spun, and he moved so fast that he is the first and only human being to ever break the sound barrier without an engine.
Watch the video of Baumgartner's jump here

A Stunning Event

The whole event was absolutely stunning and awe inspiring. All over the world, people watched the video of the feat in shocked amazement. And if you had been present in New Mexico, where the whole event played out, you would have stood there staring into the sky. Your eyes would have widened in shock when you heard the sonic boom and realized that a man had just made that. You would have been filled with wonder and relief to see the man land safely.

I could not help but think about that incredible stunt that took place over a decade ago when I read our passage this morning from the Book of Acts. When [Jesus] had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.” The connection between the two events seems inescapable. Jesus takes exactly the same route as Felix Baumgartner, just in the opposite direction.

An Amazed Reaction

Even more important than that, the reaction is much the same. While he was going, the disciples were gazing up toward heaven. And they are clearly so amazed and shocked by what they are seeing that they barely even noticed the sudden appearance of two men in white robes. These men, who appear to be angels, then criticise them for staring up so fixedly saying, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?”

There is so much that connects these two stories. They both follow the same route. They are both extremely awe inspiring. But, in many ways, when you look at the question of what these two events mean, they really couldn’t be more different.

What it means?

Baumgartner’s jump was many things. It was a publicity stunt engineered to promote the Red Bull brand. It was a successful attempt to set a world record. But it was, above all, a scientific experiment. And, as such, it confirmed many of the things that we know about our planet. It dramatically demonstrated the shape of our planet and the form and substance of the atmosphere and stratosphere.

But if the story of the ascension of Jesus into heaven means anything – and it obviously means a great deal – that meaning seems to depend on a denial of just about everything that has been demonstrated by Baumgartner’s jump. Because, if all that Jesus did was to rise up from the earth in order to enter into the stratosphere – if all he did was travel upwards until the blue sky turned black, the stars came out and the oxygen ran out – that would have been amazing. But it would have had none of the meaning that it is meant to have in this passage in the Book of Acts.

How they saw the Universe

The meaning of this story is entirely dependant on a first century understanding of the universe. The disciples of Jesus lived in a world that they conceived of as a layer cake. There were three basic levels of their universe, and the meaning of those levels was more spiritual than it was physical. The earth was sandwiched between an underworld below – a place of death and possible damnation – and heaven above. Heaven was where God lived, and it was just beyond the clouds and on the other side of what looked like the blue dome of the sky.

And the meaning of Jesus’ ascension is all found in the spiritual shape of the universe. This story is about Jesus departing from a physical presence with his disciples to take his place at the right hand of the Father so that he can watch over and intercede for his beloved followers on the earth.

A Theological Idea

Now, as a theological idea, I have no problem with that. The amazing story of the gospel is that God so loved this world that he gave his only begotten son to live among us. What that means is that, in Christ, the very nature of God broke through into this world. Somehow Jesus was able to show us the true nature of God (that God is love).

In addition, Jesus brings humanity together with God so that God may understand all of our failings, temptations and weakness. And yes, it is only fitting that the risen Jesus must stand before God to plead for us and support our needs to the great ruler of the universe.

So as an idea, it is absolutely beautiful and wonderful. It means the world to me. But when you tell me that this had to be accomplished by Jesus doing a reverse Baumgartner, you kind of lose me there. Because I know that the universe doesn’t work like that.

I know that if you go straight up, you do not somehow pass through a solid blue dome and find yourself standing in the physical presence of God in heaven. Astronauts have been up there. Felix Baumgartner has been up there we know that that is not how the universe works.

Where is God?

That doesn’t mean that God doesn’t exist. It doesn’t mean that heaven doesn’t exist. Oh yes, they probably exist in a way that doesn’t quite fit into the three-dimensional space that we’re familiar with, but they still exist. But if I have to embrace the concept of the universe that was held by the first century disciples in order to accept the meaning of the story of the ascension, I have a problem. I know that, in order to take a place at the right hand of God, Jesus did not have to literally fly up into the stratosphere.

Stories about what they had Experienced

Here, then, is how I have come to see all of this. As far as I’m concerned, there is no denying that the disciples and followers of Jesus experienced something extraordinary in this person. They experienced God in him in some truly irresistible ways. They tried to pass on the truth of what they had experienced to us by telling stories of his incarnation, his transfiguration and other extraordinary events.

After he had been crucified and died, they experienced him alive and with them again. They passed on the incredible news of what they had experienced with the stories that they told of his resurrection. And sometime after he had been raised, they experienced something that convinced them that he had moved on to another plane of existence from which he would intercede for them before the Father. They passed on the truth of this with their accounts of the ascension.

The Challenge of the Ascension

But they had a challenge in telling the stories of the ascension. Stories of the incarnation were extraordinary of course, but at least they could relate them to things that they had already seen. They had all experienced things like conception and birth, and they knew that Jesus’ birth had to be something like that, just more divine.

In the same way, they could talk about the miracle of the resurrection using terms that everyone could understand because everyone could at least imagine what it was like to see someone again after they had died. Yes, in the case of Jesus it was far more amazing than that, but it did relate to everyday life.

But they didn’t have the words to describe an experience of Jesus taking this new place at the side of God. And so, they had to resort to doing the best that they could, describing it in terms of the three-layer universe as they understood it. And so, I don’t think that we can know exactly what they saw and felt and knew on that day. The best that they could say was that it was like watching Jesus go up and into the stratosphere.

What it Means Today

That all leaves us with the question of what we do with all of that, and what it means for the faith that we profess today. The thing that particularly strikes me about it today is the way that, in that moment – as they stand there staring into the sky – the disciples are given an incredible new insight into the relationship between themselves and God – an insight that they can only describe in terms of Jesus going up into the sky.

And we are all given such insights from time to time – moments when heaven and earth come together and it all makes sense. These are powerful moments. But they come with a temptation. Such visions can be so overwhelming that we stand there in awe of what we have seen. We are just so impressed with our own insight.

Our Response to Insight

That is exactly what the disciples are doing in this passage, and it is exactly why the two men in white call them out. “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” Yes, we have been shown the secrets of another existence. Yes, we can take comfort in knowing that Christ will intercede for us from the right hand of God. Yes, we know the hope that he will return some day and finally bring justice and equity to the whole world. But none of that is a reason to stand frozen in inaction.

The day of ascension is all about what Jesus has done and will do for us. But the point of it is not to stand there amazed by what we have seen. Jesus has already been clear about that when the disciples asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority.”

In other words, he is saying that, even though God is going to do it, you can’t know when. Therefore, there is no point in standing around looking up to the place where God was thought to abide.

What to do Instead

So what, then, were they to do instead of standing around and staring? Jesus had told them that too. “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

And I think it is very significant what they are asked to do instead of waiting around. They are told to be witnesses. It is not up to them to make it happen – that is up to God. But they can be witnesses – they can tell other people about what they have seen and experienced of God in Jesus Christ.

So, what you have experienced, the deep insights that God has given to you over the years, the sudden realization of God’s love and grace that have come to you, you can and should share them. They will be blessings to many others. But they are not an end in themselves, don’t become stuck staring at them and contemplating them. Expect more from God, and in your expectation be bold to share what you have experienced. That is how hope spreads. And that has to be what Ascension Sunday is about.

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