Our church has been working on a project to help our local businesses as they emerge from the COVID-19 lockdown. We’ve been selling stuff. It’s good stuff. It’s a great project, I’m convinced.
Selling stuff has put us in contact with our community, which has been good. We’ve met people we never knew, and we have seen again people we’ve known. And invariably, some of those old and new friends have things to say about one of the big three topics of the day – pandemic, protests, or politics.
We listen intently. And in a moment or two, we know a person’s political persuasion, or we know his or her feelings about racism or his or her ideas about epidemiology. Some of those thoughts match mine. Some do not. We try not to argue. We listen. Everybody wants to be heard.
Language seems to be important in this episode in Acts 21 and 22, as Paul was being berated by the Jewish people at the temple and then carried into the barracks. Language was important when Paul spoke to the Roman tribune in Greek. The tribune didn’t seem to expect that (Acts 21:37). And language was important when Paul spoke to the crowd in Hebrew (likely Aramaic). I’m not sure they expected that either.
Language creates barriers between people and cultures. Without a common language, it’s much more difficult to communicate, obviously, but it also is more difficult to achieve any sort of allegiance or unity among people.
At the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11, God confused the language of humanity. The nations were scattered. Confusion and competition reigned. Confusion and competition still reign today. But the kingdom of God in Christ paints a picture of the nations beginning to gather again. Pentecost in Acts 2 is a picture of this. In the end, “every tongue” will confess Jesus is Lord (Philippians 2:11).
And so language stood out to me as I read chapters 21 and 22 in Acts. Language is important. Paul’s ability to speak Greek reassured the Roman tribune Paul wasn’t an Egyptian revolutionary. And Paul’s ability to speak the Hebrew language gained him a hearing with a very hostile crowd in Jerusalem.
But language isn’t our only problem. The minute Paul explained to the people his mission wasn’t merely to the Jews but also to the Gentiles, the crowd renewed their cries against Paul. “Away with such a fellow from the earth! For he should not be allowed to live.”
Paul’s mission was to share the good news with people of other languages – Greek, Latin, whatever – and the people in the temple didn’t like that. Language isn’t our only problem. The Jews distrusted the Gentiles (for some good reasons; read Psalm 137 for an eye-opener) and struggled to come around to the idea the gospel was for anyone who would believe.
We encounter people every day who are different from us. And today’s differences can be pretty obvious. Sometimes, it’s actually a matter of language. Other times, it’s something else. People disagree about things like face masks and social distancing and the re-opening of schools. And they disagree about claims of systemic racism and the motivations of some political activists. And, of course, they disagree about politics. This is an election year after all.
And when we hear this other “language,” a viewpoint we cannot understand, our guard naturally goes up. We put up a dividing line between ourselves and this other person who is “not speaking our language,” as we sometimes say. Surely, you can relate to this.
And then we gather as a church. It is there, among the brothers and sisters, that we speak the same “language” – even if we disagree about some of these other issues. The language we speak is of Christ and his cross and resurrection. We speak about the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives. We speak the story of salvation.
And we speak about other things, too. We encourage one another. We learn about the burdens of others, and we bear them. We listen to our leaders, and we submit to them. We inch ever closer together as a church family. Slowly and surely, we begin to speak the same “language.”
This requires selflessness. And I’ve seen so much selflessness in our church during the past few months. People have given up so much in order to worship together. They’ve given up so much in order to care for each other. They’ve given up so much in order to care for our community.
For that, I am glad. We aren’t letting trivial things muddy our “language.”