An Open Table where Love knows no borders

Loosing Tongues

A sermon on Acts 2:1-21 & John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15 by Nathan Nettleton

It will come as no surprise to those of you who have heard me talking about my recent experiences of trying to learn another language or three, that my imagination was rather captured by what we heard in the reading from the Acts of the Apostles about how on the Day of Pentecost, the followers of Jesus “were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability,” and people from all different countries “heard them speaking in the native language of each.” This story is sometimes mentioned when people discuss the topic of “speaking in tongues”, but it is clear that there are in fact two different phenomena described in the New Testament. The one which is usually called “speaking in tongues” is sometimes described by the Apostle Paul as speaking in the languages of angels, and is essentially an unknown language for use in private prayer. Paul is quite clear that it is usually unrecognisable to anyone hearing it because he cites that as the reason for discouraging its use in the public gathering of the church. If it serves no public purpose then it should only be exercised in the private sphere. I know lots of people who have experienced the gift of an unknown prayer language. I have experienced it myself. But I don’t know anyone who has ever personally experienced the miracle described as happening on the Day of Pentecost. Because what happened that day was quite a different thing. In this case, the whole point was communication with other people, and so the languages that were miraculously given were the known human languages of the hearers who were present.

Now this is one gift that I really crave, but I have absolutely no expectation of receiving it by miraculous means, only by hard work. However, my experiences of trying to learn have taught me a number of things that enabled me to see what was going on in this Pentecost story in a new light, and I hope they are illuminating for you too.

The big thing I have discovered is that the greatest impediment to speaking another language (other than not knowing it, of course) is fear. This doesn’t afflict everyone, but it is huge for me. The language I have made the most progress in is Spanish, which is a good thing because in about five weeks time you are sending me off to the Baptist World Alliance meetings, and this year they are being held in Chile, a Spanish speaking country. Theoretically, I am quite competent in Spanish. I have a vocabulary of close to 3000 words, which is more than is usually considered necessary to be conversational, and I am reasonably proficient in structuring sentences in some of the most common and necessary patterns. Given a moment or two to think, I can work out how to communicate most things that I might want to say in Spanish. But the thing I most need to work on between now and my arrival in Chile is overcoming my fear. You see, when I come face to face with a Spanish speaker, and I know a number of them, I panic and freeze. I can have my opening sentence pre-planned and on the tip of my tongue ready to go, and then I just freeze with fear and retreat into English. Which is something I won’t so often have the option of doing in Chile.

I don’t think the depth of this fear is common to everyone. I know some people who find it easy to boldly have a go with only a little bit of language at their disposal. And I have become incredibly admiring of people like Rita and Minnie who have the courage to not only live and speak in a country where they have to use a second language, but undertake university studies in that language. For me there are a bunch of personal idiosyncrasies that mean that I have an almost desperate need to be a good communicator, and a number of personal experiences, including a broken marriage, have left me very fearful of the consequences of communication failures, and so, when I am stripped of my usual command of language, and have to operate in one in which I am uncertain of the nuances and subtleties, I am literally terrified. The story from Acts reports that some of the onlookers on the Day of Pentecost thought that the disciples were drunk, which suggests to me that their command of these foreign languages may not have been perfectly confident and competent. I think my fear is partly of being seen in a similar way – some kind of sad, slurring, incompetent joke, who like most drunks, thinks he’s doing a great job when he’s actually making a complete ass of himself.

Now although the depth of my fear about this is somewhat unique to me, it has given me an insight into something that goes on for most of us to some extent. All of us have circumstances and situations where we feel that communication is going to be a challenge and we are afraid of the consequences of getting it wrong. Sometimes we know that those we want to talk to are on such a different wavelength that we correctly feel that it is going to be pretty hard to get what we would like to say across. And a bit like my fear of second languages, that fear can bind our tongues and rob us of the courage to even try. Which of course guarantees that no communication will happen.

You see this even in the closest of relationships. Many of the communication issues that cause serious problems in marriages are not caused by what we communicate to one another, but by what we are afraid to even try to communicate to one another. The truth that might set us free remains imprisoned by fear. And in recent times, several of you have spoken with me about your uncertainties about how to communicate what your faith in Jesus means to you and does for you with people who ask questions of you but who seem to regard any kind of religious faith as evidence of some kind of regressive neediness that everyone else has outgrown. Naturally we don’t want to be dismissed or looked down on by our friends, and so it is easy to feel very unsure about how to answer their questions about why we go to church and believe all those fairy tales. And the fear and uncertainty can easily bind our tongues and see us trying to dodge the questions and keep silent. It seems that fear is the great enemy of freedom, including freedom of expression.

Now I think that this particular fear, the fear of expressing anything of our faith in front of those who don’t share it, takes us to an interesting connection with tonight’s gospel reading which will in turn help us to see what this Pentecost day miracle is promising us. You see, a huge part of the fear that we feel when called on to answer for our faith is that somehow we are being put in the position of sole responsibility for representing God or even defending God to this person. It is a lie, but it is a deliberate and strategic lie that is intended to silence us. Jesus uses a surprising image when he speaks of the Holy Spirit in the gospel reading we heard earlier. The image is drawn from courts of law. Jesus calls the Holy Spirit the Advocate, or the Barrister for the Defence. Our job, he says, is to testify, “to testify because you have been with me from the beginning.” Now, think about that for a moment. We are the witnesses, not the Defence Counsel. No individual witness has to have the whole story, or all the answers. Sometimes the most valuable witness doesn’t even know what happened. They just know one little bit that they witnessed, but it turns out to be the crucial bit of evidence without which the Defence Counsel could never pull the whole picture together. It is the Defence Counsel’s job to defend God and persuade the jury, not ours. We are not expected to do anything more than speak of whatever little bits we have personally experienced. Try to speak beyond what you have personally experienced, and your evidence will rightly be ruled inadmissible. So don’t ever think it is all up to you. It isn’t. Leave the Barrister’s job to the Holy Spirit.

If Ezekiel had stood in the valley of dry bones and thought it was his job to work out how they all went together again, he’d have frozen into fearful silence. But he spoke his one little bit, and the Spirit set to work. And I imagine that maybe Ezekiel’s one little bit may have been little more than the courtroom witness who has no idea how the whole skeleton is to be assembled but can confidently assert that they know that the foot bone connects to the ankle bone, and that is enough for the Holy Spirit to begin building the case that goes on and on until the whole valley is back on its feet and bearing witness to the life and love of God.

But there is another thing that comes from this courtroom image that sheds a lot of light on why we get so tongue tied. In the courtroom, there is another barrister, the Prosecutor. The Holy Spirit is not the only one spoken of with a courtroom name in the Bible. There is one known as “the satan”, which is not so much a name as a title: the accuser, or the prosecutor. I said before that the belief that you have to do it all was a deliberate strategic lie. When you are a witness for the defence, one of the things that the prosecutor will try to do when he cross examines you is make you doubt your own testimony by making you feel that you are responsible for knowing everything and that if you don’t have the whole story then how dare you be so presumptuous as to offer up some inadequate little bit that doesn’t stand up by itself. The prosecutor will seek to make you feel that you are responsible for proving everything so that you will lose your nerve and say nothing. But you will only be silenced if you fall for the lie that you are supposed to have all the answers. Admit what you don’t know, stand by whatever you do know from personal experience, and look to your Defence Counsel to stand up for you against the dirty tactics of the accuser and remind the court that the case is far from dependent on the testimony of any one witness. If you are confident in the Defence Counsel, you will be free to testify to what you know without fear.

Jesus said that it would be better for us that he be taken away so that the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, could come, and that the Spirit would take the things of Jesus and give them to us here. One of the things that we see in the stories of Jesus around people who had been fearful and downtrodden was that, in his presence, they felt safer and bolder and freer. People instinctively knew that he would protect them and stand up for them and allow them to be who they really were. But the problem for Jesus at that time was that he could only be in one place at a time, and so most people were missing out at any given moment. It is better for you that I go away, said Jesus, so that the Spirit can come, for the Spirit is the new way in which the same Christ is able to be present without the limitations of time and space. No longer confined to one body and one particular historical time and place, the Spirit of Christ is now able to stand up for us as Defence Counsel whenever and wherever we feel persecuted by that accusing voice that says, “You know nothing, you can’t even make sense of what you have experienced yourself. Don’t you dare presume to speak a word of such rubbish.” Just as Jesus was once able to make people feel safe and bold, so now his Spirit is able to do for any of us, anywhere, anytime. And so we can be freed from the fears that silence us.

The biggest miracle of that Pentecost Day, and the one that underpinned and enabled the languages one, was that a frightened little band of terrified disciples, locked away behind closed doors afraid to say anything of what they had seen or known of Jesus, was transformed, as they had previously been in Jesus’ company, into the confident and courageous and enthusiastic fledgling Church who were all able to speak their little bit about the love and mercy they had experienced in Jesus and trust the Holy Spirit to do with it whatever was needed to get the message across. And the promise for us in the story of this languages miracle is that nothing, not even our lack of communication skills or the apparent mountainous barriers to communication that lie in front of us, will stop the Holy Spirit from getting the message across. If we will speak simply and truthfully of whatever we have personally experienced of the love and mercy of God, then we can safely leave it to the Holy Spirit to present the full compelling case of God’s extravagant goodness and loose the tongues of the whole world to sing God’s praise.


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