June 8, 2014

Speaking in the Native Language of Each

Passage: Acts 2:1-21, Psalm 104:24-35, 1 Corinthians 12:1-13, John 20:19-23
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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.

Consider this mission statement of a well-known university: "To be plainly instructed and consider well that the main end of your life and studies is to know God and Jesus Christ." Founded in 1636, this university employed exclusively Christian professors, emphasized character formation in its students above all else, and placed a strong emphasis on equipping ministers to share the good news. You've probably heard of this school. It's called Harvard University.

Only 80 years after its founding, a group of New England pastors sensed Harvard had drifted too far for their liking. Concerned by the secularization at Harvard, they approached a wealthy philanthropist who shared their concerns. This man, Elihu Yale, financed their efforts in 1718, and they called the college Yale University. Yale's motto was … Lux et Veritas (light and truth).

Today, Harvard's and Yale's legacy of academic excellence are still intact. But neither school resembles what their founders envisioned. At the 350th anniversary celebration of Harvard… Larry Summers, the former president of Harvard, confessed, "Things divine have been central neither to my professional nor to my personal life." What happened to Harvard and Yale is what some call "Mission Drift."

Consider a story closer to home. In 1836 Upper Canada Academy was founded by the Wesleyan Methodist Church in Cobourg, Ontario. The school officially opened to students on October 12, of that year with a Methodist minister by the name of Egerton Ryerson as the first president. Although the school taught a variety of liberal arts subjects, it also functioned as an unofficial Methodist seminary. In 1841 it obtained a provincial charter under the name of Victoria College, giving it power to grant degrees and in 1890 federated with the University of Toronto. Today Victoria University comprises Victoria College, an arts and science college of the University of Toronto, and Emmanuel College, a theological college.

On the home page of the website for Emmanuel College is the following: “Part of the College’s larger vision is to recognize that the concepts of justice, goodness and love are larger than any one particular religion or tradition can fully define.” The school now offers a master’s degree called Master of Pastoral Studies: Muslim Studies.

It is not only academic institutions that can suffer mission drift but the church as well. Today we read the story of the birthday of the church. In it is expressed the reason for its existence. In a book titled Mission Drift: The Unspoken Crisis Facing Leaders, Charities, and Churches the authors (Peter Greer and Chris Horst) write, “Mission drift unfolds slowly. Like a current, it carries organizations away from their core purpose and identity.

1. When I read Emmanuel College’s vision asserting that “the concepts of justice, goodness and love are larger than any one particular religion or tradition”, I want to ask, how you know that? Does such a statement not claim for itself what is denies religion or tradition? Does it not imply that someone at the college has a complete or better definition of say, love, from which to judge that religions are lacking in some way in their definitions?

The Apostle John wrote this about love. “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.” (1 John 4:7-10)

The gospel asserts that Jesus Christ is love; to know him is to truly know love. And it is at the cross where we learn what love is really like. It is correct to say, as the Apostle Paul pointed out, that the love of Christ “surpasses knowledge”. (Ephesians 3:19) Yes, our minds cannot fully comprehend that which is infinite but that is not what is asserted in saying that the concept of love is “larger than any one particular religion or tradition can fully define.”

The very reason the Apostle can assert the knowledge-surpassing nature of the love of Christ is because Jesus Christ has made himself known to him. It is for this very reason the Apostle John can assert that God is love—he met Him in Jesus Christ. Christians assert that we know love because Jesus Christ has made himself known to us. It isn’t because we have a concept of love and apply it to Jesus and conclude—oh, that Jesus is the supreme example of love. No one looks at the crucifixion of Jesus from our human concepts of love and concludes—look here is God really loving us!

It is the other way around. Christian faith asserts we discover love as we discover Jesus Christ. “In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.” It is implied in the Apostle Paul’s prayer for the church that “you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge.” (Ephesians 3:18-19) The love of Christ calls from us every power and human faculty we can muster; calls us to spend our very best intellectual rigor for its comprehension; pushes us to offer ourselves in self-giving and self-forgetfulness for the service others. Yet this love of Christ surpasses the reach of them all! And the promise held out to us? So that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.

Which brings me to Pentecost and the mission of the church—to proclaim the good news that is Jesus Christ. To the story of Pentecost.

2. In the first chapter of Luke’s story about the early church, readers are left with the impression, first, that the work of Jesus is not complete. “What’s next on your agenda,” ask the disciples. “You will be my witnesses,” answers our Lord. Secondly, the disciples will not be fully prepared for this work until a notable activity of the Holy Spirit has taken place. “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you,” Jesus had promised. Luke wants us to understand that this notable activity came to pass on the day of Pentecost.

I invite you to consider what the Spirit of God empowers them to do. “All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.” (Acts 2:4) What were they being enabled to speak about? “God’s deeds of power,” Luke answers. (Acts 2:11). Luke goes on to give his readers an instance of what this means with Peter’s sermon. They bore witness to Jesus Christ, crucified and risen from the dead. Take particular note of this: “each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.”

While I learned to read other languages for academic purposes, it is a personal disappointment that I did not learn to speak another language. I confess that I envy those who can. My missionary friend Reg Reimer—who looks every ounce of his German Mennonite heritage—spent a number of years as a missionary in Vietnam. I recall going to a Vietnamese restaurant in Toronto with him and seeing the look of delight in the eyes of the Vietnamese owner as Reg conversed fluently with him in his native language. When I travel to another country I am so grateful, after I say “hello”, when the staff of a restaurant or hotel speaks to me in English. I also marvel that people who are proficient in other languages can think in more than one language. The less proficient have to translate to their mother tongue in order to think and go back and forth. There are few things like the comfort of your native language. You know its idioms. It must be very difficult for someone of other native language, upon entering a Toronto subway platform, to understand what the sign “mind the gap” means.

AS you reflect on the comfort of your native language think about the impact of this Pentecost outpouring of the Holy Spirit such that “each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.” It shows us what lengths God will go to help us hear the good news of Jesus. It shows us that God wants to tear down every barrier that would prevent a person from hearing. All of this is in service of God’s mission; to make the good news of Jesus Christ known. This is the mission of the church. It is revealed in what God did in these witnesses by power of the Holy Spirit.

3. Let me press this idea of the native language a little further. AS is evident in the story by the variety of responses simply hearing the gospel in your native tongue did render a person a believer. It did show that God wants to remove barriers to hearing but translation isn’t the only thing needed. In our culture, English speakers might hear the gospel in their native language but they still can’t hear that it is good news. Many hear it as nonsense—as some said on this Pentecost day, the speakers were inebriated.

If God wants to remove barriers then we know that our mission as a church is to follow suit. We are to communicate the gospel in our generation in a way that remains faithful to the gospel yet can be heard by those in our world where we live. It is a fine line we walk of accommodating the message for hearers yet not assimilating the spirit of our age into the gospel. I have spoken before of the work of Dr. Timothy Keller, Pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, who calls this the work of generating a theological vision. “A theological vision is a faithful restatement of the gospel with rich implications for life, ministry, and mission in a type of culture at a moment in history.”

In our culture, for example, organized religion is seen to be a detriment. People are leery of or largely indifferent to what goes on within the four walls of the church. So, perhaps as we share our faith we need to speak of it as “faith.” The gospel is not religion. Religion is humans trying to make themselves acceptable, whether it is for some idea of God or simply to feel good about themselves. The gospel is never “in order to” but “because of”. Never “in order to” merit God’s love” but “because of” of his love for us. All judgementalism is set aside.

Michael Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York City, in a recent interview at a college reunion said that his mortality has started dawning on him, at age 72. He also said that he's been sobered by how many of his former classmates have passed away. Pointing to his work on gun safety, obesity and smoking cessation, he said with a grin: 'I am telling you if there is a God, when I get to heaven I'm not stopping to be interviewed. I am heading straight in. I have earned my place in heaven. It's not even close.'" Now that is religion. The gospel is nothing like that—the door to heaven was opened for us by another—Jesus Christ. He is our guarantee that when we come to the Father’s house the door will be wide open for us to enter to the joy he has prepared for us.

According to some marketing specialists 8 in 10 people say they trust online customer reviews.
BrightLocal.com has published the results of its Local Consumer Review Survey 2013, containing a host of interesting statistics regarding consumer attitudes to online reviews. The study indicates that an increasing number of consumers are reading online reviews to determine whether a local business is a good business (85% this year, up from 76% last year), and two-thirds need to read less than 6 reviews before forming an opinion about the business (up from 52% last year.)

It is interesting to note that God empowers people to bear witness to him. (Could we think of this as customer reviews?) Few things have the impact of personal experience. At Central United we are in a period of discernment about living out our mission as a church. I have said these things on this Pentecost day to remind us of what our mission is; in order to prevent “mission drift.” We exist to proclaim the good news that is Jesus Christ. What that looks like for us in this moment of history is always a work in progress but always empowered by the Holy Spirit.

May the Lord help us sound the gospel in the native tongue of our culture!