Michael Jinkins: Hearing with Pentecost ears

The miracle of Pentecost was a miracle of hearing. It still is.

The miracle of Pentecost was a miracle of hearing. It still is.

Several months ago a report about current linguistic research caught my attention. The report began by asking the question: “Where in the world is the largest number of different languages spoken?”

Conventional wisdom, even among experienced linguists, the report went on to say would probably offer New Guinea as the answer. The island has more than 800 distinct languages “scattered around its isolated, jungle-covered valleys.” But there is another place in the world that now surpasses the remote island when it comes to diverse languages. “The five boroughs of New York City,” according to recent linguistic studies, “are reckoned to be home to speakers of around 800 languages, many of them close to extinction.”

The world in all its startling and sometimes indecipherable diversity is no longer on the other side of the globe. The whole wide world is on our doorstep. This makes some people nervous and unhappy. Some people see such difference as a threat to their way of seeing the world, a threat to their own culture, their faith. Consequently, they sometimes try to bar admission to their society. Reacting with a fortress mentality, they may try to erect walls and dig moats to keep difference out.

Not only is this reaction ill-conceived and counter-productive for economic and social reasons, it runs exactly opposite the expansive message of the gospel. A fortress mentality is not an option for those of us who follow Jesus of Nazareth.

When the church was born, it emerged in a world almost as diverse as our own. The story of the church's birth begins amid a cacophony of different tongues, people chattering away in Aramaic, in Latin, Greek, and in tongues most of us only encounter when we draw the short straw and are asked to read the second chapter of Acts on Pentecost Sunday. People from language groups scattered throughout the ancient world were together on the day the church was born, “Parthians and Medes and Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the districts of Libya around Cyrene,” as well as “visitors from Rome,” Cretans and Arabs. There were people present whose language the Romans derisively called “barbarian,” because to Roman ears it sounded like a repeated, “bar-bar-bar.”

They were all chattering at once. We are told: “when this sound occurred, the multitude came together, and were bewildered, because they were each one hearing them speak in his own language” (Acts 2:6).

This was the miracle of Pentecost. And it gave rise to the question: “How is it that we can each hear them in our own language?” Pentecost was a miracle of hearing, of comprehension, of listening.

That should give us pause in these days when so many people strain to shout their views at others, but seldom strive to listen. The church’s birth is swaddled in listening to people who speak differently. As any linguist will tell you, to speak a different language means to experience the world differently. A language marks the boundary between different cultures, different ways of understanding the world around us. Christian faith crossed these boundaries not by force of argument, but through the generous act of hearing, listening, entering into the ways others conceive of the world we all inhabit.

When the church did utter its first words, they were words that bore witness to the fact that in Jesus Christ God has come into the world to seek out sinners, to forgive us, to redeem us. The church, at its birth, did not attempt to force others into rigid agreement. And the church certainly did not attempt to build walls and construct moats to keep out those who are different (that reaction came a little later, though the gospel broke through those barriers and even gentiles were admitted to the faith). At its birth, the church entered the language worlds of others so that it might articulate the good news of Jesus Christ in terms that could be heard and understood.

The miracle of Pentecost was a miracle of hearing. It still is.

Michael Jinkins is president and professor of theology at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary.