A language that everyone can understand

Text: Acts 2:1-21 (the day of Pentecost) * Context: part of a joint service between Mill Woods United and Zimbabwe United Methodist – Edmonton

The dream of Pentecost is a sweet one. When tongues of flame alight on the heads of the first followers of Jesus, they are astonished to find they can preach in foreign languages. With the power of the Holy Spirit, people from different countries understand each other. The curse of the Tower of Babel is overcome and unity between different nations seems possible again.

Today, since we are worshipping in both English and Shona, I believe the story of Pentecost is a fitting one.

Even when people speak the same language, communication can be a challenge, and church is no exception. At church, we are blessed by ancient texts and traditions. But because they are ancient, they also present difficulties.

On Tuesday when I met with Rev. Tazi to organize this service, we compared our worship practices. Some of what we do in worship is the same and some is different. One difference is in the use of creeds. Every Sunday, the Zimbabwean congregation recites the ancient Apostles Creed, which in its English translation begins: “I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.” Tens of thousands of congregations around the world use it in worship every week. But few United Church of Canada congregations remain among that group.

At Mill Woods United when we recite a creed, it is the United Church Creed. We use it in baptism, and it forms the shape of our confirmation classes. So today in the place where the Zimbabweans would normally recite the Apostles Creed, we recited The United Church Creed.

Many people in the United Church are fond of the New Creed. Still, it has had its own controversies. When it was adopted in 1968, it began like this: “Man is not alone. Man lives in God’s world.” In the years that followed, a wave of feminism swept through the United Church. One of its aims was to make the language of worship more inclusive. This movement objected to referring to God only as Father and to humanity only as man. So, in 1980, the Creed was revised. It now begins: “We are not alone. We live in God’s world.”

I like the change. Not only does it not use the word “man” to refer to all humans, it turns the creed from a statement of personal belief into a communal profession.

At Mill Woods United, we also change the English translation of the Lord’s Prayer from “Our Father” to “Our Father, Our Mother.” I am OK when people use the more traditional translation. But I support the move over the last 50 years to make our language more inclusive.

Of course, these are small difficulties compared to the existence of different languages like Shona and English.

In the story of the first Pentecost, the barrier of language is removed for one day. But after this taste of unity, the church returns to the work of studying other languages and listening to people from far-off lands, work that continues to this day.

On Pentecost, the Holy Spirit gave the power to understand regardless of language for one day. But the enduring power of the Holy Spirit is Love. And, while love can be expressed in words, its most powerful expression is in action.

We know we are loved when a family member holds us when we are grieving. We know we are loved when a friend helps us when we are sick. We know we are loved when our neighbours join with us to fight for justice and equality. We know we are loved when others open their hearts to our reality in body, mind and soul.

Last Thursday, baby boomers marked the 50th anniversary of the release of the record “Sgt Pepper’s Lonely-Hearts Club Band’ by the Beatles. For many of us, this album provided a soundtrack to 1967’s Summer of Love.

Happily, the power of Pentecost means that any season can become one of Love. When, with Grace, we act with love, the promise of Pentecost becomes real. The wounds of a fractured humanity are addressed, and the dream of creating God’s realm on earth as it is in heaven moves closer to reality.

This is the Holy Spirit, the power of God’s Love that is with us now and always.

“We are not alone. Thanks be to God.”

Amen.

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