Lectionary for May 19, 2024
Day of Pentecost
Acts 2:1-21; Psalm 104:24-34, 35b;
Romans 8:22-27; John 15:26-27, 16:4b-15

The Jerusalem Pentecost, as detailed in Acts 2, is one of my favorite pieces of Scripture. I love the Christian Pentecost for the same reason that I love the Jewish Pentecost (which celebrates the giving of the Torah at Sinai, among other things): God multiplies coherence across languages. This week, we are talking about the Christian Pentecost as a festival of inclusion.

To be totally honest, the Pentecost celebrated in Acts 2 is an explicitly and exclusively Jewish festival. Samaritans, Ethiopians and even gentiles will be included in the Spirit’s ministry in coming chapters of Acts, but that isn’t what’s going on in Acts 2.

In Acts 2 we read that Jews from all over the world are living in Jerusalem (5). Peter directs his Pentecost sermon to the “men of Israel” (22) and the “house of Israel” (36). The people who hear the Galileans speaking in their own languages are from across the world—and they are all Jews. The participants include Jews from inside and outside the Roman Empire (Parthia, Media, Elam and Mesopotamia are listed first); Jews from Judea; and exiles from Rome, both Jews and proselytes (Tiberias had exiled Jews from Rome about 14 years prior, just as Claudius would do again about 20 years later). Even Cretan Jews and Arab Jews came to the Pentecost pilgrimage in Jerusalem.

Yet, while Jews from all over the world came to the same city for the same holiday, they stuck to their own people, with their own traditions and speaking their own languages. This is how Christians today come to the Holy Land around Christmas and Easter. I’ve lived in Jerusalem on a couple different occasions and have seen German Catholics, Russian Orthodox and American Lutherans all stick to their own. We prefer to eat our own traditional foods and speak our own languages. We don’t seem to mesh well with other parts of the body of Christ who think, speak, believe, pray and eat differently from us, even as we make a pilgrimage to the same city. In many ways, 21st-century Jerusalem isn’t so different from first-century Jerusalem. People come from all over the world but don’t really integrate that well—with each other or with local residents.

What was wonderful is that each person could join the conversation because they heard it in their own language.

As I was thinking about how people make a pilgrimage but don’t mingle, what really captured my imagination was the inclusion of the Roman converts to Judaism on the list of Pentecost attendees. Tiberias had exiled even Roman citizens who converted to Judaism because they had sided with the missionary efforts of Jews who sought to preach the good news of their God against the idolatry of Rome. That reminded me of a particular Roman convert to Judaism—Onkelos.

In the Mikraot Gedolot (usually called the “Rabbinic Bible” in English) that I read in my 20s and 30s, right next to the Hebrew text was Onkelos’ Aramaic targum, or translation. A Roman Jewish convert had pride of place in making sure that Aramaic-speaking Jews could understand the ancient Hebrew text. And below that, writing in another orthography and language was the great French commentor Rashi. Ibn Ezra, writing in Muslim Spain, joined Nachmanides, writing in Christian Spain, who joined Sforno, writing in Italy—all invoked Jonathan’s (and Pseudo-Jonathan’s) targum that he wrote in the Holy Land. On one page, you have a conversation (and sometimes an argument) about the Hebrew Bible that happens across centuries, continents and languages. That is precisely the miracle of Pentecost! Peter gives a Bible study about what Joel means in their day, and everyone gets to hear and understand.

What amazed everyone on that Pentecost day in 33ish CE was not that suddenly people spoke all kinds of different languages and couldn’t understand each other. That is the curse of Babel, not the miracle of Pentecost! What was wonderful is that each person could join the conversation because they heard it in their own language.

During a conference session that I attended, Aviya Kushner, author of The Grammar of God, said reading a translated Bible in English is so profoundly shocking because it just brings forth one meaning with no room for commentary. Unlike a Rabbinic Bible, when you or I open a Bible there is most likely just the Scripture in one language and without pages and pages of notes pointing out how uncertain or polysemous (having multiple meanings) the text is. Locating authority in one translated voice and one authoritative meaning, Kushner added, is a threat to a democratic country (and, I would add, to the body of Christ!). We need multiple voices (and languages) to have equal spots at the table to hear and understand Scripture and be part of God’s people.

The Jerusalem Pentecost is good news for us today, not because it’s neat to speak multiple languages (though it definitely is!). Instead, the Christian Pentecost is good news for us today because it means that God is not content with having separate pockets of followers who maintain estrangement and only make the faintest efforts toward unity. Instead, God insists that no matter where you’re from, what language you speak, what your traditions are, or even what holiday food is traditional for you, you are part of God’s story and are a necessary conversation partner. The good news isn’t the private property of one ethnolinguistic group—it belongs to the Spirit, who spreads it wherever and among whomever she wants!

Cory Driver
Cory Driver is the director of L.I.F.E. (Leading the Integration of Faith and Entrepreneurship) at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. His book on wilderness spirituality, Life Unsettled, is available from Fortress Press.

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