Dear Friends …
The season of Pentecost is upon us — the feast day itself happens on the 20th May — and at this very minute I’m planning what I hope will be a very exciting service: a multi-lingual Eucharist using the skills and talents of many parishioners. (Don’t worry … there will be English translations on the big screens!) In addition, we shall be welcoming Najmeh for her baptism, which (with Ben’s help) we shall conduct bi-lingually in both Farsi and English.
My hope is that, together, we may get a small flavour of just what happened on the first Pentecost after the Resurrection, when the Father, in the name of the Ascended Christ, poured out the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles and enabled them to speak in every local language of the Jews gathered in Jerusalem for the festival. We are told that many thousands were converted that day and baptised. Here we began to witness the birth of Christ’s Church as we know it — and the first signs of the Gospel spreading into the nations.
I don’t suppose that anyone actually spoke Welsh on that particular day but, all the same, the Gospel came to us within about a century and a half through the expansion of the Roman Empire. In a very real way, we have the Gospel of Christ available in all the languages of this island — those native, and those imported — as a direct result of this miracle. That is to say: by the very nature of this, the first mass preaching event in Christian history, God wrote squarely into the Church’s DNA our obligation to bring Christ’s love to all peoples in all quarters of creation.
In the modern day this calling leaves us with a task, and not simply one of grammar and lettering. Two thousand years on from Pentecost, the words of Christian scripture and liturgy have been translated into many hundreds of languages. Getting our hands on these is no longer a problem, if we care to look. But the spread of the Gospel was never solely about sticking a legible book in somebody’s hand. To the contrary: we are called to translate the Good News, in both word and deed, into words and concepts that our neighbours can understand, ingest, and engage with.
This second level of translation has always been a crucial part of our work. St. Paul travelled the Mediterranean — preaching, to be sure — but also living and working amongst a variety of people and communities in the ports of the Empire. St. Peter followed up his preaching with acts of grace and healing amongst the fledgling faith community. The earliest Christian churches, we are told in Acts, shared money, and food, and property — working together, praying together, eating together, and looking after those in need. “Religion pure and undefiled before God, the Father” says St. James, “is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”
It is our job, therefore, to hear the language of the people around us, even if it is not always our own: to hear their needs, to learn their hopes, and to share their dreams — and then to speak God’s love for all his children in words that can be heard, and deeds that bring healing and wholeness. This need not mean the “dumbing down” of the faith (of which the modern church is often accused), nor following every latest gimmick for its own sake to attract bums on pews (at least till the newness wears off). Quite the opposite: it means for us to get back to basics. I believe in a robust Christianity that, whilst it may seek new words and ways into the real lives of real people, also brings a passion for God’s love, a joy in exploring the depth and the richness of God’s creative work through scripture and sacrament, and translating these into practical means of quenching our people’s thirst for fulness of life.
We have been given a priceless gift in Christ — a place in God’s very own eternal life — because the earliest disciples and generations of church-folk who came after, took to heart the message that God’s grace knows no human boundaries. That is what Pentecost teaches us, and the job for our generation remains the same as it ever did: to make Good News known to the nations.