May 31, 2020


If you speak one language your fluency depends on vocabulary and grammar. Knowing the endings of words or word order is important for communication as we know there is a world of difference in English between ‘the dog bit the man’ and ‘the man bit the dog’. When you can string sentences together, you increase what you can say by more words. You can be nuanced, subtle, bold, brash, poetic, dramatic, clear, obtuse, and so much more with your words.

One of the casualties of migration is that the migrants may not eventually be able to communicate with their children or grandchildren as well as they desire because the mother tongues of the generations are different and the closeness and intimacy of one mother tongue may be ‘lost in translation’ in another mother tongue.

You many have heard the comment or meme that the Inuits have 50 words for snow. It’s a contested view but considering that there are numerous languages within Eskimo-Aleut and the environment does impact our vocabulary, I am certainly prepared to accept that they have more words for snow than I do when I can only think of two – ‘snow’ and ‘slush’! So the environment and circumstance has an impact on language and communication. The debate, of course, is how much!  ( – cf. George, C H. (2020). How Dead Languages Work. Oxford: OUP.)

In English ‘love’ covers a multitude of meanings. We listen carefully for the context, the surrounding words, because we know that there is a difference or should be between loving chocolate, our country, our child, and our spouse. In ancient Greek there are 4 word groups used for love and so it was far more quickly and perhaps more nuanced to know whether the love is charity, even sacrificial or friendship or sexual or familial or even hospitality – and it could even refer to ‘self love’ and too much of that we’d simply call ‘selfish’.

Words in different languages do not have straight equivalents and one word in one language may require numerous words to explain.

In German the word ‘Schadenfreude’ means “a feeling of pleasure or satisfaction when something bad happens to someone else” (Cambridge Dictionary) and perhaps the closest single English word might be ‘gloating’ – and you might disagree and prefer another word. Welcome to translations!

In Finnish the word ‘sisu’ means determination and perseverance – or as it has been explained to me “going through even a grey rock”. When could you use such a word?

I recall the first time ‘fair dinkum’ slipped out in a sermon at Ascension, Charlotte and our daughters didn’t bat an eye lid but there was a wave of confusion across everyone else’s faces – those from here or the US and I had to stop and explain that it meant genuine, excellent, true and can be used to express approval but also incredulity. Fair dinkum.

Luke records the events of Pentecost after Jesus had risen and ascended. The Jewish Festival of Shavuot is the wheat harvest festival 50 days after the Passover and it has associations with the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. It is a pilgrimage festival so Jerusalem was filled with pilgrims who came together for agricultural, financial, and spiritual reasons.

5 Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven. 6 And at this sound the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one was hearing them speak in his own language. 7 And they were amazed and astonished, saying, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language? – 11b we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God.” (Acts 2:5-8,11b ESV)

The story of Jesus from conception to death to empty tomb pushes the boundaries of what the world regards as possible to incredulity. Maybe it’s all a mistranslation? But the story of the risen and ascended Jesus and the work of the Holy Spirit pushes things further for the world. In fact if you asked the world if there would still be a religion 2,000 years after it began when it had no official language, I think the world would shake its head and say, ‘No, it would have changed so much without the linguistic anchor’.

Arabic is the official language of Islam because the Qur’an and the Hadiths were written in Arabic. Translations may be acceptable but they are regarded as approximations only and it is best to learn and read the Arabic. Hinduism uses Sanskrit as its principal language. Buddhism – depending where it is located – might focus more on Pali or Chinese or Tibetan than Sanskrit. In Christianity, I think, Latin might have a long tradition as a teaching and liturgical language but today’s message of Pentecost makes the subtle point – in your own language – that Christianity doesn’t have an official language. This is important to note.

We have the Holy Spirit!

I know there is often the comment and tension that each translation is in some way a traitor to the original but the truth is that if you want to talk about the Word of God, you have to be thinking in terms of a person rather than a text – and when the Word became flesh and dwelt among us then we have a person, a name, a someone who is speaking through words written down, translated, sung, preached, taught, prayed. These words are dynamic, powerful, even performative – doing words, for when Jesus says you are forgiven, you are … forgiven. When he says that you are loved, you are … loved. And this the work, the goal, the joy, the desire of the Holy Spirit who takes the words about Jesus and about God and draws us to Jesus and thus to God. His words capture us – I don’t mean trap or entrap – but reveal who Jesus is and how genuine, real, compassionate, but also uncompromising yet forgiving and blessing he is – how tough he is – how he thinks and teaches – and these accounts where we meet Jesus enthral us with the hope and the wonder – can this Jesus be true – be real – be for me? It is faith that sighs or shouts, cries with repentance or with joy, ‘Yes, Jesus loves me’. This story, this news, is in me.

And behind the scenes, quiet, so often unnoticed is the Holy Spirit no longer using tongues of fire as a calling card but who has bound himself to words that present Jesus fully – and not our preference or stereotype of Jesus. The Holy Spirit binds himself and uses words that are creative – think the absolution; words that challenge and guide us – think of our journey each day with our sin and God’s grace; words that are covered in water and bread and wine which makes the message personal, close, intimate. And the same thing is happening as at that first Pentecost because we are hearing the mighty works of God! Our experience of all these words are varied, up and down, we may feel close to God or far away, but the message will be constant and consistent – for when the Church has veered from the truth, it has always been drawn back not to an official language but to the message of the cross and empty tomb, to Jesus truly human and truly God, to our sin and God’s grace, and to living through faith in this world because we already have eternal life.

We are full of words. We want to talk. We’re not good listeners. But the Holy Spirit perseveres in using the words of our time and place in continuity with the words of God’s revelation in the past to reach us – touch us – stir our emotions – give us hope that we are someone’s beloved – draw us to Jesus – and as we encounter Jesus and realise he is next to us, we see ourselves, we find ourselves in these words – the message – our Lutheran shorthand will say ‘Law and Gospel’ – holds us and is constant when we are not – for this is the truth of Pentecost still today that Jesus holds his people close and will never abandon them, that forgiveness is free and that repentance is the lifestyle that takes the rest of our lives to learn.

Bible References

  • Acts 2:5 - 11