The Languages of God


Rev. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps

Old First Church

June 9, 2019

Texts: Genesis 11:1-9; Acts 2:1-20

      When I was little, very, very little, my parents were afraid that I would “talk,” or sound like a deaf person – like this. So they sent me to my grandparents in Fitchburg, Massachu-setts, to teach me how to speak “normally.” That word “normal” reflected how many deaf people referred to the hearing world.  

       However, when I was returned to Washington, D.C., I came back speaking Finnish, not English. Although my grandfather was required to learn English in order to be naturalized in 1916, my grandmother was just included as part of the package. Women were not naturalized in their own right until 1934; before then women took on the nationality of their husbands. My grandmother only knew a few words approximating  English, the chief one of which was “polisi.”

         I made up for my lack of English in a short time although not without some firsthand experiences of prejudice and xenophobia similar to that experienced by children of immigrants today. Fear of the different and the foreign runs deep in our psyche and our culture. My deaf parents were no different, fearing the “normal” world of the hearing.

        Language has become a symbol of the different. There was a time, of course, when it was a unifier. In the nine-teenth century language became one of the symbols of a culture, a nation, a people. In our reading from Hebrew Scripture this morning, we are told that all the earth spoke one language. However, when the Lord sees what these people are up to, he – and it is a “he” here – decides to mess up their plans and scatters them speaking different languages. They are unable to understand each other.

        The ziggurats built by the ancient Babylonians were intended to be  literally gateways to the gods. Inscribed with the term “reaching heaven” they were the largest religious structures ever built reflecting the power of Babylon. Because of this connection, the Tower of Babel was seen by ancient Hebrew commentators as a defiance of God, a challenge to God’s power. Stories of God scattering peoples and confusing their tongues are not limited to what we call the cradle of civilization; the Toltecs of Mexico, the Tharus of Nepal, and even the Finns of the frozen north have similar stories.

         As a result, we wonder about language: We have languages of meaning, of the mind, of the soul. In addition, there are many kinds of misunderstandings. It’s difficult to understand those who speak English with a heavy accent, just as they struggle to understand those of us who chatter quickly, causing our words to blur in the minds of those not fluent.

         But even more important than accents or this language or that language is how we use language, for language re-flects our conceptual framework including our prejudices and limitations. That’s why language itself is such a battleground. And the way we talk about God is no different. Very often, when we talk about God, the same thing happens.

         I was reminded of this when I went to a memorial service for an old prominent Plainfield resident several years ago. The Baptist preacher used the term “Father God,” both in his eulogy and in his prayers; the words were inseparable in his mind. And then I thought about an old television series  – about the Catholic church in East Los Angeles where the social activist nun used “Our Father and Mother” in the Lord’s Prayer.

         The reaction to that show was one of outrage: how could God be both father and mother if Mary is the mother of Jesus carrying God’s seed. That sort of reaction comes from a too literal reading of first- and second-century ways of explaining divine origins.

         Hebrew Scripture often referred to God in both male and female terms; it’s only the limitation of English that narrows the inclusive terminology we sometimes find for God. For instance, the Genesis 1.26 text has God saying, “Let us create humankind in our image,” and then created “male and female.”   

         Wisdom, who became the Holy Spirit in Christian parlance and who exists with God from before Creation, is always referred to in feminine terms. She is the breath – the wind – the ruah – of God and it is she who sweeps into that room on Pentecost. Early Christian writers often referred to the Mother Spirit of God; much of their work was later deem-ed as heretical as the church developed along patriarchal and authoritarian lines. Women, who had originally served equally with men in the early church, were then relegated to their traditional roles in ancient culture as the community that became the institutional church solidified its power base.

          So, twenty centuries later, how are we to talk about God? First, we do need to recognize Scripture – the canon – reflects the prejudices and limitations of when the various books were written. Simply glossing over such passages as Paul’s exhortation to wives to be subject to their husbands doesn’t really address the problem. We would never take the fact that Paul sends Onesimus the slave back to Philemon as a justification for slavery – although in the nineteenth century, it was used to justify keeping slaves.

         This is an important question because the language we use for God reflects our cultural and religious bias; and those biases run deep. The editors of the New Century Hymnal hit a firewall of anger when they changed some of the words in certain Christmas carols to make the language more inclusive from their point of view. In the same way the editors of the inclusive language translation of the New Testament were vilified and even found themselves threatened with harm by certain traditionalists.

         In his book, The Language of God, Francis Collins, a former atheist and the director of the human genome project, described his intellectual journey that led him to embrace a faith, not like the one in which he was raised, but a new kind of faith that is seen through new eyes. As Collins and other scientists who have written on this subject all state, although faith is an experience, it does not shut out the intellect. Being open to God means being open to all possibilities, even the ones beyond our immediate vision.

         Scripture tells us that something extraordinary occurred on that day of Pentecost when devout Jews were gathered to remember God’s gift of the Law to Moses. Although many of us may look askance at the emotional experiences that films like Elmer Gantry or The Apostle depict, anyone who has ever been to an old-fashioned revival meeting can get some sense of how people get caught up in the emotion of such an event.

         There is a word for it: crowd behavior. Psychologists tell us that we human beings are often influenced by those factors. It’s one of the reasons why people in groups behave in ways that they never would if not for the influence of the others. We are influenced by the experience and behavior of others to be sure. This propensity to such influence was a deep fear of our Nation’s founders, something that can be seen in the debates of the Continental Congress.

         I suggest that we need to look beyond the literal details of the story of Pentecost to better understand why this event was so important in the formation of the Christian community and what the Pentecost event means to us today. Usually called the birthday of the church, it was clearly a formative event in the life of the small community that met together after their shared experiences of their new lives in Christ.

          After Pentecost, the inward looking fearful community became a community that reached out to the world to share the good news of God’s new realm of righteousness. The word righteousness is a Scriptural term that encompasses more than just ethical conduct; it means God’s justice, the moral framework of the universe. It is a word that means that God is faithful to the covenant that was established between God and the human race; it is a term that demands our re-sponse in relationship to God and to others.

         The writer of Luke-Acts provides us with a new understanding of how God operates in our lives. The writer does this by a description of a certain event, but more importantly, by describing how Peter after this event is bold to proclaim to those assembled his account of Jesus as Lord and Messiah  and his relationship to God –– which by the way, if you read carefully is not Trinitarian in the classical sense. It’s important not to take words and ascribe to them the theology that later developed.

         Pentecost represents the new community reaching out into the world and its beginning as the church. It is the first lurch into the world beyond the small community of Galileans who were with Jesus. As the community morphed into the church, it took many more lurches before the church encomp-assed the non-Jewish world, before it began to realize that old rules, such as dietary laws and gender separation during worship, were not part of the radical claims of Jesus of equality and justice.

         It meant reaching out into communities where languages, customs, beliefs, and lifestyles were different. It meant being a new voice of God in the world, one that was and is open to everyone regardless of race, ethnicity, custom, immigration status, sexual orientation, and a host of other factors that we as human beings use to differentiate our--selves from each other.

          One reading from Hebrew Scripture that is often paired with the Pentecost story is the story of the Tower of Babel. In that story, all people spoke one language and decided to get together to build a tower to the heavens. The God depicted in Genesis did not find this amusing; in fact, God was downright upset to realize that people could get together in such a fashion. So, the story goes, God made people speak different languages so they could not understand each other and became confused and angry. What Pentecost says to us is that all those different lang-uages do not need to divide us; in fact, they can unite us in a higher purpose: to establish God’s rule of justice and peace on earth.

          The message of Pentecost is that the language of God is one of diversity and justice, inclusion rather than exclusion, embracing not rejecting. The language of God embraces the variety of our human existence. We are called to reflect all that in our lives by fully loving and caring for the other.

          Let us pray: You, O God, who created such diversity in our human race, help us to understand that the differences of language, race, and culture are just the reflections of your infinitude. May we reflect your call to live in covenant with each other and to share your good news of welcome with all whom we meet. In the name of him who welcomed all, even Christ Jesus our Lord, Amen.