Sermons That Work

We Hear Them Telling…, Day of Pentecost (A) – 1996

May 26, 1996

“We hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God.” Acts 2:11

Most of us who have been the members of the Episcopal Church here in the United States have grown up in a church which was English speaking, a church which largely worshipped in Elizabethan English. The culture shock of transition from the 1928 Prayer Book to the Prayer Book of 1979, was usually the first major cultural shock to hit us in the church. We were used to, and loved the language of the Book of Common Prayer and the King James’ Version of the Bible. Because we are used to the language of the two great translations, we thought as the norm, the standard; and compared everything else to them. But, every one of us had been brought up in a church which translated the meaning those prayers and words to us, because none of us talked or wrote that kind of English, except in church. It was as I grew up more than sixty years ago, already a dead language, not quite as dead as Latin, but far from it in reality. But, we were used to it. It was the language of the church. It was familiar.

Then came the Revised Version of the Bible in the late forties and early fifties, which was followed by other later translations and we began to hear a different kind of English read in church. Not as elegant an English, not as beautiful in sound, but one which could be understood much more — maybe also because the meaning was clearer and less comfortable to live with. Let’s face it, the Book of Common Prayer had never even gotten as far as using the King James’ translation of the Psalms, but continued to use the translation from the Bishop’s Bible of the late 1500’s, because people didn’t like that new King James’ translation. We don’t easily change the way we worship or the language in which we worship. They are both part of our culture, whether we think of them that way or not.

Along a parallel line, we have grown up with a set of custom and habits, we usually identify as “the way things are done.” For example at Christmas we have adopted and Christianized the Yule log which originally kept the sun from dying on the shortest night of the year. We have adopted and Christianized the Christmas Tree, which incidentally didn’t arrive in England until Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, brought it over from Germany. What would our Christmas be without the creche which came to us from the Italy of St. Francis. Our hymns come from every part of European history and geography over more than the last thousand years. All of these influences, together with all the others we have inherited have become “the way we do things.” Add to these the clothes the clergy and servers wear in church. In origin some of these are even older than our music. Oh, the lines and sometimes the colors change a little now and then, but a cassock alb is no more what we wear every day, than either a cassock or an alb. Altogether these have become our religious culture or, at least, the outward shape and form of it.

Because we have grown up with these forms of prayer and worship and the language that went with them, they are comfortable and familiar to us and we have forgotten where they came from, if we ever knew. Consequently, being human, we think, “this is the way it ought to be done.” Without thinking, we expect others to worship and pray our way, with our language, because it is the “right” way to worship and pray.

No one in the early church would recognize most of what we consider to be “normal” and essential to good worship and prayer. In the first place, the earliest Christians read the Bible in Hebrew or Greek, slowly got the letters of Paul and the four Gospels in Greek and worshipped not in churches but in the synagogues and the Temple, until they were thrown out as heretics. Nor were the first Christians of one culture or language. This morning’s lesson from Acts is a strong reminder of just how complex and varied the earliest Christian communities were. They all started out as Jewish, but they quickly included others. The first major conflict in the life of the church was over the question (at least partly cultural) of whether non-Jewish men had to be circumcised before they could become Christians. The order of Deacons seems to have originated from a conflict between the Jews and the Hellenists (Greeks) in the congregation in Jerusalem over whether the sharing of food, etc. was equal.

Within not much more than a century or so, the Western church began teaching and preaching and praying in Latin because that was the language most common in the West. Some of the differences and conflicts between the Eastern Orthodox Churches and the Western Churches, including our own, come from this transition and translation. When we get into the age of the Councils, we quickly run into confusions and conflicts caused by the change from Greek to Latin. A very clear example of this is the fact that the Councils described the Virgin Mary as “Theotokos,” which means “God bearer.” In the West this was translated into Latin as “Mater Dei,” which means “Mother of God.” There is difference here and it is to this day a matter of discussion and disagreement between the churches East and West.

So, as the Church tries to adapt to what is happening in America and the world, as it tries to hold on to the faith and yet teach it in what the first English Prayer of 1549 called “a language [understood by] the people,” we have to work hard, and long, and patiently, depending constantly on prayer and the Holy Spirit to lead and guide us so that our way of doing things, our church culture is not a barrier to those whom we are called to serve. We must seek to hold fast to “the Apostles” teaching and fellowship, the breaking of bread and the prayers,” but holding fast to those cannot mean that things always have to be done in the way we are accustomed to. If that were true, we would still have to be speaking in Aramaic or possibly “koine” Greek. Being true to the faith does not mean locking it into any time frame or any culture frame. Until the eighteenth century, it has always meant acculturation into wherever the church has gone. It has always meant using whatever is useful in a culture to help interpret the faith to members of that culture.

Now in the middle of the vast cultural changes going on in America, we need to recognize the difference between what has been “the way things are done” and the essentials of the faith. Just because we carry those essentials in a manner which is appropriate to and expressive of the culture of which we are a part does not for a moment mean that cultural expression of the faith is the “way it has to be.” Are we as willing as the first Christians to talk other peoples’ languages, walk in their cultures, and share the faith? Or do we think that what we have received, what we are used to is the final and perfect form and culture for the faith?

Nowhere do I remember Jesus saying “Go to all the speaking European-Americans who are middle class and moderately well educated and preach the Gospel.” That is what we make Him say, when we set our cultural frames and our ways of doing things as the “right way” which others need to learn. He said, “Go into all the world and preach the Gospel.”

Now none of this will be any easier for us than it has been for those who came before us. But just as the Holy Spirit gave the Apostle the power to “[tell] in our own tongues the mighty works of God,” so He will guide and inspire and empower us to do the same, not only to our children whose culture is already different from ours, but also to all those who are among us from the other cultures of the world. Demanding that they do it our way, in our language, with our cultural norms is not to spread the Gospel, but to spread our way of doing things. It is to say that those who do not speak English or share our culture are second class people, not as important to God as we are. It is to say that somehow our way of doing things is closer to the way of God than their way. Is this what the church wants to say? Because, often, this is what we act like and talk like. What are we called to? To spread the use of English or to spread the Gospel? To teach others to do it “our way,” do it “the right way,” or to tell “in our own tongues the mighty works of God”?

The only way we can hope to fulfill the call to “go preach the Gospel” is by the power and grace of God. We must be as willing as the early Christians to open ourselves to the power of the Holy Spirit, by prayer, by reading and meditating on scripture, by continuing in the “Apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread and the prayers.” Christians are not solitaires, we are members one of another and we are called to work together as the Body of Christ, using our different gifts so that those who hear the Gospel through us can also say, “we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God.”

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Christopher Sikkema


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