Pentecost teaches universality

Languages and all our cultures have equal value and can be used to praise God, writes Paul Treblico. 

In the Christian calendar, the church has just celebrated Pentecost. This is the time when Christians recall the Holy Spirit coming in a new way on the earliest believers in Jesus in Jerusalem.

One feature of that day was that onlookers heard those earliest believers in Jesus speaking in their own indigenous languages, rather than simply in the Aramaic that most people would have used in Jerusalem. That this happened at the birth of the Christian movement shows that for Christians, different languages are all equally valid to use in praise of God. All languages can be used in order to speak about God.

The same phenomenon is part of Christian hope. In the Book of Revelation it is pictured that in God's presence "there was a great multitude that no-one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages" (Rev 7:9). This theme of every nation, tribe, people and language is repeated often in the Book of Revelation. God's people consists of a multitude of "peoples", all using their own language.

Again then, the earliest Christians affirmed that we didn't all have to speak the one language.

Of course, this affirmation of different languages points to a much deeper matter. Language is fundamental to culture. If a particular language dies, the culture of which it is a part has a hard time surviving. My ancestors were Cornish, and the last person for whom Cornish was their first language died in the late 18th century. But I gather that Cornish is undergoing something of a revival in Cornwall these days - there's hope yet! The use of different languages in the beginning of the Christian movement, and as part of Christian hope, signals that Christian faith can be expressed and find a home in all the cultures of the world.

At times, Christian faith might give the impression that a particular language or culture is highly favoured over others.

But deep in the DNA of Christian faith is the affirmation of the equal standing of different languages, cultures and peoples before God, and hence the need to treat all cultures equally.

One indication of this in earliest Christianity is a "collection" that the Apostle Paul undertook in the 50's of the first century AD. He affirmed that in Christ "there is no longer Jew or Greek" (Gal 3:28), and that Jews and non-Jews were equal members of the Christian movement. As a result of this belief, he took up a collection of a considerable amount of money from non-Jewish churches for the Jewish church in Jerusalem, at a time when the latter was suffering great economic hardship. This was a very practical expression of Paul's view that different cultures, Jews and non-Jews alike, were to be respected and all people were equal, no matter their ethnicity or culture.

For Christian faith in our context today then, both biculturalism and multiculturalism are deeply important matters.

Equally important are all our languages, and particularly in our context, te reo. So people from all cultures and backgrounds can equally sit around Christ's table. People of all and every language are equally valued.

One of the privileges I have as a teacher at the university is interacting with students from (almost) all over the world.

There's nothing more enriching for all those involved than a class discussion where people from a whole range of cultures speak about a particular topic from their own background.

Facilitating such discussions involves a number of things, such as careful listening, respect, sensitivity to people who find it more challenging to share their views, and giving each other space to disagree or to see things quite differently.

For Christians, all of this starts with the fundamental view that all our languages and all our cultures have equal value and can all be used to praise God. Thomas Bracken had it right when he began our national anthem with "God of nations".

But also important is the view that none of our cultures have it all sorted out - and so all of our ways of life stand under the need of transformation.

That's another thing that Pentecost teaches us. The coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost affirms that God is in the process of transforming us all. All our cultures need to be changed and renewed, and thankfully the Holy Spirit is God's transforming presence in our midst.

 - Paul Trebilco is professor of New Testament Studies in Theology Programme, University of Otago.

 

Comments

There is a difference between being universal and being universalist.

Well, yes. Fundamentalist Christian Identarians don't like the 'equality of all races' bit.

I attend a local Pentecostal church and I can readily testify that we constantly celebrate and appreciate the many different cultures that are in attendance. This is fundamental to our faith and gospel: God loves everyone equally. He doesn't have favourites.

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