Today’s lectionary readings raise a central issue in human history and in our own time: how language can unite or divide us.
Once upon a time, Genesis tells us, the peoples of earth all spoke a common language. It let them to learn from one another and cooperate. They worked together so well that they began building a great city with a tower reaching to the heavens. This is a mythical explanation of the diversity of languages and cultures in the ancient world. In it, surprisingly, God was so afraid of the collective power of the people that God gave them different tongues and scattered the people around the world.
In Acts, God appears to redeem that divisive deed. The Holy Spirit descends on the disciples, empowering them miraculously to speak every known language. God’s purpose for them is to carry the message of Jesus to all the peoples of earth, uniting them in the Gospel of love.
People have always found ways of communicating when they needed, creating one hybrid language or another that let them carry on business or diplomacy. For instance, traders a thousand years ago in the Mediterranean basin came up with a pidgin language based in Italian and with words from Greek, Turkish, Slavic, and Arabic. It was called the lingua franca. That term, lingua franca, has been used ever since to mean a language that people from different countries choose to communicate with one another. In the nineteenth century the lingua franca of science was German, whereas in diplomacy and culture it was French. Today English is the lingua franca pretty much in every field everywhere. That’s a first in human history.
So, amazingly, a person from China and one from Slovakia will transact their business in English today. What an irony: foreigners all over the world have chosen our language to bring them together. At the same time our news media and pollsters tell us that the American people, who have a common language, are more deeply divided than ever.
I wonder: is that really true? Does it have to be true?
Community of Faith
Yes, we have differing backgrounds, different points of view, different cultures, different ideas, different ways of approaching things. But the Apostle Paul recognized the hand of God in our very differences. In his divinely-inspired vision Paul saw a faith community as a Body of Christ in which each person’s particular gifts, strengths, and personal passions are complementary to the others’.
God gathers us into together with all of our diversity, and because of it. During Lent, Della invited us to share the different ways that we think about ourselves and one another—our haloes. We noted them on the multicolored ribbons that she then wove into the precious cloth that adorned the altar throughout the fifty days of Easter.
That cloth is a beautiful visual metaphor for the strength that comes when the Holy Spirit knits us together to do God’s work in the world. Think about it. A single ribbon has so little substance. But when it is joined and woven with others, they become part of a larger, stronger whole. In the same way when we join our hands, and hearts, the Holy Spirit strengthens us to care for one another and to serve God’s people. In the King James Version, the Holy Ghost (as She was known there) is called the Comforter, rather than the Advocate. The root word in Latin for the verb to comfort means to strengthen.
In today’s gospel Jesus said: “Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” The disciples were fearful about the future. Jesus had just told them here and above, in the beloved passage, John 14:1-7, that he is going away. Now Jesus reassures them that the Holy Spirit will come, will abide in them, and never leave them.
Commentator Meda Stamper wrote: “The promise of the Spirit does not come to completely faithful, courageous people, already loving one another and the world boldly, already worshiping in spirit and truth. It comes in the midst of confusion and fear…. [in answer to that] Jesus makes the promise of the Spirit… into which they and we are invited, at the very moment when such grace seems most beyond their grasp and ours”.
“Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not let them be afraid.”
Our divisions can frighten us. Different factions and different special interest groups manipulate our common language to divide us, to build their own power. In moments of fear and uncertainty Jesus’ call for us to trust in God and love one another is more urgent, more vital than ever. Resisting the fear and the language of division, we need to build bridges instead.
We build bridges by following Jesus in living the language of love. The Holy Spirit gives us the strength to do that—individually, and even more when we are together.
We have seen living language of love in Uvalde in the wake of the massacre at Robb Elementary School. As local people heard the news, so many poured into Sacred Heart Catholic Church that they filled the pews for a spontaneous mass. People of faith from out of town came to grieve with and to comfort, strengthen the citizens.
One was Austin Anglican Priest Tish Harrison Warren, who writes for the New York Times. She reported that Sam Garza, a pastor and youth worker at First United Methodist Church, told her that prayer spurs action. “’In prayer, we find needs,’ he said. If people pray that Aunt Tilly’s transmission’; needs to be repaired, he prays for that, but then, he said, ‘we also need to help her with her transmission’ to find and pay for a mechanic…. At the same time he said, prayer is also a powerful act in and of itself. ‘In prayer, I find the answers I need or the strength I need.’”
Rev. Warren also reported that a couple named Pam and David Wong drove five hours from Conroe, Texas, bringing a large green wooden cross to the school. Their church works with homeless people, some of whom had made the cross. It carried a written message on the back, “a reminder that Jesus cares and loves you all very much.” Pam Wong said they had driven to the school because “we wanted them to know that they are not alone.”
Yesterday the New York Times reported that dozens of Mariachi musicians traveled there, too. Mariachi is a very popular Latino musical genre going back to 18th century Mexico. “’We as mariachis are there for every part of a person’s life,” said Anthony Medrano, who helped coordinate the trip. “We’re called to step up and step in — and help comfort families and help comfort community. That’s what we’re going to do today.”
I have no doubt that the people of Uvalde and those are still coming there are not of one mind about hot-button issues in society. But in the tragedy that has befallen that town of 15,000, the Holy Spirit has brought compassion to the fore, brought them together and drawn other people from far-flung places to comfort and strengthen them.
Prayer matters. Prayer can lead to action. Let us pray that the love of Jesus and the grace and power of the Holy Spirit, the Comforter, will guide us all, will open the hearts of the American people to work together to build a land free of the tragedy of gun violence.