Saint Margaret’s Anglican Church Budapest, Hungary Genesis 11:1-9; Psalm 104:25-35, 37; Acts 2:1-21; John 14:8- 17 “And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? In our own languages, we hear them speaking about God's deeds of power." Kudos this morning to James, who read for us the portion of the Acts of the Apostles describing the scene at the very first Pentecost. He made it through the list of peoples and nations gathered that day without stumbling over all the, to us, alien sounding names. The Reader at a church I once served many years ago, by the way, was not so fortunate. Becoming a bit flustered by the daunting list, she paused and simply blurted out, “Er...All those people listed.” She then skipped the list altogether and got on with the text. All those people listed... I am not sure how all those people of the ancient world would feel about being lumped together in such a willy-nilly fashion centuries after their time. After all, each of those ancient cultures had its own place in the sun – its own view of the world and its own language as the text itself reminds us. So, giving them their due, and in case you are curious, here is who they were and where they lived.... The Parthians were not a distinct ethnic group, historians tells us, but part of an empire that extended throughout modern-day Iran and Iraq. The Medes were the descendants of people at the time who lived in the north of today’s Iraq. They too had their own customs, language, and religion. Elamites lived in the south of what is today Iraq. They are perhaps best remembered by linguists because their language is considered an isolate; that is, unrelated to any other known language. Who knows...? Maybe they were the ancient Hungarians... Mesopotamia is of course a catch-all term for the area between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in today’s Iraq. Judea, as you probably know, is the southern part of what we call Israel, the part nearest Jerusalem. Cappadocia, Pontus, Phrygia, and Pamphylia were all located in the area of today’s Turkey. And Cyrene was a Greek-speaking city in today’s Libya, along the southern coast of the Mediterranean Sea in Northern Africa. So, there you have it. A veritable United Nations of the ancient world all hearing the Good News of the Gospel for the very first time. And all in their own language, no less. That in a sense was the point; not that the Gospel was somehow turned into an ancient language app or Google- Translate, but that universal understand was once again possible. For, that first Pentecost was meant to be a reversal of the story of the Tower of Babel as recounted in our first Reading this morning; itself the somewhat mythic, and perhaps troubling, account of the origin of language, the scattering of humankind, and the deep divisions which remain among peoples still to this day.
A century or so ago, a Polish scholar, alarmed and concerned about the lack of communication among the peoples of his day, set about inventing the world’s first artificial language, which he called Esperanto, in the hope – Esperanto means hope – in the hope of overcoming the divisions among peoples by providing them a common means of communication. The father of one of our beloved parishioners, by the way, was the first to compile a Hungarian-Esperanto dictionary. In fact, his may be the only such dictionary. Yet, the efforts of those pioneers in human understanding have been singularly unsuccessful. No one human language, it seems, will ever be enough to overcome all prejudice and fear among the nations of the world. For, as the cynics say, what can be misunderstood will all too often be misunderstood. The confusion of Babel runs deeper than the differences, say, between English and Hungarian, as deep as even those differences can sometimes seem. It is all too often the language of the human heart which is inscrutable even to ourselves. It is not so much God who turns Babel into babble, scrambling our speech and understanding, as it is our own human willfulness, prejudice, and arrogance. That is the true message of the Genesis story. If, as some linguists and physiologists believe, the human brain is hard-wired to acquire and understand language, it almost seems sometimes that the human heart is alas also hard-wired, if you will, to misunderstand; and, in misunderstanding to sin. "Have I been with you all this time, Philip,” asks Jesus in today’s Gospel account, “and you still do not know me?” You still, in other words, do not understand...? You have not comprehended the language of the Gospel, the language of God, the language of love...? The question could as well be posed to any of us today. How long has Christ been with us, in faith and sacrament, and we still do not comprehend him, still do not recognize him – to say nothing of the Father. It seems, left to our own devices and linguistic merits alone, we will never understand the grammar of God’s grace and love. The miracle of Pentecost is of course greater than and more powerful than any words we may speak to each other. The miracle of Pentecost is the miracle of God speaking to us in the only language accessible to us all – the language of divine love and redemption. Peter, speaking before the crowds in Jerusalem gathered from many nations, is universally understood by all, as he tells of “God’s deeds of power,” as he tells them of Christ. At Pentecost, the confusion of Babel is replaced with the universal language of God. Whether you speak English or Hungarian or any of the other six thousand known languages of the world, the work of Pentecost is not over; the coming of the divine Spirit among us is as yet a work in progress even some 50000 Sundays after Pentecost. But the promise of Pentecost remains. And the genuine voice of God needs still to be heard amid the din of fake news, the pronouncements of fake world leaders, and the sinful intrigues which are a part of each of our lives. Pentecost reminds us that we are all God’s people, all in it together – whether we count ourselves Medes, Parthians, British, Canadians, or Hungarians. Whether we like it or not. No language is so inscrutable as to shut out the divine message of love, and with Pentecost the miracle of understanding and accord has begun. The voice of God, whispered quietly to each of us amid the dissonance of today’s world, can be understood by all, if we but stop to listen. Perhaps it is high time that all of us signed up for language classes in the language of Pentecost; the language of salvation, the vocabulary of redemption. That is after all a language all of us can master. But as
with any other language, it takes time, effort, and patience to make God’s language our own native speech, our mother-tongue. Happily, it is never too late to start learning. The Rev. Dr. Frank Hegedűs