Seeking a Common Language
Seeking a Common Language”
February 6, 2022
1 Corinthians 14:1-4, 6-12
Fifth Sunday of Epiphany
1 Corinthians 14:1-4, 6-12
Pursue love and strive for the spiritual gifts, and especially that you may prophesy. For those who speak in a tongue do not speak to other people but to God; for nobody understands them, since they are speaking mysteries in the Spirit. On the other hand, those who prophesy speak to other people for their building up and encouragement and consolation. Those who speak in a tongue build up themselves, but those who prophesy build up the church.
Now, brothers and sisters, if I come to you speaking in tongues, how will I benefit you unless I speak to you in some revelation or knowledge or prophecy or teaching? It is the same way with lifeless instruments that produce sound, such as the flute or the harp. If they do not give distinct notes, how will anyone know what is being played? And if the bugle gives an indistinct sound, who will get ready for battle? So with yourselves; if in a tongue you utter speech that is not intelligible, how will anyone know what is being said? For you will be speaking into the air. There are doubtless many different kinds of sounds in the world, and nothing is without sound. If then I do not know the meaning of a sound, I will be a foreigner to the speaker and the speaker a foreigner to me. So with yourselves; since you are eager for spiritual gifts, strive to excel in them for building up the church.
Have you ever had something get lost in translation?
When I was a kid, my family went on a road trip to visit some relatives in Texas. While we were that far south, it was decided that a side trip into Mexico might be fun. Except no one in my family spoke Spanish. Undeterred we went anyway. There were probably lots of memories from that trip, but the one my 6-year-old brain retained the most was the time we sat in a restaurant and ordered what we thought was a suitable meal for a child and instead the waiter brought an entire goat head, eyeballs and all, and set it down in front of me. Something got lost in translation.
I certainly hope this experience has never happened to you, at least not in your impressionable childhood years. But I do have a sneaking suspicion we’ve all, at some point in our lives been in a place was unfamiliar to us and outside our comfort zone. A place where we were grasping at straws to fit in and to understand. And more than likely, it wasn’t even a foreign country. A time when you felt like an outsider, like everyone around you was speaking a “language” that you didn’t understand.
Any experience like that that you can conjure up your head is relevant to church because today we’re talking about what it feels like to be an outsider looking in, when you understand very little about what’s going on.
Why are we talking about this? A pastor in England during the 1930s and 40s famously once said…
"The Church is the only organization that does not exist for itself, but for those who live outside of it."
What William Temple meant by that was that a community truly founded on the message of Jesus Christ’s inclusive and servant-hearted love is always outwardly focused, asking who’s not here and how can we help them?
Super relevant question for us today for three reasons. (1) We like to think of ourselves as a Church, right? and (2) We live in an era where the number of people outside our walls grows larger and larger every year and (3) the number of people who say they feel lonely and isolated and disconnected grows every year. My guess is that #2 and #3 are related. For several weeks now we’ve been talking about community and the power of our lives together to address and heal the endemic isolation and loneliness that surrounds us. Today we continue that series.
We’re reading 1 Corinthians as a guidebook through this series because it was a piece of scripture written for a community in distress. We’ve been tracking right along through chapter 12 where we heard about how all the gifts of the community ought to be celebrated, where all the part of the body are important, even the small ones who do their job quietly out of sight. We all have a piece to play in community. Then we read chapter 13, a very well-known passage about love and we talked about how love is not a passive feeling, it’s an action word and many times we will find ourselves in situations where we need to take the first step toward healing what is broken because that’s who we’ve been called to be as people of faith who follow a God of Love.
You’re tracking with me, right?
Well, today’s passage came from Chapter 14, the next sequential chapter. And if you’ve never heard this passage in church before, you’re not alone. The lectionary, our calendar of readings, actually skips Chapter 14 all together. And I have to confess this made me curious. What was in Chapter 14? Turns out it starts with some weirdly relevant things.
Paul, the writer of the letter that makes up 1 Corinthians, is trying to convince the church at Corinth to be more relatable to the people who aren’t “insiders” in their church. The church there had gotten into the habit of speaking in tongues. Speaking in tongues might not strike you as relevant because it’s not something we do here at our church. But essentially this spiritual practice involved individuals being moved to speak in a language directly to God. The tricky thing is that it was a language that other people around couldn’t understand. The good news of Jesus was getting lost in translation. There’s nothing wrong with speaking in tongues, but it shouldn’t be all that happens in a community that is trying to communicate well with new people. Church begins to feel like a foreign country. Instead, Paul says, find a language that speaks to people where they are; a language they understand and need to hear. For example, encourage them, build them up, console them. With your language, and with your active love bring them into a future that has hope for them. A future where they won’t always feel like outsiders to the faith. A future where they can belong.
We don’t speak in tongues at this church, but I have no doubt there are ways we talk and act that give preference to those who are already inside these walls. The challenge for us, just like those Corinthians, is to find a common language that speaks into the despair, isolation and grief that have become so endemic lately. Whether it’s because they don’t feel like they fit in or because our new forms of “community” in the 21st century consist of screens that rarely make us feel like we truly belong, our neighborhoods are full of people who secretly think of themselves outsiders to any kind of true community.
The basic message here is that we can’t wait for people outside our church to learn our insider ways before they feel like they belong in this community. We have to adapt and change and move outside of our habits and comfortability to find a common language that speaks into the deep hurt our world is experiencing in this season. The stakes are too high not too. Statistics say that depression and feelings of loneliness have never been higher in our society. How do we take the beautiful and precious message of God’s unconditional love and evolve as a community so that we can reach those who most desperately need to know?
As I was reading through Chapter 14 in 1 Corinthians, I didn’t stop with this passage about speaking in ways that everyone will understand. I kept reading until I got , suddenly, to the passage that reminded me why this is a chapter we don’t often read in church. Not our church, anyway. In verse 34, it says, and I quote, “women should be silent in churches, for they are not permitted to speak.” God empowers communities of faith to be constantly evolving. Can I get an amen? The evolution and adaptation that has happened in the span of time between when this passage was written by one of the first apostles of the Christian church in a highly patriarchal culture and our United Methodist Church today in 2022 bears witness to ability of communities to change and grow and find new ways to spread the message of God’s love in the most accessible and relevant way possible. There is hope for us, too. We have come a long way from the days of Paul’s church in many ways, but the central message of that church then and this church now remains the same. Love never ends. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
This is an honest and heart-felt question: In the next chapters of this church’s life in what “language” and through what actions will we communicate this message of God’s enduring love to those who need it most so that it doesn’t get lost in translation? I can’t answer that question for you; we must answer it together as a community ready to take the next step in reaching the ones who are outside our walls.
If we want tips for how to make the message of God’s love understandable, we should look no further than Jesus himself. Through metaphors and stories, dinner parties and charcuterie boards of grapes and wine and bread, he used ordinary things to talk about a mystery of love, a hunger for mercy, and longing for justice. Those who heard and those who still hear are filled with an insatiable desire to keep coming back to the table for more. More insight. More acceptance. More belonging. More love. Jesus started a movement of reaching toward the margins and drawing our circle of community ever wider. We are part of that movement, let’s keep reaching.
Grace and Peace,