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We call it our mother tongue, the language we learned to speak when we learned to speak. We heard it before we were born, because our mother spoke it, so we heard it even in the womb. It’s a language we’re comfortable with, a language we dream in, a language we pray in, a language that makes us feel like home.

We show hospitality by learning the language of another. When we travel, we make the effort to learn a few phrases, and if we really want to integrate into a community, to become a part of them, we learn to speak their language.

Speech and language are not always used in such hospitable and God-glorifying ways. The control of language is a common tool of colonization. When a people group comes into a land with force and tries to take control, an effective way to erase the culture and power of the native people is to take away their language, to force them to speak the language of the colonizers.

In this season of Pentecost, I have been reflecting on the good news that comes to a world that uses language to control and to divide. In spite of us, there is good news, because the Holy Spirit has been working to bring life through speech since the beginning. “In the beginning. . .a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.” (Genesis 1:1-3)

This Spirit who was present at creation is present still at Pentecost, again bringing life through speech. “Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them.” (Acts 2:3) The tongues of fire were like flames, but they were also tongues, like the languages in which the disciples were then empowered to speak. “All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.” (Acts 2:4) The crowd who heard them responded with wonder, “How is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?” (Acts 2:8)

That statement of amazement from the crowd: “How is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?” brings to us two powerful gifts of grace. The first gift comes to us as we live into our calling to communicate the gospel to the world today.

This vocation to speak the gospel can feel difficult as we try to understand the language that our culture speaks.

  • What does an invitation to church participation mean in a culture that does not value institutions and group membership?
  • What does it mean to belong to a faith community when it is so strange and unusual to stick with the same group of people, and to show up in the same place every Sunday?
  • What does it mean to communicate the gospel of forgiveness to a culture that doesn’t believe in sin?
  • What does it mean to live into the unity of the body of Christ in a polarized world that wants us to pick sides?

I wrestle with how to answer those questions, but I know this: the Spirit empowers us to speak in a way that communicates to people in their mother tongue. The Spirit will give us what we need to communicate the gospel in a way that the world around us can understand. This is a power that does not come from us – we don’t even know how to do it! But the Spirit gives us power anyway.

“How is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?”

The other gift of grace that comes from the Spirit of Jesus Christ, the Spirit of Pentecost, is the gift of connection and belonging. The Spirit of Jesus Christ creates a new community of peace and love, and you are invited to be a part of this community. The Spirit speaks to you in your mother tongue. And the Spirit doesn’t do this in a way that isolates you with your own tribe, or in a way that dominates over other cultures. The Spirit speaks to you in your mother tongue, and to someone else in their mother tongue, and to still another person in their mother tongue.

In the new community that the Spirit builds among those who follow Jesus, you belong. It is like you are hearing about this community in the same words your mother spoke when you were in the womb. You hear about Jesus, and because of how the Spirit works, you know that the community of Jesus-followers is a place where you can belong, a place where you are at home. The further mystery of grace is that because of how the Spirit works, people who are very different from you can also know that the community of Jesus-followers is a place where they can belong, a place where they are at home. The Spirit connects us in a life-giving community by the power of speech and by the grace of God.

(I am grateful to insights from Isaac Villegas and Willie James Jennings in forming this understanding of the Pentecost story.)

Rebecca Jordan Heys

Rebecca Jordan Heys is the Minister of Worship and Pastoral Care at Calvin Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan.


  • Nate DeJong-McCarron says:

    Thank you, Rebecca. May we listen well!

  • Leanne Van Dyk says:

    What a strong and hopeful theological statement is contained in the title of this blog! Thank you, Rebecca!

  • Ann Conklin says:

    Thank you for this reflection, Rebecca. I’ve been thinking similar thoughts during this season of Pentecost. Thanks for articulating so well the questions on my mind. There is so much to ponder and entrust to the Spirit’s leading in this challenging context in which we live and serve.

  • David Landegent says:

    Amen! I also love your title and how its meaning is laid out for us in your blog. As someone whose faith grew a lot under the influence of the charismatic movement, it’s been interesting to me how the matter of speaking in tongues has been so divisive in the body of Christ instead of being a unifying factor. Perhaps it’s because we’ve been focusing on speaking in tongues as a private prayer language (a la 1 Corinthians 14) instead of speaking in tongues as a way of reaching beyond ourselves to other cultures (as in Acts 2).

  • Jane Porter says:

    Thank you Rebecca.

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