Shortly before He ascended into Heaven our LORD and God and Saviour Jesus Christ gave this commission to His followers: “All authority on Heaven and Earth has been given to Me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations (in Greek: ‘all ethnicities’), baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” (Matthew 28:18-20)
This is then reinforced with Christ’s exhortation in Acts 1: 8 at His ascension, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be My witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the Earth.”
But to reach the nations (‘all ethnicities’) the Gospel had to be brought to them in their own heart languages, they had to hear it in their own tongue.
President Nelson Mandela, who died in late 2013 in South Africa, understood all about heart language when he said; "If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to a man in his language, that goes to his heart."
The day of Pentecost is a dramatic expression of the new mission given to Christ's followers and its international, interracial, and intercultural scope.
Acts 2: 1 - 11 says, “When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly from Heaven there came the sound like the rush of a mighty wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. Now there were devout Jews from every nation under Heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans?” And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and the residents of Mesopotamia, Judea, Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs – in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power” All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another “What does this mean?”
The Christian Faith is essentially relational; it is about entering into a personal relationship with God, loving God with all our heart…and our neighbour also (Matthew 22: 37 - 39). And so to understand it properly we need to hear it explained in the language of our own hearts, our own relational language, our own tongue.
That is why Christians have worked hard at the task of the translation of the Bible and the Gospel into people’s heart languages. To date we have translated the Gospel into 2,798 different languages. There are 518 complete translations of the Bible and the work continues even today.
We should never underestimate the power of language and culture to trap us and limit us.
Judaism has a sacred language – Hebrew. Islam has a sacred language – 7th century Arabic. But Christianity has no single sacred language. All languages are sacred as the miracle of Pentecost demonstrates. And yet at times Christians have forgotten this. Western Christendom and its scholars trapped the Bible in Latin and it took the courage of some brave people like Saints Cyril and Methodius, Saint John of San Francisco and others to break out of that and put the scriptures and liturgies back into the language of the ordinary people.
Some Orthodox jurisdictions have trapped their liturgy in forms of Slavonic, Georgian, Greek and Classical Arabic that people no longer speak or understand, - a dead language has become sacred! A whole theology of worship has been developed to justify this as a heavenly language of worship. The divine service of the communion of the saints united with the heavenly worship by the use of a special language that transcends the divisions and limitations of living earthly languages. This special language is of course generally only known by the priests. While this idea contains an insight about our unity in Christ, the cost of this to evangelism and generational transmission of the Faith has been very high for many Orthodox jurisdictions, with whole generations now missing or having little understanding of their Faith because the language of their worship is not understood by them and is not reaching their hearts.
We know that the Aramaic-speaking Jew in the first century was accustomed to recite his prayers in Hebrew, not Aramaic. Similarly, Muslim worshipers always recite their traditional prayers in the classical Arabic of seventh century Arabia. Both Judaism and Islam have a sacred language. Christianity does not. This fact is of enormous significance.
Jesus lived in a world where the public reading of the Bible was only in Hebrew and prayers had to be offered in that language. When Jesus took the giant step of endorsing Aramaic as an acceptable language for prayer and worship, when He Himself recited the Lord’s Prayer in Aramaic, He opened the door for the New Testament to be written in Greek (not Hebrew) and then translated into other languages.
The primary task of the Church is mission – to speak the Gospel to all the nations. That is why communicating the Gospel in peoples heart language is a strategic priority for the Church.
We are saved by grace not race!
Every ethnic church that is planted in a dominant host culture like Australia, whether Greek, Russian, Serbian, Romanian, Middle Eastern, Chinese, Korean, Iranian, Tamil, etc., must plan ahead for its young people whose life will be shaped not only by the ethnic church but by the host culture in which they will be educated and the new language and culture they will absorb. The ethnic church must be willing to embrace change in its language, and create parallel services and youth groups in the language and style their children will be immersed in through their school and popular culture. That is, if the aim of the ethnic church is to preserve the Faith. If preserving the ethnicity is of paramount importance, superseding the Faith, then the ethnic church that is planted in a dominant host culture will eventually die out, or evolve into an ethnic social club (or a church that has become like a resounding brass or clanging cymbal). If it fails to do this it will lose the next generation, a sad pattern we have seen repeated over and over again in immigrant churches. This strategy must be insisted upon. Thankfully there are now a majority of Orthodox Christian jurisdictions in Australia allowing this to happen with an increased amount of English in their services and some missions, parishes and monasteries with full English-language services on all occasions.
Behind the command of Jesus in Mathew 28 lies the greatest dream of all, the brightest, most holy and most precious vision of all, which is the ultimate purpose of the Gospel - the reconciliation and unity of all things to God.
This plan, that arises out of the heart of God’s love for His broken world, is to reconcile us to Himself, and then with one another in a unity that will never again be broken by prejudice, fear, pride, racial ambitions, war and conflict. It will also restore to harmony the very creation itself from its brokenness, as Saint Paul expresses it so majestically in Romans 8: 18 - 28, and make us once again its responsible stewards. This great purpose will lift from us the judgment of confusion and division laid upon us at the Tower of Babel because of our vaunting pride and rejection of God’s authority, creating a rich unity in diversity. This is one of the great goals of the Kingdom of God.
Isaiah 25: 6 – 8: “On this mountain the Lord Almighty will prepare a feast of rich food for all peoples, a banquet of aged wine – the best of meats and the finest of wines. On this mountain He will destroy the shroud that enfolds all peoples, the sheet that covers all nations; He will swallow up death forever. The sovereign Lord will wipe away the tears from all faces; He will remove the disgrace from all the Earth. The Lord has spoken.”
When the people, gathered in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost from all over the Mediterranean, North Africa, and the Middle East, heard the disciple’s speaking in the power of the Spirit in their own languages, they called out “What does this mean?”
St Peter answers them in the words of the prophet Joel, “In the last days I will pour out My spirit on all people…..and everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” (Acts 2)
“What does this mean?”
This is a foretaste of the final fullness of the Kingdom of God, the ultimate purpose of the Gospel, that one day God will unite all people from all nations and all tongues who have put their trust in Christ in a great unity of love and peace in the fully consummated Kingdom of God.
The followers of Jesus at Holy Ascension Mission believe we are called to speak the Gospel to the nation of Australia in the heart language of the Australian people.
Anyone who feels similarly called is welcome to join us in this strategic task, as is anyone who is seeking to enter into a personal relationship with God, by hearing the Gospel in the language of their hearts, and responding with the same in worship to God.
Our congregation is already made up of people from various backgrounds (we currently have people from Albanian, American, Australian, Egyptian, English, Finnish, Greek, Iranian, Maltese, New Zealand, Vietnamese, Romanian, Russian, Serbian, South African and Swedish backgrounds) who are united by a common desire to worship God with all their heart, mind and soul, in the heart language of the Australian people. Already we are experiencing what Heaven will be like.
Revelations 7: 9 – 10: “After this I looked, and there before me was great multitude that no one could count, from every tribe and nation, people and language, standing before the throne and the Lamb……they cried out in a loud voice: ‘Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.’”