A sermon by Michael Cheuk, Pastor, University Baptist Church, Charlottesville, Va., on May 19, 2013.
It is so good to be back at University Baptist Church! As most of you know, I was away the last two Sundays on a Missions Immersion Experience to Macau and Hong Kong with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Virginia. In the months prior to the trip, our mission team was encouraged to learn simple phrases like “Nee Hau” or “Le Ho Ma,” which is “hello” in Mandarin and Cantonese. On the other hand, Larry and Sarah Ballew, the CBF field personnel who hosted our mission team, have spent over sixteen years in Macau. They were quite fluent in Cantonese. It was always fun to see the surprise on the face of a national when the Ballews started speaking to them in their native tongue. One time, while we were in Hong Kong, and Larry went up to a random Hong Kong woman and began asking her for directions. At first there was a look of confusion on that woman’s face. And then, her eyes opened wide as she finally realized that Larry was speaking to her in Cantonese! While Larry was still speaking, that woman started mumbling to no one in particular, “Gom ho lek gah! Bak guai loh sic gon Guong Dong Wah!” Which is translated into English: “How incredible! This white guy can speak Cantonese!”
I wonder if a similar experience occurred for all those people from all over the world who had gathered in Jerusalem that day at Pentecost. Pentecost was the Greek name of a festival that the Jews celebrated fifty days after the Passover. This festival was called the “Festival of Weeks” and it was kind of like a homecoming for the Jews. On this particular Pentecost, a violent wind filled the house where the disciples were staying, and what looked like tongues of fire rested on the disciples, and they were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other “tongues,” best translated here as “language” or “dialect.” And when the Jews from around the world heard the disciples speaking, they were surprised and confused because each one heard the disciples speaking in his or her own language. Utterly amazed, they asked: “Are not all these men who are speaking Galileans?”—in other words, “Are not all these men just hillbillies? So how is it that each of us hears them in our own native language?”
There were a lot of languages spoken by many different nationalities that day. In Acts 2, starting in verse 9, Luke gave us a list. Parthians, Medes and Elamites were people from the area now known as Iran, but also covering parts of Armenia, Iraq, eastern Turkey, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Kuwait and the Persian Gulf of Saudi Arabia. Mesopotamia was located in modern-day Iraq. These people lived to the east and southeast of Judea. Then there were people from Cappadocia, Pontus, Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia—all located in present-day Turkey to the north of Judea. There were also people from Africa coming from Egypt and parts of Libya near Cyrene—all south and southwest of Judea. And there were visitors from Rome and the Greek island of Crete, all northwest of Judea.
These people were literally from all corners of the known world, and all of them heard the disciples declaring the wonders of God in their own languages. While some mocked the disciples for speaking in what they thought was a drunken gibberish, others asked one another: “What does this mean?” And Peter took the opportunity to stand up and to explain to the crowd the significance of what was happening.
“These men are not drunk,” said Peter, “it’s only nine in the morning! Instead, this is the fulfillment of what was prophesized by the prophet Joel.” Peter then went on to explain that at the last days, when the Spirit is poured out on all people, the boundaries that had separated people will be overcome. Sons and daughters will prophesy. Young men will see visions and old men will dream dreams. God’s Spirit will not only descend upon the masters, but even on servants, both men and women, and they will prophesy, which may include foretelling about the future, but it primarily involves preaching, teaching and forth telling the truth of God’s revelation.
At Pentecost, Peter declared that God’s Spirit was doing a new thing. God was giving birth to a new group of people called the Church which will witness to God’s love in every language. The Church was birthed not in one ethnic group, with one language, and one culture. From its very beginning, the charter members of the Church included women and men, old and young, servants and masters from all nationalities and ethnicities. All they had to do was to call upon the name of the Lord, and they would be saved and be included in God’s family.
God’s Spirit at that Pentecost gave birth to the Church. It also gave birth to a missionary movement spreading the love of God beginning in Jerusalem and expanding to Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. We are a missionary church because we serve a missionary God who sent His Son Jesus Christ to earth in order to be the Word that spoke the love of God in a particular human language. As we look at the history of Christianity, the good news of Jesus Christ was spread throughout the world not by demanding those who do not know Christ to first go to Jerusalem, to learn Hebrew or Aramaic, to become a good Jew before becoming a Christian. No, at its best, the good news of Jesus Christ was spread throughout the world by Christians going to foreign countries and regions, learning the language of the people there, valuing their culture, all the while sharing the good news and love of Jesus in ways that they can understand and experience.
I was inspired as I saw first-hand how Larry and Sarah Ballew lived out their calling to be the presence of Christ to the people in Macau. When they arrived in Macau over sixteen years ago, they didn’t know the language or the culture, but they immersed themselves in both. Originally Southern Baptist missionaries, they were fired from their post when they refused to sign a statement that limited teaching and preaching only to men. After some soul searching, they affiliated themselves with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, because of their affinity with CBF’s conviction that men and women, sons and daughters can prophesy and teach. But to this day, the Ballews raise their own financial support, and they do not receive one cent from the CBF Global Missions offering that we just collected. Despite the financial hardship and uncertainty that the Ballews have faced, God has been faithful, and individuals and churches have greatly encouraged them by their prayers, their communications and their financial support.
The Ballews feel called to minister to those in the hospitality industry, especially those who work in restaurants, which are some of the most “unreachable” and “unchurchable” people in Macau because of their long working hours. The Ballews’ vision is driven by two questions: “What if there is a Christian in every restaurant? How can we then impact the city?” After a couple of false starts, they began in 2006 to offer English lessons to a restaurant staff. Slowly but surely, that ministry began to take off as many in the restaurant industry are eager to learn English. So now, they lead an English class every afternoon and night during the week, as they share the love of God in the languages of Cantonese, Mandarin and English.
During my trip, I felt an instant bond of love and unity when meeting these students and fellow Christians even though we were separated by culture and language. I was reminded of the words of the hymn, “In Christ there is no East or West, in him no South or North, but one great fellowship of love throughout the whole wide earth.” On Saturday before Mother’s Day, our team met with the youth group of Macau Baptist Church, and our activity was helping the youth make and bake cookies to give as Mother’s Day gifts. That was a lot of fun since most of them had never baked cookies, because most homes in Macau do not have ovens. During that time, Gary, one of the youth, played on his keyboard and led the group in singing Christian songs in Cantonese. Even though we didn’t know the words, the look on their faces and the joy of their smiles clearly communicated the love of Christ. On Sunday morning, during the worship service at Macau Baptist, Gary sat next to us. During the sermon, which was preached in Cantonese, Gary whispered in English every word of the sermon so that we could understand it. Half-way around the world, I experienced God’s love in the language of English spoken by a Macau teenager.
I’ve also come to realize that we don’t need to travel half-way around the world to experience and share God’s love in every language. Earlier today, it was so inspiring to hear the many languages spoken by members of this congregation as they read John 3:16. In a university town like ours, the world has come to us, and we have people of all nationalities and ethnicities here in our sanctuary today. We have an English for Speakers of Other Languages class here at the church at meets on Sunday mornings, in which we can share the love of Christ to people of other countries even as they learn English.
But speaking a foreign language is not the only way that we can share God’s love. A couple of weekends ago, our church participated in Operation InAsMuch, in which we went out into our community to speak God’s love in the language of a paintbrush, a garden trowel, or a carpenter’s hammer, to mention just a few. Yesterday, our Small Tasks Team shared God’s love spoken in the language of helping a young wife, Jordan Johnson, move to a new house while Joseph her husband is away on military training. Earlier this morning, our Parish Health Ministry Team spoke God’s love by offering a free blood pressure screening. After worship today, our children’s choir will speak God’s love in the language of music as they prepare for their musical program on Wednesday, May 29. Our Homebound Visitation Team continues to share God’s love spoken in the language of a caring presence to those who are confined to their homes.
This is what I mean by love in every language, and everyone here is invited to find and speak in a language that will share God’s love to those who are different from us. I pray that on this Pentecost Sunday, our sons and daughters will speak forth, claiming a voice in the church. I pray that our young men will envision a church where lives are changed. I pray that our old men will dream of a church where members will reach out with God’s love that crosses boundaries of race, gender, class and ethnicity. I pray that God’s Spirit may be poured out among us so that we may share God’s love in every language. Amen.
Leadership coach and church consultant at MichaelKCheuk.com. He is a Good Faith Media governing board member, who lives in Charlottesville, Virginia.