THE EXCELLENT WAY, 2: THE UNIVERSAL TRANSLATOR
Carl Wilton
Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church
August 21, 2016; Non-lectionary sermon
Exodus 4:10-17; 1 Corinthians 14:1-19

“If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love,
I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.”
1 Corinthians 13:1

Claire and I saw the new Star Trek movie the other day. It was great fun. At the beginning of the movie an alien creature was beamed aboard the Enterprise. Her speech was unintelligible at first — until, on the screen, we saw a computer overlay appear that said “Universal Translator.” Once that device had been engaged, she spoke perfect English.

The Universal Translator is a common plot device in the world of Star Trek. Some would say it’s indispensable. Think about it. The crew of the Enterprise takes off at warp speed to travel beyond the fringes of the known universe. Their task? “To explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before.”

What if Captain Kirk and company arrived at an uncharted planet — and had to park themselves there for a few years, while expert human translators studied the new language and figured out how to converse with the locals? Such a story would not exactly be box-office gold!

No, Gene Roddenberry, Star Trek’s creator, figured out early on that he’d need something to solve the problem of alien languages — and the Universal Translator was it.

Star Trek wouldn’t be Star Trek without the Universal Translator. Neither would our most important human relationships. We all need a universal translator, and — thank God — we have one. That universal translator is love.

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We continue, today, with the second sermon in our series on 1 Corinthians 13, “The Excellent Way.” The series title — as we learned last week — comes from the last verse of chapter 12. Paul says, “Strive for the higher gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way.” The excellent way is love.

Now, in verse 1 of chapter 13, Paul begins by talking about language: “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.”

So, what are these tongues he’s talking about — tongues of mortals, tongues of angels?

It’s easy to figure out what he means by mortal tongues: it’s got to be human language. But what are tongues of angels?

To answer that question, we need to pull back and get a big-picture view of the whole letter. Last week, we looked at the verses that immediately precede chapter 13, the “hymn to love.” Today, we need to take a look at what comes after.

We read the greater part of chapter 14 as our New Testament lesson. In the second verse of that chapter, Paul writes: “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.”

Yes, Paul’s writing here about the phenomenon known, in technical theological terms, as “glossolalia”: or, in popular parlance, “speaking in tongues.” It’s a practice of the early church that goes back to the miracle of Pentecost. As it says in the second chapter of the Book of Acts: “All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.”

The Pentecost account speaks of intelligible human languages. People from other countries who were on the scene marveled that “each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.”

It seems to be the case, though, that some of the apostles were given the ability to speak in a mysterious tongue that bears no resemblance to any human language. You can see it happening in the church in Corinth. When Paul writes, in chapter 13, about speaking “in the tongues of mortals and of angels,” the angel-tongue he’s referring to is probably this ecstatic spiritual experience.

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You can hear such ecstatic language — or, at least, the modern version of it — inside Pentecostal churches like the Assembly of God. If you’ve ever been part of a Pentecostal worship service, you probably heard a sort of murmuring from some of your fellow worshipers. They’re so into it, they appear to be in a sort of trance. It sounds sort of like language, but also like no language you’ve ever heard.

Modern Pentecostal churches arose after an event that took place in Los Angeles in the early 20th century, known as the Azusa Street Revival. From 1906 to 1915, in a former African Methodist church on Azusa Street, the revivalists held services where speaking in tongues became common. They were very aware of Paul’s writings here in 1 Corinthians. They asked themselves the question why it couldn’t happen in the present day. Once they’d opened themselves up to the possibility, they would tell you, the Spirit took them up on the offer.

In fact, there have been times throughout Christian history when scattered individuals have spoken in tongues, but it wasn’t very common at all until modern Pentecostalism came onto the scene.

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It does seem to have been common in the Corinthian church, though: common enough that Paul felt moved to comment on it. In truth, Paul considers speaking in tongues to be something of a problem. He considers it a problem even though he himself has had the same experience — as he reports in verse 18: “I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you.” He considers it a problem because not everyone has the gift.

Evidently, some of the Corinthian Christians who’ve often had this experience are lording it over those who haven’t. They’re giving the impression that they’re more important, more spiritual, than their fellow church members. They’ve been specially blessed by God, in the ways others haven’t.

Paul wants none of this. It’s creating divisions in the body! As Paul makes clear in the first verses of chapter 14, he’s much more in favor of what he calls “prophecy.” Now, by that he doesn’t mean predicting the future. What he’s talking about is people who are inspired by the Holy Spirit to bring the people a message from God. That message is delivered in the common language and is intelligible to all. Such prophecy, he says, “builds up” the church. Speaking in tongues — unless there’s interpretation that goes along with it — leads only to division.

Preaching — the very activity I’m engaging in now, in cooperation with your prayerful understanding — is at its best a variety of prophecy. Paul’s all in favor of this: but as for speaking in tongues, he’s much more skeptical. What he does offer, here, is some very practical advice. “One who speaks in a tongue,” he teaches, “should pray for the power to interpret.”

The Holy Spirit’s purpose is to build up the church. If one member of the church is regularly overcome with euphoria, and falls down to the ground speaking words no one else can understand, then what good is that for building up the church? Unless God has also provided someone to translate, then what good is it?

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So, all this is a roundabout way of getting at what Paul means in 1 Corinthians 13:1, “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but have not love…” In the midst of this divided congregation, Paul blows his referee’s whistle and tells them to stop fighting over language. Whether it’s ordinary human speech or the tongues of angels, it doesn’t much matter what you say, if the message you’re bringing is not love.

It’s a little bit like the lesson our mothers taught us. You know how that one goes: “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all!” If you can’t say something loving to build up the church, then why bother?

Such off-message speech is but “a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.” You don’t have to look very far, these days, to find examples of speech that are just as jarring. Our lives, it often seems, are constantly barraged by words. We have so many media sources at our disposal: the old-school media of radio and television, as well as the newer forms that come at us over the Internet. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat: so few of the messages that come to us from such sources are grounded in love.

I’m thinking, now, of Twitter in particular — especially the role it’s playing in politics these days. Granted, you can only say so much in 147 characters, but does it have to be so uniformly negative? “If I speak in the tongues of bits and bytes, but have not love…” (You get the picture.)

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Love, in fact — love between two people — has always been closely linked to language. Back in the days of formalized courtship, language was vitally important in getting the message across. Think of all the love poems that have been written over the years. Think of all the times a young man, courting his beloved, turned to the services of a go-between to help him communicate the feelings that were in his heart.

You’ve all heard the expression, “Making love.” Today it has a rather narrow meaning, focusing on — shall we say — only the physical aspects of the relationship, but it hasn’t always been that way. In works of literature written a century or two ago, a man “making love” to a woman was engaging in the ritual of courtship. He was complimenting her, flirting with her, speaking kind words intended to get her interested in spending more time with him. In a very literal sense, if he did the job right, the carefully-chosen words he spoke helped make feelings of love.

Think of the famous love story of John Alden and Priscilla Mullins, members of the Pilgrim colony at Plymouth, Massachusetts. It was immortalized in a famous historical poem by Longfellow, “The Courtship of Miles Standish.” Captain Miles Standish had his eye on young Priscilla, but he was a man of few — and sometimes stammering — words. So, he turned to his friend John Alden, asking him to stand in as his surrogate and convince Priscilla to love him. Big mistake.

When Priscilla got wind of the scheme, she was patient and heard John out. She let him convey the Captain’s message, but then she said to the messenger, “Why don’t you speak for yourself, John?” He did, and the two of them were married not long after. Speaking in “the tongues of mortals” can be a very effective way, indeed, to convey love.

Sometimes, though, the language of love can be problematic, a stumbling-block. Think of all the times language trips people up, in marriages. It’s like the infamous question, asked by a woman of her husband: “Honey, does this dress make me look fat?” (Guys, you know what I’m talking about.) Now, everybody knows answering that question “Yes” is a non-starter: so don’t even go there. But even a “No” answer puts you in perilous territory. If you just say “No,” and leave it at that, you may get a follow-up question: “So, which of my dresses do make me look fat?” No, you want to say, “Darling, I love you in that dress” — which is, as it happens, the answer she was looking for all along.

But loving another person is not really a matter of finding the right words. If that were the case, then the only guys who would be in the running for People magazine’s “Sexiest Man Alive” issue would be English majors. There’s a good deal more to nurturing love, of course, than just finding the right words.

More darkly, this is something victims of domestic violence know all too well. It’s a common and tragic pattern, in abusive relationships, for a man who beats his wife or girlfriend to come to her the day after — sometimes even hours after — and apologize profusely. If she’s left the house for her own protection, he will beg her tearfully to come back to him. Men who are serial abusers of women are often very adept with words in that way.

Yet, if the love is not there — if the relationship is one of sick co-dependency — then all those heartfelt words are of no account. They are but a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. The behavior, even more than the words, conveys the true feelings. At the end of the day, love is not something we say. It’s what we do. It’s how we live, in covenant relationship with one another.

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More than that — and this is the final thing I have to say on the subject — the human love we all struggle to perfect in this life is but a reflection of a far greater love: the love of God for us. In our lives, that love serves as the universal translator.

Any fool can make friends, or go out and get a marriage license, but the people who are best equipped to nurture and sustain deeply loving relationships are those who have first given their hearts to God. “We love because he first loved us,” says the Gospel of John. It’s so much easier to navigate the rough waters of an intimate relationship if both partners have first acknowledged that they are sinners in need of redemption, and have come to depend on the grace we receive through the saving death of Jesus Christ.

At the end of 1 Corinthians 13, Paul shares the famous words: “Faith, hope and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.” The Apostle refuses to speak of love apart from faith. Love may be the greatest of these three, it’s true: but to his mind, love is closely linked to faith. Human beings can muddle along and manage to love one another purely on their own, after a fashion, but I’m convinced that love in intimate relationships — indeed, in any human relationship — can only go deep if it’s supported by faith.

Such, friends, is the excellent way Paul lays out for us in this great chapter of scripture. My wish for you is that it may also be your way!

Copyright © 2016, by Carlos E. Wilton. All rights reserved.