The Holy Spirit Comes at Pentecost
When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. 2 Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. 3 They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.
5 Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. 6 When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard them speaking in their own language. 7 Utterly amazed, they asked: “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language? 11 We hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” 12 Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “What does this mean?”
13 Some, however, made fun of them and said, “They have had too much wine.”
Peter Addresses the Crowd
14 Then Peter stood up with the Eleven, raised his voice and addressed the crowd: “Fellow Jews and all of you who live in Jerusalem, let me explain this to you; listen carefully to what I say. 15 These people are not drunk, as you suppose. It’s only nine in the morning! 16 No, this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel:
17 “‘In the last days, God says,
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
your young men will see visions,
your old men will dream dreams.
18 Even on my servants, both men and women,
I will pour out my Spirit in those days,
and they will prophesy.
19 I will show wonders in the heavens above
and signs on the earth below,
blood and fire and billows of smoke.
20 The sun will be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood
before the coming of the great and glorious day of the Lord.
21 And everyone who calls
on the name of the Lord will be saved.’
Today’s New Testament reading is one of the best-known passages from the Acts of the Apostles – the story of the coming of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. This is obviously a long passage, so I’ll be brief in these reflections. (I’ve also deleted verses 9 – 11a, which lists the many languages the followers of Jesus were suddenly able to speak.)
This is obviously one of the most important passages in the Acts of the Apostles – maybe even in the whole New Testament. And there are several things about the story that we need to keep in mind as we read it and think about it.
First of all, the story tells us that the disciples experienced two different manifestations of the Holy Spirit – wind and fire. Those manifestations are pretty well known to us, but the thing we sometimes miss is that the two manifestations came upon the gathered disciples differently. The wind came as a force that struck the group as a whole, but the fire separated and settled on the followers of Jesus as individual “tongues of fire.”
I can’t help thinking that means something – maybe that the Holy Spirit still engages us both individually and as a group. We understand that the Spirit is the presence of God at work in the world now, and when we think about how believers experience it, sometimes that experience comes to us when we’re alone in prayer or reflecting on the Bible or whatever. But sometimes the Spirit seems to catch hold of the church as a group, and set it in motion like the wind drives a sailboat. The reality is that the church only moves with real power when it’s being blown by the Spirit, so every congregation (and denomination, for that matter) needs to be praying for the Spirit to be directed into our sails. But we all need to be praying regularly for the Spirit to renew its fire in our hearts, igniting us day by day with a passion for God’s mission.
One part of this story that always intrigues people is the disciples’ sudden ability to “speak in other tongues.” It seems pretty clear from this story that the gift of tongues was intended to be a tool for the followers of Jesus to ‘declare the wonders of God’ to people in their own native languages, not as some incomprehensible babbling. (The apostle Paul expresses some skepticism in his letters about the continuing practice in the church of “speaking of tongues.)
But the ability to speak other languages fits right in with one of the major themes of the Acts of the Apostles. That theme is that from the earliest days of the church, God was equipping and sending the followers of his Son to carry the Word into the homes and lives of people of every nation and tribe. Later, God would do that by canceling the requirements to eat only kosher foods, so the apostles could sit at the tables of gentiles and tell the story of Jesus.
The urge to translate the good news into new languages is still a mark of the Holy Spirit’s moving in the church. And that might mean more than just translating it into languages as we traditionally understand the term. It might also mean communicating the word through social media. Or even telling the story of Jesus without the “churchy talk” we’re used to, so that people who weren’t raised in the church can understand it – people who might feel alienated from the church today. Some of the most effective evangelists in our country tell the story of Jesus in language my congregation would consider too coarse for church – Nadia Bolz-Weber is one well-known example. But tons of people are opening their hearts to the gospel because of her “outside the box” translation.
Finally, notice that the prophesy of Joel that Peter quotes incudes a promise that God would speak into the world in unexpected ways through all kinds of people. We sometimes make the mistake of thinking that the Word of God only comes into the world through “professionals” like preachers and theologians and seminary professors. But none of those disciples in Jerusalem fell into those categories. They were just fishermen and other ordinary people who found their hearts being set on fire by the Spirit that came on Pentecost, and who used the power they had been given to tell anyone who would listen what God was up to.
Let’s pray. Holy Spirit, come upon us once again with wind and fire. Ignite us with passion for your mission in the world, and drive us irresistibly to move out and tell the story of Jesus to anyone who will listen. Come, Holy Spirit, come. Amen.
Grace and Peace,
(The listed readings for today are Psalms 96 and 134; Judges 7:19 – 8:12; Acts 3:12-26; and John 1:29-42.)