What Does This Mean?

June 5, 2022/Acts 2:1-21

Over the years, we’ve grown comfortable with Pentecost.  We’ve bleached the color and drama from the original day and replaced it with bland birthday cake and innocuous hymns.  We’ve pushed the meaning of Pentecost into the past, trapping it in the verses from Acts 2 and acting as though it has nothing to do with us, here and now.

There was nothing comfortable or bland or innocuous about that first Pentecost.  A sound like a violent wind filled the entire house where those early Jesus people had gathered.  Divided tongues like fire appeared, and a tongue settled onto each head.  And then they began to speak, not in their old, familiar ways, but in languages from places they had never visited, in words they did not even understand.

But we read all that and then sing tunes that don’t begin to capture the drama or reflect the awesome power of the Spirit that swept through that place.  It is as if we are working really hard to tame the Spirit, afraid of the violent wind it might stir up in our midst, terrified that tongues of fire might ignite us so that we burst forth in French or Spanish or Pashto or Ukraine.  Terrified of what the Spirit might cause us to do.

Those early Christians had plenty to fear.  Their leader had been crucified, but at least 120 of them had hung around after Jesus’ death.  They had been convicted by his resurrection, were reassured following his resurrection as he appeared to them and promised them baptism in the Spirit.  They had gathered, carefully shut away in one place, praying and waiting.  When the wind swept through that place, violent like the destructive winds of a tornado, were they afraid?  When they looked around the room and saw tongues as of fire perched atop each person’s head, were they scared?  Luke tells us only that they were filled – filled – with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages.

If they were afraid, if they were scared, their fear and anxiety quickly gave way to the fullness of the Spirit.  They began to speak in other languages, telling the Medes and Elamites, the Mesopotamians and Egyptians, all those who had come to Jerusalem from other countries, all about God’s deeds of power.

They began to preach.

Calling Pentecost the church’s birthday turns the explosive inbreaking of the Holy Spirit into a two-year-old’s birthday party.  It is far more than that.  Pentecost marked the beginning of the age the prophet Joel had described some eight centuries earlier.

In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams (Joel 2:28).

The wind rushed through the house and divided tongues as of fire rested on each of them and they began to speak.  “The first gift of the Spirit is the gift of speech, the gift of speech in different languages.  So we are hearing a story about the irruption of the Spirit into the community and the first fruit of the Spirit – the gift of proclamation.”[1]  And all those people in the streets who miraculously heard their words in their own tongue were amazed and perplexed, and some among them scoffed and mocked these Jesus freaks as drunks.  At least they had the good sense to be amazed.  “The inbreaking of the Spirit is profoundly unsettling and deeply threatening to the crowd in the street.”[2]

We bake a birthday cake.

Even Peter lifts “up his voice and proclaims openly the word that only a few weeks before he could not speak, even to a serving woman at midnight.

In Genesis 2:7 the Spirit of God breathed life into dust and created a human being.  In Acts 2:1-4 the Spirit has breathed life into a once cowardly disciple and created a new man who now has the gift of bold speech. … The miracle here is one of proclamation.  Those who had no “tongue” to speak of the “mighty works of God” now preach.[3]

Several years ago I worked in the hospital with a young man who was a pastor in the Pentecostal tradition.  Each day, one of us was charged with leading a service in the hospital chapel.  While the rest of us poured over scripture and devotionals and other materials to devise a meaningful message, on his assigned days, Donnie just clutched his Bible in his hand and strolled up to the pulpit.  We joked that while he trusted in the Spirit to give him a message, we trusted in the Spirit to guide us in preparing a message.

But there was something about Donnie’s approach that was genuine and valid.  He trusted in the presence of the Spirit in his words and in his everyday walk.  And I’m not sure the others of us really trusted the Spirit to show up in ours.

Peter, speaking in response to the accusation that he and his fellow Christians were simply drunk that morning, challenges us to consider how God might be at work in our own worlds.  He invites us “to think about what it means for the Holy Spirit to come into our own lives so that we too can be empowered to carry news of God’s deeds in a way that makes the good news accessible in relevant and tangible ways.”[4]

With those in the streets in Jerusalem that day, we would do well to ask, “What does this mean?”  What does this coming of the Spirit mean for us?  What does being Spirit-filled mean for us?  It does not mean pleading for a moment of hysterical glossolalia.  Paul is clear that the Spirit bestows many gifts.  He also is clear that each of us should use the gifts we have received for the benefit of the kingdom.  And here is where thinking of the coming of the Spirit as the birthday of the church might be helpful, because we are called as Spirit-filled people to live and serve in community.  The Spirit gives voice to the story, the story the church has been called into being to share.  But if we are to tell that story, we must be open to the work of the Spirit.  We can’t do it on our own.  We can’t grow a church on our own.  We can’t reach a world in need on our own.  We do that only under the power of the Holy Spirit.

“Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful people, and kindle in them the fire of your love.  And, when you do come, help us to get out of our own way, so that you can work through us unimpeded.”[5]

Amen.


[1] William H. Willimon, Interpretation: Acts, 30

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., 31

[4] Stephanie M. Crumpton, “Commentary 2: Acts 2:1-21,” Connections C/2, 329

[5] Ricardo Avila, “Pentecostal Praise,” Journey with Jesus, 29 May 2002

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