Week of Sunday May 27 - Pentecost
Reading: Acts 2:1-21
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.3Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
5 Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.7Amazed and astonished, they asked, ‘Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 9Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.’12All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, ‘What does this mean?’ 13But others sneered and said, ‘They are filled with new wine.’
14 But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them: ‘Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. 15Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. 16No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:
17 “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. 18 Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. 19 And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. 20 The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. 21 Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”
We don’t simply come to the next text which happens to be on the lectionary this Sunday. We come to Pentecost, an event which influences the text that describes it. It is an event which is used as a demarcation between (and within) denominations; some claim their understanding of this event makes them more spiritual than others. Some of us carry wounds or great disappointments at the failed promises of such groups. For others, a pentecostal experience has been liberating and life changing.
Something happened between the death of Jesus and the time we begin reading Paul’s early letters some 15 years later. Something empowered a group of disempowered and disappointed people, mostly poor people, to tell a story that was much more than mere recollection. It spoke to the time in words that people could hear, and began to spread across the Empire.
I assumed from childhood that this “something” was describable as distinct events. There was the event of Resurrection and the event of Pentecost. I’m more inclined, now, to think of what happened as a process; a recognition again of the ever present reality of God. Loader says that in the reading for Pentecost, Luke is writing
a symbolic narrative which wants to tell us of something much more than a once-off historical event. He is celebrating the presence of the Spirit in the early Christian movement.
Is not this why we are Christian? However faintly it may be, however uncertain, however much it is sometimes more hope than substance, even, we sense God with us. Jesus did not die and go back to heaven and leave us alone. God is with us.
That event, that something that happened, is an ongoing event. Pentecost celebrates the beginning of that experience of God which continues among us.
Whatever happened to “set people on fire,” it’s fairly obvious that the story has been shaped and retold to highlight its significance.
It is set at the festival of the gathering in of the harvest (Exodus 3:14-17; Leviticus 23:15-22). This same festival had evolved into a time to celebrate God’s giving of the Law on Mt Sinai. According to the legends of the time, when God first gave the law at Sinai, a flame came down from heaven, and was divided into 70 tongues of fire. This meant there was one for each nation of the world. Loader says that “All could understand, but only one nation promised to keep the Law, Israel.” (My italics)
The rushing of wind/spirit “from heaven” when they were “all together in one place” at a time of harvest celebration, and the appearance of tongues of fire needs no explanation! That togetherness, and the speaking of tongues that everyone could understand— people from all over the world, listed in great detail— also begs recollection of the old story of Babel, where language was used to separate the peoples of the world. Setting themselves against God, their many languages had set them apart from each other. Now God is letting them come back together.
The story has been placed in a carefully prepared introduction. Jesus has been with them for 40 days talking about the Kingdom of God (Acts 1:3). 40 is the long time, the traditional time, of waiting on God, and recalls the time of the Exodus. There are 120 believers; 10x12 , perfection times the tribes of Israel.
The drama is not simply one of God giving the spirit. It is of a people recognising the God of old coming to them again; like recognising and remembering the tune of an old hymn not heard for a long time. “This is what was spoken through the prophet Joel...” (2:16) and in so many other places, a pouring out of the Spirit on all flesh... so that whoever calls on the name of God should be saved.
(Although even now, some people will not hear, dismissing the miracle of God’s love as new wine.)
Jesus is not a new idea, Luke is telling us. He is the promised person. We stand in the same wind which has always been blowing, and is now pouring into our lives again.
Finally, a story: as we drove home from church one Sunday, my Indian friend asked me how long I had needed to study to become a Prior. She speaks five languages. She knows English so well that she knows about Priors; I’m not sure how many people in my street could tell me what a prior is, apart from those who know it has something to do with a conviction!
Despite this, the differences between languages had hidden my name from her, even though it was in full view.
At Pentecost, each of the many nations present at the Festival heard the believers speaking in their own language. In one sense there is no miracle. There is not some divine language that everyone hears. The miracle is that everyone hears in their own language. God speaks to them.
In the giving of Spirit, God speaks to me, in language I can hear; my language. I am no longer a ‘stranger in a strange land,’ struggling to understand, on the outside, separated from God. God speaks to me in my language. The name of God is no longer hidden; “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” (2:21)
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!
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