The Main Game
Week of June 12 - Pentecost
Epistle: 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.”
Rabbiting on perhaps, but....
- Rabbits are not native to Australia. They are a feral pest. There were times before myxomatosis when we were almost buried under rabbits. Despite this, rabbit is a good and nutritious food; so much so, that in Australia it is sometimes called underground mutton. Up north we used to say to the CSIRO scientists, “Do what you like to kill out the rabbits, but don’t bring it up here, because here rabbit is a really important part of the diet.”
On the sandy plains in Pitjantjatjara country, rabbits have a side effect. They attract lizards. The big sandy warrens of the newcomer rabbits have become a haven for Perentie, the fourth largest lizard on the planet. The big Ngintakas, as the locals call them, can quickly hide in the burrows, which are wonderful cover when people are around. I suspect rabbits also provide wonderful food for the ngintaka tjuta!
You hunt rabbit for food. It’s easy hunting; there are thousands of them. But as you approach a warren, you will often see a ngintaka stick its head up. It will have heard you, or felt your vibration, and be ready to bolt.
It’s a favoured meat, traditional food, and hard to catch. Perentie run like the wind, and they are dangerous if you corner them. The claws will rip you open; for a joke, someone once threw a dead perentie into the back of a ute which had six men, three a side, sitting on the tray rails. All six instantly bailed out.
Perentie are thin on the ground. In a time of greater people population, the main game was rabbit. Rabbits outnumber the ngintaka and the kangaroo a thousand to one. They are much easier to catch.
But we would choose ngintaka, slowly cruising up to the warrens, stopping back a hundred and fifty yards or more, waiting for a lizard head to pop up on alert from a rabbit hole. Then an overpowered hunting rifle, which would blow a rabbit apart, equipped with a high powered scope, would be laid across the bonnet on a sandbag. We would seek a head shot.
After the blast from such a cannon, not even something as stupid as rabbit would be visible. Looking for ngintaka meant you didn’t get rabbit. You missed the meat. Get ngintaka on your mind in the late afternoon, and you might well come home with nothing. In truth, getting ngintaka was about pride in marksmanship, not feeding people.
To understand Pentecost we need to read and listen as the first audience read and listened. Most of them were still a part of traditions which we often forget. I have listed some of these.
One: The story of Babel, where the people were fearful of being "scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.” (Genesis 11: 4) For their hubris in trying to build a tower reaching into the heavens (being Godlike,) God "scattered then abroad from there over the face of the whole earth. It was called Babel because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth."
On the day of Pentecost, people who had been scattered abroad, "devout Jews from every nation under heaven, (now) living in Jerusalem" all heard "Gods deeds of power." There was a reversal of Babel. Despite their many languages there was “one tongue” which was not about the building of a tower reaching into the heavens, but about "God’s deeds of power” coming from the heavens. (2:11)
Two: The spirit given in Numbers chapter 11, where the seventy elders of Israel were gathered at Gods' command and brought to the tent of meeting. God said to Moses, “I will take some of the spirit that is on you and put it on them.” (11:17) “Then the Lord came down in the cloud and spoke to (Moses) and took some of the spirit that was on him and put it on the seventy elders, and when the sprint rested upon them, they prophesied. But they did not do so again." (11:25)
In this story, two men were absent from that gathering, back in the camp, and yet they also both prophesied in the camp, away from the tent. In a story strikingly similar to Mark 9:38ff, Joshua tells Moses to prevent them. But Moses says, “Would that all the God’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his Spirit on them" (11: 29)
Three: That passage in Numbers is similar to the passage in Exodus 24, the beginning of the giving of the law, where Moses and the seventy elders of Israel climb the mountain to meet God.
By the second century there are Jewish texts witnessing that what was originally the harvest festival of Pentecost was also seen as a feast which celebrated the giving of the Law on Mt. Sinai. In these traditions God’s word on Sinai had "divided into seventy tongues— corresponding to the seventy nations of the world— so that each people could hear the Law in its own language (though of course only Israel accepted it!)" Haenchen p. 174.
Four: There are a couple of other details. There are twelve disciples, like the twelve tribes at the giving of the law. (Exodus 24: 4) By the choosing of Matthias, Luke has carefully and very deliberately restored his symbol of a new Israel, the disciples, to the number 12. But on Pentecost morning there 120 people; ten times 12, a kind of perfection. Haenchen suggests that in the original versions of the Acts story (pp171, 175) there were exactly twelve geographical areas listed in that group of names that challenges the bible reader each year. 'Judeans' is an interpolation and 'Cretans and Arabs' is an addition. (The figure of three thousand converts on this day is less obvious. Some relate it to a reversal of the 3000 killed at the giving of the law (Exodus 32) but it appears that link is very tenuous; the number is mostly left without comment in the commentaries I possess.)
These four points make it clear Pentecost is not an event “out of the blue." The story drips with imagery from Israel’s traditions.
There is another story in the tradition that is also relevant. In Genesis 2:7 “the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became living being." The gospel of John makes it clear that it, too, is a creation story. "In the beginning was the word...” is an echo of Genesis. Haenchen says of John's story of Pentecost "as God at the Creation breathed breath into man, so now the in breathing of the Holy Spirit creates the new man." (pp173-4) This commentary is made about John’s Pentecost story in 20:22. Haenchen adds that this “profound” thought is “not a primitive tradition from the dawn of the church.” This is correct, of course. John is a late meditation on the meaning of the life and death, and resurrection of Jesus. It is written twenty years later than Luke; perhaps more. (The sexist language is his.) It is reasonable to regard John as the more mature tradition.
Let me draw this together. Pentecost is a time of confusion. Sadly, there is Babel of tongues. Some Pentecostal traditions trumpet their superiority. Other churches deride the obvious excesses in some Pentecostal assemblies, and the clearly faulty exegesis of Acts, but are envious of life and joy which seems absent from their own congregations. People are approaching their clergy this week, in concern, or pain, or both, wanting time in the service to talk about the Baptism of the Holy Spirit. How do we address the longing, the confusion, the ignorance, and the very real pain? The church has savaged itself over this festival with claws worthy of the largest ngintaka.
I think I might begin by saying that Pentecosts happen. People, and groups of people, have profound spiritual experiences. There was clearly a ‘Pentecost Event.' Something turned the defeated disciples into a movement which captivated people and filled their deep desires. This is undeniable because we are here two thousand years later. People who deny Pentecostal events are in denial, or simply ignorant of human experience.
But it also seems that the numbers in the story in Acts 2 are a bit too good to be true. The story has been shaped and crafted to make people remember Babel and the giving of the Law. It was the style of the time to take the kernel event and dress it up, or clothe it in the stories of the past, to highlight its meaning and significance. It means that many such stories now appear fudged and even ridiculous. (We still do it, of course, but are more comfortable in our own clothing.)
The best way to arm our people (and ourselves) against the sceptics who want to use biblical hyperbole and literary styles as an argument against the gospel, is to enable them to say, “Yes, I know. My minister told me that." And not just be able to say that, but to enable them to discover something else. What I have found in my own life is that a concentration on the message of the gospel, and living the message of the gospel, has freed me from any fear of the artifice of the its literature. Instead, the artifice becomes a source of joy and enrichment.
So the true experience of Acts 2 is probably crafted for remembering and retelling in a way that is a little different from how we describe and communicate our experiences today.
I will also point out that John ignores Luke’s story of Pentecost. Some folk may say John was unaware of the tradition Luke was retelling. I suspect that if there was a Pentecost even remotely like the story in Luke, John could not fail to know it. John is not ignorant of it; he ignores it. He ignores Luke's clothing for this foundational experience of the church, because he considers the events in Jerusalem are not the main game.
Tongues of fire are not the point. Neither is the speaking of other languages. There is a more excellent way, as Paul says. Jesus breathes a new life and a new spirit into us. That's the message of John after all his contemplation of the gospel story. The great command is to love one another as he has loved us, (John 15: 12) and to abide and remain in him and in the unity of the church , “completely one” in the Father and the Son (17: 20.23) This is far more important than physical manifestations which happened in Jerusalem. This is the experience and the reality about which the Pentecost story speaks.
If we concentrate on signs and wonders and tongues we will miss the main game.
My friend Tony Wiltshire, a gentle Pentecostal man who befriended me when I was young, told me that tongues were always present when the Spirit comes. At Jerusalem Pentecost, at Cornelius’ house (Acts 10:44), and in Acts 19, people spoke in tongues. Tongues, he told me, were the sign of the baptism in the Holy Spirit.
I think tongues are the by product; a side effect. They are not the main game. They are like delicious perentie on the rabbit warrens, seductively tasty, highly desirable, but not enough meat you can live on. In some rabbit warrens there are no perentie, but there is still meat aplenty.
The real sign of the meat was the rabbit warren, not the perentie. Seize the perentie with joy, but seek the meat. The real sign of meat is the transforming love of God. We see it in Acts 2 with sharing between "glad and generous hearts." We see it in Acts 10 with the breaking down of the wall between Jew and Gentile.
So when I long for reality, for validation, and for the filling of the yearning hunger within me, I must always remember to look for the spiritual meat. The real meal is in the love of God. The real sign of the spirit is the warren– that network of paths of love that is our home, the church. It is not in some flashy preacher, or in tongues ,or in some other fancy manifestation. It's is the long, the ordinary, mundane, hard work we do of supporting and looking after each other; even the unlovely and the unexciting among us. That is where the power and the fullness is. It is in the loving— in the doing-lovin— that we will find new life has been breathed into us.
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!