The Power of Pentecost
Scripture - Acts 2:1-13
Come, Holy Spirit, come. Open our hearts & minds & lives to your call through this holy word. Amen.
The first 11 chapters of the Bible tell us about God’s work with the whole of God’s creation & with all of humankind. Though God created the world to be unified & good, the selfish actions of human beings fragment that unity & introduce evil. The climax of that pre-history is the story of the Tower of Babel, in which the human beings build a monument to their own greatness & glory & to which God responds by confusing their languages & scattering them across the earth. From that point on, Scripture shifts its focus away from God’s universal work & concentrates on the story of God’s redeeming work among the descendants of Abraham. Other nations & peoples are mentioned, but usually only when their story intersects with the story of Israel. That is, until one comes to the second chapter of Acts.
The story of Pentecost day in Jerusalem is, for the church, a kind of “classic.” It is a story to which the faith community assigns authority & to which it returns annually as a guide for its life. Here is revealed what the community is by recounting its origin in a powerful work of the Holy Spirit. Sometimes the story has given the church hope; sometimes this story has judged the church & found it wanting.
Luke seems to believe that the truth is available only as narrative, always hidden from direct explanation or easy access. We can expect surprises because the truth disclosed is ambiguous.
More than one interpretation can be offered for what happened in the upper room at Pentecost. No single explanation can do it justice. We are listening to the account of something strange, beyond the bounds of imagination; it is miraculous, inscrutable, an origin which, as far as Luke is concerned, was the only way one could “explain” the existence of the church. No simple explanation can do justice to the truth of how the church came into being & how the once timid disciples found their tongues to proclaim the truth of Christ.
The ambiguity & mystery of the story are indicated by the manner of narration. It is the dawn of the day of Pentecost & the followers of Jesus are gathered to wait & to pray. The new day begins with an eruption of sounds from heaven & of the same wind which on the very first morning of all mornings swept across dark waters. It is the wind of creation. The wind is once again bringing something to life.
And what was first heard is then seen – individual flames of fire. It is not until v. 4 that we learn that
this strange eruption is none other than the promised Holy Spirit. John the Baptist had said that the Christ will baptize you with the Holy Spirit & fire (Luke 3:16). With playful ambiguity Luke expands these fiery flames into the gift of other languages that the Spirit miraculously enables the assembly to speak. The first gift of the Spirit is the gift of speech, speech in different languages. So, we are hearing a story about the outbreak of the Spirit into the community & the first fruit of the Spirit is the gift of proclamation.
The scene quickly shifts from inside the upper room, where the disciples are gathered, to the street outside, where the gospel is already drawing a crowd. In the beginning of his Gospel, Luke characterized John the Baptist as one who will bring many Israelites back to the Lord their God (1:16). Out in the street, pious Jews from every nation under heaven for the first time confront the church, & their response is bewilderment. The outbreak of the Spirit leads to proclamation by the community, which leads to the bewilderment of bystanders. These flames are obviously various languages of every nation under heaven since each foreigner exclaims that each of us hear them speaking in our native language. No nationality of dispersed Jews is excluded from the proclamation, as Luke’s rollcall of the peoples makes clear.
Yet nothing is clear to the bystanders, who are thoroughly surprised & bewildered by the whole episode, questioning: What does this mean? Some of the bystanders do not want to know. They have their own sophisticated yet mocking theory for such strange manifestations of religious enthusiasm: They’re full with new wine! That power the church proclaims as a gift of God the world explains as inebriation. The inbreaking of the Spirit is profoundly unsettling & deeply threatening to the crowd in the street, & so it must devise some explanation, some rationalization for such irrationality.
In just a few verses Luke has given us a glimpse of much of the plot of Acts. His treatment of this initial episode reminds us of a similar opening scene, Jesus’ visit to his hometown synagogue in Luke 4. There we see the congregation’s pleasure with Joseph’s son turn from admiration to wrath when Jesus reminded them of how the powerful love of God had broken into the lives of foreigners. The hometown first sermon becomes a foreshadowing of the rest of Luke’s Gospel.
Acts 2 is a kind of summary of the rest of the story, functioning in much the same way as Luke 4. Once again, the power of God breaks into a conventional assembly of the faithful in a most unconventional way. (Remember Jesus’ words in Luke 4:21: Today, this Scripture has been fulfilled just as you heard it.)
Once again, everything hinges on the Spirit’s ability to set proclamation in motion. Once again, the proclamation evokes questions, bewilderment, & scorn. Here, in the interchange between the faithful & those snide mocking ones & those earnestly inquiring ones in the street, we see a pattern which will be repeated again & again in Acts.
The crowd’s questions become a cue for one of the disciples to stand & speak. As in his Gospel, Luke uses a miracle as an occasion for proclamation.
And who could have predicted the one who now speaks? We have heard him speak before in Acts 1:16-22. But then, because of our still lingering memory of how Peter himself had proved quite capable of repeated betrayal when the going got tough, we could hardly hear Peter speak to the necessity of finding a replacement for the betrayer Judas. It was Peter who only followed from a distance, Peter whom the maid drove to utter the terrible words: Woman, I don’t know him! We left him weeping in the courtyard, a disciple tested & found wanting.
Therefore, we detected something a bit hollow in Peter’s quick effort to condemn & then to replace Judas in Acts 1, reminding ourselves that Judas was not alone in his treason. Yet here, before the half inquiring, half mocking crowd, Peter is the first, the very first to lift up his voice & proclaim openly the word that only a few weeks before he could not speak, even to a serving woman at midnight.
Perhaps it brings to mind Genesis 2:7, the Spirit of God breathed life into dust & created a human being. In Acts 2, the Spirit has breathed life into a once cowardly disciple & created a new man who now has the gift of bold speech.
The richness of Luke’s account of Pentecost can lead to other layers of interpretation. We, in church listening to this story, resemble the crowd in our multiple interpretations of so strange & wonderful an event. For one thing, we recognize that Luke’s story of the gift of the Spirit differs from the account in
John 20. Luke seems to have separated into 3 events what had once been regarded as one event – the resurrection, exaltation, & bestowal of the Spirit. Perhaps Luke does this in order to give each aspect of the Easter triumph its own development in the story. Also, Luke reads the Spirit in a different light than that of John’s Gospel. There, the gift is related to the binding & loosing of the church, the forgiveness of sin. Here, even though forgiveness of sin is included, the Spirit is the power to witness, the engine that drives the church into all the world. By separating the resurrection from the ascension & exaltation by 40 days, Luke created the sequence that is familiar to us in our celebration of the liturgical year, even though resurrection, ascension, & Pentecost should be viewed as a unit, a 3-fold explanation of the power of God to accomplish what he wants in spite of all obstacles. Truly, the wind blows where it wills.
One popular interpretation of Pentecost is that this story signifies that Babel has been reversed. Human language, so confused at Babel, has been restored; & community, so scattered there, has here been restored. It is doubtful that Luke had this in mind. The mighty works of God are proclaimed only to Jews at this point. T
he time is not yet ripe in the story for the division between Jew & gentile to be healed. The story does not cla
im that there is only one language now – Luke reports that the disciples speak in a multitude of languages. Nor is there a claim that Pentecost is about the miracle of hearing instead of speaking, so that everyone receives instant translation. The miracle here is one of proclamation. Those who had no tongue to speak of the mighty works of God now preach.
It is doubtful that Luke is describing ecstatic speech here, th
e speaking in tongues of 1 Corinthians 14, because that sort of speech needed translation for anyone to understand. Judging from the discussion of tongues in 1 Corinthians 14, the Spirit manifested its presence in a variety of ways in Paul’s churches. Luke’s concern is with the description of a Spirit-empowered intelligible proclamation in foreign languages.
Others have attempted to link the story of Pentecost to the giving of the law on Mount Sinai – the old law was given on Sinai; a new law was given at Pentecost. The thought might belong to Paul (he mentions it in 2 Corinthians 3), but not to Luke. In Peter’s speech in vv. 14-40, there is no reference to Sinai or to the covenant. Linking Israel’s beginning at Sinai & the church’s beginning at Pente
cost is a stretch.
To those in the church today who regard the Spirit as an exotic phenomenon of mainly internal & purely personal significance, the story of the Spirit’s descent at Pentecost offers a rebuke. Luke goes to great pains to insist that this outpouring of the Spirit is anything but internal. Everything is by wind & fire, loud talk, buzzing confusion, & public debate. The Spirit is the power which enables the church to ‘go public’ with its good news, to attract a crowd &, as Luke tells later, to have something to say worth hearing. A new wind is set loose upon the earth, provoking a storm of wrath & confusion for some, & a fresh breath of hope & empowerment for others. Pentecost is a phenomenon of mainly evangelistic significance, as the central question of the crowd makes clear: What must we do to be saved? Whereas the crowd who heard Jesus’ sermon in Nazareth sneered: Isn’t this Joseph’s son? Luke is delighted to report that Peter’s sermon inspired by
the Spirit produced enthusiastic converts – 3,000 of them! Now Jews from every nation under heaven are coming to the good news. In these last days, as Luke 2:32 predicted, true Israel is being restored & shall be a light to all nations.
As the psalmist sang in 50:3: Our God is coming; he won’t keep quiet. A devouring fire is before him; a storm rages all around him.
We hear your call, God. And we will testify. We see your presence in all creation. We feel the fire of your holy touch. We are alive in your Spirit. Amen.