Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
No matter who you are. No matter where you are on life's journey. You are welcome here.
Acts 2:1-21 The Coming of the Holy Spirit
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, ‘Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.’ All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, ‘What does this mean?’ But others sneered and said, ‘They are filled with new wine.’
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. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: “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. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”
The story we read on Pentecost is one of my favorites because I always like a story with a good ruckus. This story is quite the ruckus! There’s a big group of Jesus’ followers, about 120 of them, gathered in one place in Jerusalem. It is the time of year when they celebrated Shavuot, a festival that follows 50 days after the first day of Passover. This holiday was also called by the Greek name Pentecost. Yes. That’s right. Our Christian holiday of Pentecost is named after the Jewish holiday. They were all packed into one room together. Can you even imagine 120 people in a room together? When’s the last time you saw that many people in one room? While they were all gathered together, a terrible wind kicked up. It was probably a very scary wind, less like standing in front a fan and more like that terrible storm we had a couple Octobers ago. You know the one that knocked over all the trees? It was the kind forceful, violent wind that could blow open our doors and rattle these windows and fling papers everywhere. It would be pretty scary. Those 120 disciples were probably pretty frightened by what is happening.
The next part of the story probably only adds to their confusion. You see, the people thought they saw fire... inside the room... in the air... leaping across their bodies. Now, fires in buildings aren’t usually a good thing. But, these 120 disciples, all Jewish, knew the ancient stories. Fire in unexpected or strange places is often a sign of God in their religious traditions. God once spoke to Moses through a burning bush. Their people once followed a pillar of fire through the desert, trusting that God was leading the way. When they saw the fire in the room, they thought it might be different... special. The fire wasn't outside of them. It was on top of them, maybe even inside of them, filling them up with the presence of God through the Holy Spirit. And, that Holy Spirit was about to spill out and do something none of them had expected. The Holy Spirit was going to help them talk!
We should remember that these 120 people are Galileans. In their everyday life, they likely spoke Aramaic or Greek. They probably understood a little Hebrew for religious purposes. They might know a smattering of Latin. This story tells us that they began to speak many other languages, just out of the blue. Why would they need to speak other languages? So they could speak to the rest of the people who had crowded into the city for the festival. Remember, Jewish people from all over came to Jerusalem to celebrate. We don't know exactly who was in the crowd, whether it was Jewish immigrants from across the Mediterranean who had settled in Jerusalem or Jewish pilgrims who had traveled to the city for religious observance. Whomever it was, the people who had gathered around the 120 suddenly realized they were hearing speech in their own mother tongues. More than a dozen regions are named in the story from the Bible (our reading today simplified it a little), and people from each place understood the words the disciples were saying. And, the people gathered around the disciples were astonished...like, the confused and surprised and suspicious kind of astonished. Some even wondered if the disciples were just hearing the almost coherent ramblings of a bunch of morning drunks.
Isn't this an incredible image of what church could be: people from wide ranges of ethnicities, genders, social classes, and ages, all hearing something new and moving about God in a language that they could understand. Even if they didn't understand how it was happening (and it's pretty clear, no one understood how it was happening), still, they heard and could understand something new about God. The Holy Spirit had made sure that each person in the room could hear something familiar, even as they were miles and miles away from home. What is interesting is that hearing words they know doesn't appear to comfort them. In fact, scripture says that they were pretty perplexed by the whole thing. And, yet, it seems like this situation is just exactly what the Holy Spirit intends. At least that's how Peter understands what's going on.
Remember, the book of Acts is a sequel to the book of Luke. When we see Peter’s response to the Holy Spirit, it is meant to mirror the beginning of Jesus’s ministry. When Jesus started preaching in Luke, he stood up in the synagogue and read parts of the words of the prophet Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” In Acts, Peter understands this Pentecost moment as an expression of the work of the prophet Joel. He explains to the bewildered crowd that they will know that God has come close to them when the differences within humanity are no longer excuses for humans to avoid coming together in community.
Peter recites this part of Joel to the people gathered:
“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. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”
Peter, in an effort to help the confused and suspicious witnesses, said that God will empower all kinds of people. That was the Good News they were sharing that day. God will allow people of all genders to prophecy, erasing the notion at women were not able to speak through the Holy Spirit. Peter said that youth will not be seen as incompatible with wisdom and agedness will be linked with creativity. The enslaved will share a place of righteousness with the free and they will speak truth to all. It is through this kind of boundary-pushing community that humanity most clearly speaks of the fullness of God.
It is as if the amazing differences present in the people aren’t a barrier to building relationships among them. Instead, it shows us a community where different and varied life experiences help people understand God in different ways, setting a foundation for us to understand our differences in life experience and religious experience as gifts from God, and assets to our faith. Without varying testimonies of God, our faith becomes static and closed-off, just the opposite of this wild, diverse testimony presented in this part of Acts. This kind of diverse sharing of the Gospel is what allows faith in Jesus to spread, first through a multi-ethnic diaspora of Jews, and then into Gentile communities, and, eventually, to us. And, the Holy Spirit sets the whole thing in motion right here, by making sure everyone could hear a word of God that they understood and inspired them to live differently because of what they heard.
I once read an article by Billy Honor who was critical of churches that talk a big game on Pentecost and then avoid modern-day Pentecost situations. That is churches that don’t know what to do with rooms of people from different backgrounds and different languages and different experiences. He worries, that in order to feel safe and stable in what they already know, churches miss out on incredible movements of the Holy Spirit in something unfamiliar. We never get the rushing wind and tongues of fire because we do all the same stuff and invite all the same people all the time.
As another scholar, Margaret Aymer, once wrote, "in the midst of the chaos of Pentecost rests an anchor." That anchor is the legacy and ministry of Jesus Christ and his first followers. Maybe remembering that, even when we are in wild, windy rooms filled with too many words, we don’t have to be afraid. We are rooted in Christ and he continues to invite us to hear the Gospel through our own experience and listen to our neighbors interpret God through theirs. Jesus helps us stay and listen to the new, strange, surprising thing. With his help, and the help of the Holy spirit, we can remember that we can be strengthened by the varieties of gifts people bring when they feel truly welcomed into Jesus' community. We can be empowered by the new testimonies we hear so that, we, too, dream dreams, see visions, and serve our neighbors. The Holy Spirit is always there, waiting to fill us up. May we be willing to be moved by what the Spirit helps us hear and finally understand.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Billy Honor: https://www.onscripture.com/my-struggle-pentecost-church’s-vacation-home-not-its-residence
Margaret Aymer: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3282
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.