Sermon for Pentecost
Acts 2:1-21 and John 14:8-17, 25-27
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…” That’s how Luke begins his telling of the coming of the Holy Spirit into the life of that little group of Jesus-followers in Jerusalem. Pentecost— means “fiftieth”—was the Greek name for the Jewish Feast of Weeks, which celebrated the giving of the torah to Israel at Mount Sinai. According to Jewish tradition it was fifty days after the exodus from Egypt that the torah was given, and in the chronology set out in Luke-Acts it is also fifty days after the resurrection that those followers of Jesus have this experience of the coming of the Holy Spirit.
A rushing and violent wind, “tongues as of fire,” and an unexpected capacity “to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability”… it is all pretty wild and strange stuff. No less strange to those who experienced it than to we who read it two thousand years later. No less strange to those who watched as these Jesus-followers poured out on to the street, speaking in languages they couldn’t possibly have known. “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans?”—that’s a bit like saying, Aren’t these people from Niverville, New Bothwell, and Plum Coulee?— “How is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?” I thought the only other language they could speak was Plautdietsch… “All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, ‘What does this mean?’ But others sneered and said, ‘They are filled with new wine.’” And don’t you love Peter’s response to this accusation? “Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose,” he says, “for it is only nine o’clock in the morning.” Which seems to suggest that were it nine o’clock at night… well, this was not a culture shy about its feasting!
To be sure, some people will find the prospect of having a spiritual experience that could be mistaken for being “filled with new wine” quite deeply appealing. Something that vivid and so beyond the mundane and predictable—something ecstatic and miraculous and empowering and shared—it’s a bit irresistible, really. And you know, over the whole two thousand year story of the church some groups and movements have actively pursued such experiences, often with the 2nd chapter of Acts firmly in view. If then, why not now? It’s not an unfair question.
Every once in a while the Spirit of God does seem to show up in ways not entirely unlike what we read in Acts; almost as if a window between the world as we know it and the world as God sees are opened for a time. And it doesn’t just start with the birth of modern North American Pentecostalism on Asuza Street at the beginning of the 20th century, either. If you trace through the long history of the church, you keep encountering these moments in which that window is opened, if only briefly, and new wind rushes through the oftentimes dusty and stale air of the church.
I’ve sometimes wondered why God doesn’t just throw that window open for good, and part of me suspects that it has much to do with us, and with our limits. Like new wine, spiritual experiences can become rather addictive, which is where you get this business of people pursuing them as if that is the only thing that matters. Pursuing religious feeling for the sake of the experience, which easily becomes a kind of idolatry. In his highly personal autobiography The Confessions, Augustine writes of how as a new believer he was powerfully moved by the music of the church. “How I wept during your hymns and songs,” he says. “The sounds flowed into my ears and the truth was distilled into my heart. This caused the feelings of devotion to overflow. Tears ran, and it was good for me to have that experience.” Yet Augustine finds that as he moves more deeply into his maturing faith, it is “the words being sung” that move him, and that he needs food for his mind as well as for his heart; one without the other will leave him stunted, merely weeping for the sake of the experience of weeping. Or merely thinking for the sake of thinking, which is the other ditch into which the people of God can fall.
What’s more, as N.T. Wright notes, “The point of Pentecost was not so much the offer of a new spiritual experience as the declaration of a new spiritual reality. God’s history with the world had turned its decisive corner.” Yes, what Luke describes is full of wonder, but the deeper marvel is seen in the transformation of this bunch of Galileans and hangers-on into this new thing Paul will later call the Body of Christ. In the words of William Willimon, “The Spirit is the power which enables the church to ‘go public’…”
That “going public” is first seen as Peter stands to preach, right there in the street. Peter, the boisterous fisherman who’d run like a frightened rabbit the night that Jesus was arrested, is now bold, clear and articulate. He is shown picking up on a text from the prophet Joel, and improvising on it as a way of interpreting what is really going on. His sermon continues well beyond what we heard read aloud this evening, and in some real sense it sets out the agenda for the rest of the book of Acts. “This promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.”
Alongside of Luke, two other New Testament writers give considerable attention to the Holy Spirit. In the Gospel according to John, Jesus speaks of the Spirit as “the Advocate… whom the Father will send in my name, [to] teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.” For Paul, the Spirit is God with us now, uniting all who would follow as the Body of Christ, conferring gifts to each member for the sake of the whole. Yet as the commentator Brian Peterson suggests,
Of the three, the portrayal of the Spirit in Acts is the most disturbing. Who knows where such a Spirit might blow? Being a disciple of Jesus in this windstorm will bring the church, and you along with it, to unexpected places, and unexpected grace.
As presented by Luke in the book of Acts, “the Spirit is the power of God, the mighty burning wind that blows the church into new and unexpected places of ministry.”
And at the heart of the “unexpected” is Peter’s fresh reading of the prophet Joel. In their original context, Joel’s words had pointed to the vindication of Israel, and to the corresponding destruction of the nations that had so oppressed it. “The surprise of Pentecost,” writes Peterson, “is that the eschatological ‘last days’ do not bring that destruction, but rather bring mission and redemption for the world.”
And it is on from there, as one after another the main characters in Acts find themselves pressing through old understandings and old dividing lines into a proclamation that insists room be made for all; old and young, male and female, slave and free, and—most potently for a church born on the feast day that commemorated the giving of the torah at Sinai—Jew and Gentile. This is an almost unimaginably generous vision for God’s people… though when they went back and considered the writings of prophets like Isaiah they realized it was something that had long been in the making. Still, Isaiah and the others had merely sung of the promise; this bunch, starting with those backcountry Galileans, were about to actually live it.
With so much at stake, any wonder it all started with a whirlwind?