1 When Pentecost Day arrived, they were all together in one place. 2 Suddenly a sound from heaven like the howling of a fierce wind filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3 They saw what seemed to be individual flames of fire alighting on each one of them. 4 They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as the Spirit enabled them to speak.
5 There were pious Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6 When they heard this sound, a crowd gathered. They were mystified because everyone heard them speaking in their native languages. 7 They were surprised and amazed, saying, “Look, aren’t all the people who are speaking Galileans, every one of them? 8 How then can each of us hear them speaking in our native language? 9 Parthians, Medes, and Elamites; as well as residents of Mesopotamia, Judea, and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the regions of Libya bordering Cyrene; and visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism), 11 Cretans and Arabs–we hear them declaring the mighty works of God in our own languages!” 12 They were all surprised and bewildered. Some asked each other, “What does this mean?” 13 Others jeered at them, saying, “They’re full of new wine!”
14 Peter stood with the other eleven apostles. He raised his voice and declared, “Judeans and everyone living in Jerusalem! Know this! Listen carefully to my words! 15 These people aren’t drunk, as you suspect; after all, it’s only nine o’clock in the morning! 16 Rather, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:
17 In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy. Your young will see visions. Your elders will dream dreams. 18 Even upon my servants, men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy. 19 I will cause wonders to occur in the heavens above and signs on the earth below, blood and fire and a cloud of smoke. 20 The sun will be changed into darkness, and the moon will be changed into blood, before the great and spectacular day of the Lord comes. 21 And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. (CEB)
Cretans and Arabs…
Somehow Pentecost reminds me of the beginning of one of my favorite movies of all time: The Princess Bride. I’ve watched it so many times I can almost quote the whole movie, and it has so many great quotable lines it’s worth memorizing. But the reminder doesn’t come from the heavenly sound like a rushing wind, or descending fire, or the people speaking in languages they’ve never learned.
In the beginning of the movie, the Grandson is sick, so the Grandfather comes over to read him a special story that has been passed down from generation to generation in the family. The Grandson isn’t very impressed with the book. First of all, it’s a book, not a video game. Second, it’s old and shows a little wear. The Grandson asks, “Has it got any sports in it?”
The Grandfather passionately replies, “Are you kidding? Fencing. Fighting. Torture. Revenge. Giants. Monsters. Chases. Escapes. True love. Miracles.” The Grandson then leans back in his bed and says, “It doesn’t sound too bad. I’ll try and stay awake.”
That’s why Pentecost reminds me of the movie. I think a lot of Christians are kind of like the Grandson. The story of Pentecost is dramatic, it’s full of action and the amazing activity of God and it’s the birthday of the Church, but I think a lot of American Christians put more stock in Federal holidays and Hallmark holidays than we do in Pentecost. Regarding any Christian holy day other than Christmas or Easter we’re often kind of halfhearted about it, “Well, it doesn’t sound too bad. I’ll try and stay awake.”
Every Sunday demands our attention. Every Sunday is a little Easter. Every Sunday is a day we set aside to offer our worship to God. But Pentecost, especially, demands our attention! Are we awake to the moving of the Holy Spirit in and through the church? This day means new life for God’s people!
It’s no accident that the birth of the Church occurs on this important festival day. The Feast of Pentecost, or Weeks, as it is known in the Old Testament, marked the end of the celebration of the spring harvest, a Jewish liturgical cycle that began at Passover and during which devout Israelite families praised God for God’s grace and bounty. It was also the beginning of a period, lasting until the autumn festival of Booths, in which the first fruits of the field were sacrificed to the Lord.
Among some Jews, the Feast of Weeks was also a time of covenant renewal. The Hebrew word Shavuot could be translated weeks or oaths. The Book of Jubilees is a Jewish writing that dates from about 150 B.C., and it states, “Therefore, it is ordained and written in the heavenly tablets that they should observe the feast of Shavuot in this month, once per year, in order to renew the covenant in all (respects), year by year.”[i]
Pentecost, then, is a significant and expectant moment in the life of God’s people, and in the relationship between God and God’s people. It’s like that moment when gestation ceases and giving birth occurs. It is both an end and a new beginning, like graduating from high school or college. The end of the old thing is the beginning of something new.
Pentecost is not a time of completion, any more than baptism or accepting Jesus is a time of completion. You can’t say, “Well, I accepted Jesus and got baptized. Check that off the list, I’m good to go now.” Pentecost, like baptism and accepting Jesus Christ is a beginning; a time of moving forward into new dimensions of being. When we accept Jesus Christ, or when we’re baptized, we aren’t done. Those things are not the end-goal, but the very beginnings of Christian life. For the church, receiving the Holy Spirit at Pentecost was not the end-goal, but the very beginning of the Church!
We follow the lectionary cycle in our worship, so we’ve been prepared for the arrival of this significant moment in time. Twice, in connection with Jesus’ ascension, the coming of the Holy Spirit has been promised: “…you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you.” (Act 1:8, CEB). At Pentecost, that promise is now realized in a manner which far and away exceeds the expectation of even the most faithful disciples. New life for the Church! New life for individuals within the Church! New life through the Spirit of God! The meaning and significance of Pentecost is that God has given us a new way of living.
In the early Church, Easter ranked first among all Christian holy days, and Pentecost ranked second—even ahead of Christmas. Have you ever thought of Pentecost as something that important? It’s the second-most-important Christian holy day! Pentecost is something we Christians ought to get excited about! If we’re as lackadaisical as the Grandson in The Princess Bride and say, “It doesn’t sound too bad. I’ll try and stay awake,” then we’re really not seeing the significance of what God has done by sending his Holy Spirit upon us.
At Pentecost, no-one present is excluded from this display of God’s grace. Everyone was included, no matter their nationality. Cretans (I’ve been called a cretin before) and Arabs are included.
Unlike other important events in the history of God’s mighty acts in Jesus, the Christ, where only the inner circle of disciples were witnesses to the work of God’s Spirit, everyone is included at Pentecost. Everyone hears the noise like a rushing wind! The tongues of flame rest on each of the disciples, and a moment later the crowd comes surging forward because each one has heard the disciples speaking in his or her native language.
In order that not even the least astute person reading this text might miss the inclusiveness of the moment, the list of places that begins in verse 9 traces a wide sweep through the Greco-Roman world. Everyone, from every corner, is included.
When I went to Israel, my tour guides were Palestinian Christians. And they said that they traced the ancestry of their Christian Faith back to the Day of Pentecost, where Arabs are mentioned as those who were present in Jerusalem on this day, and who heard the noise like a rushing wind and heard Peter stand up and preach! I thought that was pretty cool, and it’s right there in Acts 2:11.
What happens on Pentecost is no mystical experience for the inner-circle alone, but an outpouring of God’s energy and power that touches every life present. This is an in-rushing, an unleashing of God’s Spirit in a way that has never happened before.
Still, people respond to God’s actions in different ways. Not everyone responded to the winds and fires of new life in positive ways. Even though they heard the in-rushing wind with their own ears, and perhaps even saw the tongues of fire with their own eyes, some mocked and in their unwillingness to believe the new and absolutely amazing thing that God was doing, reacted with sour words as they confused Holy Spirit-induced joy with alcohol-induced inebriation. “They were all surprised and bewildered. Some asked each other, ‘What does this mean?’ Others jeered at them, saying, ‘They’re full of new wine!’” (CEB).
Maybe it was the extravagance of the Holy Spirit’s outpouring presence that caused them to conclude that what they saw happening couldn’t really be happening. Nothing like this had ever happened before, how could they believe what they were seeing? It wouldn’t be the first time that people looked for another explanation when God did something absolutely extravagant. Yet, what it seemed to be is exactly what it was. God’s Holy Spirit coming in power, offering new life for all of God’s people!
Peter’s sermon on the Day of Pentecost begins with a quotation from the Prophet Joel, and nothing could be more indicative of the nature of Pentecost than the change in meaning of this text. Joel says, “After that I will pour out my spirit upon everyone; your sons and your daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, and your young men will see visions. In those days, I will also pour out my spirit on the male and female slaves. I will give signs in the heavens and on the earth–blood and fire and columns of smoke. The sun will be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood before the great and dreadful day of the LORD comes. But everyone who calls on the LORD’s name will be saved; for on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there will be security, as the LORD has promised; and in Jerusalem, the LORD will summon those who survive.” (Joel 2:28-32, CEB).
For Joel, this prophecy is a forecast of doom, destruction, and death; a time of fear and terror where you’d better call on God’s name or you’re toast! But for Peter’s sermon, the meaning of Joel’s prophecy is turned around, and he uses it as a declaration of new life. For Joel, the outpouring of the Spirit is a prelude to disaster, but for Peter these wonders have been fulfilled in Jesus Christ, himself the greatest of God’s wonders, and their purpose, Christ’s purpose, is nothing less than the healing of the human race.
The Holy Spirit has invaded human life in ways that shatter old expectations. The reason for the Spirit’s visitation is not death, but new life. New life! God has poured out the Holy Spirit upon us, and everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. Are we excited? Or are we just trying to stay awake?
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen!
[i] Jubilees, O.S. Wintermute, trans., in The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha Vol. 2, James H. Charlesworth, ed., (Doubleday: New York, 1985), 67.