Divided tongues like fire!? Violent, howling wind!? It is one thing to receive a promise, quite another to be thrust into the midst of its fulfillment.
There they are that small band of believers who constitute the earliest community of Jesus. With a head count of 120 (Acts 1:15), they comprise ten times the number of the original Apostles, but still not a large assembly whether by ancient or modern standards. (Small churches, take heart!).
They are in Jerusalem for Pentecost, the Jewish Feast of Weeks (Shavuot). Falling fifty days after Passover, this is a festival of thanksgiving for the grain harvest (e.g., Exodus 34:22; Leviticus 23:15-21; Deuteronomy 16:9-12) as well as a celebration of God’s covenant handed down at Sinai. It is a day for recalling the powerful, gracious, life-giving presence of God
Gathered “all together in one place” (Acts 2:1), those first followers have no clue what is about to happen among them. To be sure, there is Jesus’ promise that they will testify about him “in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8; cf. Luke 11:13; 24:4). But that promise is short on details, lacking specificity. Besides, easy communication is not exactly the way of the first-century world. There is no email or Twitter, no online language translators, no printers nor the power grid that brings all that technology to today’s fingertips.
In addition, the disciples have seen Jesus’ body hanging on a Roman cross — a deterrent to bold speech if ever there were one. Still adjusting to the idea that Jesus has been raised from the dead, they are not entirely certain what his resurrection means or how it will impact their lives (Acts 1:6, 10). How in the world can this small band with so few resources and lacking a strategic plan testify “to the ends of the earth” in a culture that is likely to reject its message?
How? By the power of the Spirit of God, from which they learn the following:
1. God’s Spirit is not ours to control.
At the first Pentecost after Jesus, the Spirit appeared as divided tongues of fire, a manifestation different from its appearance as a dove at Jesus’ baptism (Luke 3:22). The howling of a wind that filled the room was a new form of the breath of God blowing warmth and life into Creation (Genesis 1:2, 2:7; cf. Job 33:4; Isaiah 42:5; Acts 17:25).
God’s Spirit is not restricted by human will or desire. We cannot drive its wind or stop its force, any more than we can control a hurricane’s squall. We cannot catch it, contain it, control it, or confine it.
Like the burning pillar of fire by night that accompanies the Israelites through the wilderness, this fire-like Spirit resting on the heads (and tongues) of the disciples guides them into God’s mission, taking them places they could never imagine and giving confidence to speak about God known to them in Jesus Christ.
2. God’s Spirit is active where we least expect it.
Festival pilgrims and residents of Jerusalem hear their native languages being spoken by this group of [mostly uneducated] Galileans. Not surprisingly, the experience leaves them feeling bewildered, amazed, astonished and perplexed (Acts 2:6, 12). Some even sneer about it, accusing the speakers of being drunk (2:13).
A similar reaction occurs soon after in Acts when Peter and John are hauled before the leading authorities in Jerusalem to answer charges about their preaching. Peter, “filled with the Holy Spirit,” responds with his testimony about Jesus. When the authorities saw “the boldness of Peter and John and realized that they were uneducated and ordinary men, they were amazed … ” (Acts 4:1-13; cf. 9:21; 10:44-46).
On that first Pentecost, Joel’s prophecy is fulfilled right before their eyes (Acts 2:17-21). They see and hear God’s spirit being poured out on all sorts of people — sons and daughters, old and young, even servants — but they need Peter’s help to make sense of it. Do we notice where the Spirit is being poured out today?
Could it be on the young persons we fear we cannot reach, the older persons we fear will not try something new, the marginalized persons we too often do not even notice? If we watch and listen for the Spirit moving among them, perhaps we will hear them speaking, dreaming, envisioning, being caught up in the power of the living God.
3. God’s Spirit empowers proclamation
Surprisingly, perhaps, the gift of tongues at Pentecost is not poured out for the disciples’ own sakes. It is not given so that they might say, “Look at us! We learned a foreign language without going to class!” The purpose of the gift is not to brag about their cutting-edge ministry nor to praise their growing church, but rather to praise God.
There are no bonus points for being a recipient of the Spirit’s movement. As Peter’s speech makes clear (Acts 2:14-21), the purpose of the gift is so that its recipients might speak out about what God has done.
The disciples speak in languages familiar to their hearers; in this case, immigrants from a variety of places. The disciples do not manufacture this power, they receive it from God. The ability to speak the Gospel in words that others will understand does not rest on a new marketing plan for potential members. It rests on the power of God and the believers’ openness to be moved to proclaim what God has done through the centuries and is doing now in the lives of God’s people.
4. God’s Spirit is poured out for the sake of God’s world.
Pentecost is not only a celebration of the birth of the church. It is also a celebration of the certain and sure promise that wherever the fire burns, wherever the wind blows, wherever chaos and life intersect, the Spirit of God is there, blowing where it will and driving God’s people into the heart of God’s mission.
As many North American churches agonize over declining membership and what to do about a millennial generation of “nones,” perhaps we might take a page from this first-century playbook. Where do we see God at work in our midst? What has God been doing in our churches, our homes, our work-places, our communities, our everyday lives, and even in places we do not expect?
What might it look like for preachers and churches to trust that the blowing, swirling, burning, life-giving power of the Spirit is present among us, dancing upon our heads, and stirring up a new thing in our midst?
God of Spirit,In awe and gratitude we stand before you, your son, Jesus Christ, and the fiery Holy Spirit, who has breathed new life into all your children. Amen.
Lord, dismiss us with your blessing ELW 545, H82 344, UMH 671, NCH 77 O day of rest and gladness ELW 521, H82 48, NCH 66
Go where I send thee, Caldwell/Ivory