Commentary on Acts 2:1-21; Philippians 4:4-7
With this reading the narrative lectionary takes us out of narrative order of moving through Acts and moves backward from Acts 17 (last week) to Acts 2.
The choice of reading is set, of course, by the timing of the holy day of Pentecost. The uniqueness of this day is represented by the red that comes out and adorns pulpits and tables after fifty days of white and before months of green. As the day on which we celebrate the birth of the church through the gift of the Holy Spirit, it is truly a day for rejoicing (Philippians 4:4-7), and a sermon on Acts 2 should reflect that tone for the day.
Luke’s story of Pentecost can be divided into three sections. The first section is the narrative part of the scene (Acts 2:1-13). This is the section that usually receives most preachers’ attention and for good reason. It is a sensually provocative scene with heavenly sounds filling the house, little tongues like fire resting on each person, and then the sudden experience of having languages you never studied in school popping out of your mouth as easily as your mother tongue. It is a humorous scene with the Jewish pilgrims from across the empire thinking the Galileans are drunk because they are suddenly talking in languages they can understand. It is in many ways a reversal of the story of Babel (Genesis 11).
God once used diverse languages to divide the human race that strived to be a name unto itself. Now God allows speech and hearing that transcends those divisions to unite people in the body of Christ. It is no wonder the church has focused so much of its Pentecost energy on this section of the text.
The second section of the passage, however, also deserves our attention (Acts 2:14-36). This is Peter’s sermon. It is the first sermon in the Book of Acts and set the paradigm of proclamation that is followed in almost every other speech in the book (the main exception being Acts 17 presented in last week’s reading in the Narrative Lectionary).
The Narrative Lectionary ends the reading for the day at verse 21, which really only serves as the introduction to the sermon. Here Peter explains that what is happening is a fulfillment of the ancient prophecy found in Joel 2:28-32, but goes on afterward to proclaim Jesus’ resurrection. The Narrative Lectionary’s decision to end at verse 21 is unfortunate. Still, verse 21 makes for a good punchline to draw the reading to an end: “Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” This is a recurring theme in Acts and indeed shows up in the concluding section of the Pentecost story.
That third section of the story is composed of Acts 2:37-42. It describes the response of the crowd the gift of the Spirit and speaking in different languages they witnessed and to Peter’s sermon. They ask, “What should we do?” (verse 37). The clear implication is that the fuller sentence is “What should we do to be saved?” Peter invites the listeners to repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus so that they might receive forgiveness of sins and the Holy Spirit. Three thousand of them do so and the church was born.
It is understandable that the Narrative Lectionary chooses not to read all 42 verses of this scene. That would be a very long liturgical reading in a day when people are not used to listening to oral recitation. But preachers will do well to set whatever portion of the passage they focus on in the wider context of the whole scene, sermon, and response. The sermon can begin with a wide-angle view of the text and then zoom in on the portion that occupy the rest of the sermon.
One such focus, as mentioned above, is the opening scene. Asking a congregation to identify with those gathered in the house when the Spirit is received invites a celebration of the way we as the church and we in the church receive and experience God’s spirit still today — ways we are equipped by God’s Spirit to reach out to a world in need of that same Spirit.
Given how well-known that scene is, however, a preacher is also justified in focusing in on the introduction to Peter’s sermon. The congregation would still be asked to identify with those who have received the Holy Spirit, but as they hear Peter explain just what that Spirit does, the reasons to rejoice multiply. The language of sons and daughters prophesying, young and old seeing visions, even slaves receiving the Spirit casts an inclusive vision for Christ’s church (Acts 2:17-18). Not only are all welcomed, all those who have accepted the gift of membership receive the gift of the Spirit and have so much to give in return!
If that is not enough to celebrate, Peter (via Joel) goes further. The gift of the Spirit is given cosmic, eschatological dimensions: heaven, earth, sun, and moon will all declare the coming of the Lord (Acts 2:19-20) even more powerfully than a small group miraculously speaking in multiple languages!
In 1952 J. B. Phillips published his very popular book, Is Your God Too Small: A Guide for Believers and Skeptics Alike. Phillips argued that many mid-twentieth century folk kept in a box that didn’t fit with the changing scientific world view of a post-World War II modernity. Focusing on Peter’s use of Joel on Pentecost invites a celebratory reflection on whether we have done the same with Holy Spirit? Is our understanding of the Holy Spirit too small, too antiquated, too boxed-in, to be as useful and meaningful and faithful today as it might be?
PRAYER OF THE DAY
God of Spirit,
We give thanks that when you sent your Advocate, the apostles were empowered to speak about your deeds of power in all languages, for every people. Give us boldness to share the Spirit’s power with our neighbors. Amen.
Go where I send thee, Caldwell/Ivory