Commentary on Acts 2:1-21; Philippians 4:4-7
The Tongues of Fire story in Acts paints a very specific picture of the Jewish festival of Pentecost—a festival that Christians dubiously take over as the “Birthday of the Church” rather than a holiday in continuity with the Jewish holiday celebrating God’s presence as the gift of the Spirit. The picture of this festival in Acts acclaims the true miracle of the Spirit’s presence in our world. But often as Christians, we view Spirit’s appearance with a kind of Christian superiority—Spirit untethers us from all the structures that held back those who worshipped God before us. Preachers should avoid this kind of contrast with Judaism—the Spirit that those gathered in Jerusalem witnessed was not unexpected or unknown. The occasion for the gathering in this story was the Festival of Pentecost (verse 1); it was not the invention of Pentecost.
That’s not to say that the story doesn’t draw attention to a new experience. Verse 2 notes that the tongues of fire create a noticeable and curious noise, like the rush of a violent wind. Sometimes we romanticize this wind as the Spirit blowing gently into the community—but the sound memory that comes to my mind is of hurricane winds or tornado winds or even just the straight winds of the plains and prairies. These winds are disorienting, frightening, unpredictable, destructive, and (like Acts says) violent. When I’ve experienced them, they do not necessarily resonate with the work of the Spirit in my life. But what if the work of the Spirit is exactly all of those things? What if the Spirit blows through our communities in ways that feel like difficult upheavals, but are ways that Spirit drives us to new work, new communities, even new callings?
This Spirit-wind creates such a ruckus in Acts, that the people in Jerusalem rush to see what is going on. And that’s where we hear that the Spirit makes it possible for those gathered to speak in languages that may or may not have been their native languages (verse 4), but were languages understood by many of the diverse groups of Jews living in Jerusalem. This is a miraculous means of connecting with people, particularly people who may be living in spaces where the cultural, social, political, and language customs are not their own. The Spirit’s power to create these connections is part of the good news in this text.
At the same time, verse 6 tells us that there were devout Jews from every country living in Jerusalem. This note also confirms what historians conclude: Jews and multiple forms of Judaism were found all over the ancient world. The nations (ethnoi) that Acts represents in the subsequent laundry list of ethnic identities (verses 9-11) dot the entire map of the Roman Empire. We learn from this list that Judaism was an empire-wide religious movement. This is important for Acts’ agenda since the point is to show that Christ-following (the Way or Christian community) is equally universal in its coverage of the empire. But this strategy, this idea that from much diversity can come one, unified, community also sets up readers to think like the empire. In fact, this story is a kind of foreshadowing of the story that the rest of Acts will tell. The narrative quite quickly forgets the cosmopolitan, diverse nature of Judaism suggested in verse 6 and subsequently speaks about “the Jews” as a monolithic group regardless of where the story moves.
As the stories in Acts move outward from Jerusalem, this diversity becomes the property of the Christian community that replaces the parochial, legalistic, jealousness of Judaism. This is NOT the gospel or the good news in this text. It is a view that mires Christianity deeper in the sin, hatred, and deception of anti-Jewish and imperial rhetoric. Recognizing the way that the narrative in Acts uses the diversity of Judaism to shed inspired light on the Christ-following community helps Christian interpreters avoid an appropriation of ancient Jewish diversity for our own contemporary diversity projects.
One way to resist this appropriation in Acts is to ask questions about which nations are named as the homelands of Jews living in Jerusalem. The list of nations in verses 9–11 includes only those who are within or on the borders of the Roman empire. Notice who is missing: Ethiopia, Persia, India (among others). These are places where archaeology and texts both attest to large numbers of Jewish and later Christian adherents. Acts itself in the story of the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:26–40) suggests that Ethiopia is a place where a rich (literally) Jewish tradition thrives. Why leave it out here? Simply put, it’s not part of the Roman empire. Asking the question of who is missing from this list helps us see who is missing from our lists. Who do we assume is not faithful in our world? What does that assumption do for our sense of how the Spirit moves in the world? These questions might be fruitful for preachers to begin to illuminate many kinds of differences in their communities, from local denominational differences to intra-denominational schisms to the divisions among those in the pews to the political divisions that have been so consequential in our world lately.
In fact, the opportunity arises at the end of the Acts story to notice that Peter’s speech to those gathered is mostly taken from the prophet Joel. After he dispells the notion that those gathered are drunk (verses 14–15), his quotation about the wide variety of people who will prophesy and see visions and understand signs in the heavens comes almost entirely from Joel (verses 17–21). And notice another shift, this time in gender, In verse 14, Peter addresses the men (androi) of Judea. This is not the generically gendered anthropos that we often see translated as “men,” this is a specifically gendered term. It is only within the Joel quotation (a quotation from Jewish scripture) that multiple genders are represented from the sons and daughters who prophesy (verse 17) to the enslaved men and women who receive the Spirit (verse 18). It is the specifically Jewish portion of the text that widens our scope of who is worthy of the Spirit. This contrast suggests one way to preach a different story about diversity and expansiveness within the early Jesus movement.
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