Day of Pentecost (Year B)

In telling the story of Pentecost, Luke struggles with a profound tension: How does one honor the Spirit’s radical freedom to move as it wants without giving the impression that Pentecost is chaotic?

Acts 2:2
Suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house. (Public domain image; licensed under CC0)

May 20, 2018

First Reading
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Commentary on Acts 2:1-21

In telling the story of Pentecost, Luke struggles with a profound tension: How does one honor the Spirit’s radical freedom to move as it wants without giving the impression that Pentecost is chaotic?

We might even ask the question: how do believing communities open ourselves to the wildness of the Spirit while maintaining structures of accountability?1

Respectable spirit possession

Luke does a great deal to confine the outbreak of the Spirit within the constraints of respectability. A key factor in this strategy involves reading Luke and Acts together, not necessarily as one seamless story but at least in sequence. The opening of Acts encourages its reader to remember Luke’s Gospel (Acts 1:1-5).

The risen Jesus has already prepared the disciples for this moment. Having appeared to them after his resurrection, Jesus promises to deliver what his Father has promised to him: “power from on high” (Luke 24:49). Acts opens by returning both to this promise and to the words of John the Baptist. The disciples are to be baptized with the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:5; see Luke 3:16). Indeed, just as Jesus’ career commences with the Holy Spirit descending upon him (Luke 3:21-22), so does Pentecost ignite the careers of his disciples. Finally, before Jesus ascends into the sky he repeats the promise. The disciples will receive power when the Holy Spirit “comes upon” them. If the language of the Spirit “coming upon” the disciples seems a bit, well, wild, Luke and Acts have at least prepared us for the event.

The Pentecost crowd’s initial response to the Spirit’s outpouring includes the concern that things have gotten a little too wild. Amazement and confusion spreads throughout the crowd, but some make fun of the event: surely these disciples are drunk (Acts 2:13). Peter begins by answering that complaint, and he does so by explaining the event as a fulfillment of Joel 2:28-32. Luke has already interpreted the Spirit’s “happening” as a fulfillment of Scripture. At the end of Luke’s Gospel, Jesus ties the Spirit’s arrival to his confounding saying that “everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled” (Luke 24:44-49). The phrase, “what my Father promised” suggests further fulfillment of the Scriptures. He repeats this language in Acts 1:4.

Acts’ attempts at respectability include an imperfect attempt to foreground the role of the apostles. On Pentecost “they were all together in one place” (Acts 2:1). That “all” includes the eleven apostles plus Matthias, along with “certain women,” Jesus’ mother Mary, and his brothers. Presumably, they “all” spoke in the manifold languages of their diverse audience. But Peter takes the lead, preaches the sermon, and gathers the converts. From this moment the believers adhere to the apostles’ teaching and the apostles do the miracle working (Acts 2:42-43). (The pattern cracks a bit when two non-apostles, Stephen and Philip, become great preachers.) In this light the preoccupation with choosing an apostle to replace Judas makes all the more sense (Acts 1:15-29). Indeed, it is to the apostles alone that Jesus promises the Spirit in Acts 1:2-5.

Free from constraint

We can understand why Luke would frame a respectable message for “most excellent Theophilus” (Luke 1:3). But Luke also knows the Spirit is all about dynamic freedom. The metaphors Acts uses for the spirit — power, tongues, fire, and wind — all signify the radical nature of the Spirit’s freedom. We translate the Greek dynamis as “power.” We may be overreading here, but the image is suggestive: what happens when fire strikes dynamite? Likewise, the ways in which the Spirit interacts with people — baptizing, coming upon, filling, giving them to speak — amplify the Spirit’s initiative.

Only the disciples, it seems, perceive the tongues of fire alighting upon them (Acts 2:3). But everyone discerns that something remarkable has occurred. That “everyone” reveals that the cat is now out of the bag. Peter’s audience may be respectable. Luke describes them all as “devout” persons. They all share multiple ethnicities, combining their Jewish identity with ethnicities from all over the ancient world ranging from Libya to Mesopotamia to Rome. Jesus’ promise that his disciples will take the gospel “to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8) receives here a prefigured fulfillment. As soon as some of these people travel home, the gospel will spread well beyond the apostles’ control.

The miracle in Acts is every preacher’s fantasy — and what every preacher already fears. The miracle resides not with the speaking of the disciples but in the hearing of the crowd. They hear the gospel in their own languages. This is what we all want: through the work of the Spirit to communicate with every person in a language particular to that individual. But we also know the dismay of being heard in ways we never intended. For once the word is out, it’s like a once-wounded eagle, captured, healed, and then set free. It is gone.

And then there is Joel. God’s pours the Spirit upon “all flesh,” making no distinctions according to rank, authority, or position. Children, male and female children, speak the word. Women and men alike receive the gift. One wonders: does Luke even try to render Joel respectable, transforming the “male slaves and female slaves” of Joel 2:29 into “God’s slaves” (Acts 2:18)? The Spirit crumbles all the walls of respectability: age, gender, and status alike. For these are the last days, and Spirit is bathing “all flesh” with its gifts. Everyone who calls upon God is being saved (Acts 2:21).


  1. Two interpreters have shaped my grappling with the Spirit’s wildness and Acts’ respectability. See Justo L. Gonzázlez, Santa Biblia: The Bible Through Hispanic Eyes (Nashville: Abingdon, 1996), 35-36; and Shelly Matthews, The Acts of the Apostles: Taming the Tongues of Fire (T&T Clark Study Guides to the New Testament; New York: Bloomsbury, 2017 [2013]), 73-92.