Commentary on Acts 2:1-21
It happened on the subway platform in Moscow.
I’d been there for a week and I don’t speak Russian or understand it. For several days, my ears had been in a sea of gibberish, random sounds that I couldn’t understand. Then, in an instant of clarity, I heard English from the other end of the platform. It was like a beam of light, piercing through all other sounds, straight to my ear. American English, no less. My native language. It was a homing beacon, sharpening my senses to its signal. I felt every molecule in my body relax as I focused on the voice and understood the words. It felt like coming home.
In the Pentecost story, we see this dynamic played out ten-fold. The disciples are empowered to speak some 15 different languages not their own. And not just any foreign languages. The Spirit empowers them specifically to speak the languages of the “devout Jews from every nation” in Jerusalem (verse 5).
Just imagine Parthians, Mesopotamians and Cappadocians, as immigrants or visitors in Jerusalem, hearing their mother tongues spoken for perhaps the first time in years! Did each receive that homing beacon tuning the ear to its signal? Did each have that sense of coming home?
This gift of the Holy Spirit that marks the birth of the church is a gift expressly for those outside the Jesus movement, those who had lived displaced in a language-world not their own. We cannot miss this! It is a spiritual gift given not for the disciples themselves, but for the outsiders listening. God’s gift reaches outward to those outside of this immediate circle of Jesus followers. It seems that one mark of the Holy Spirit’s gifting is that it empowers us to connect to others.
And this gift given for the sake of others can sound crazy, ridiculous, so that “others sneer” (verse 13). Peter responds to the sneer-ers by calling on the ancient prophetic tradition. He doesn’t hesitate to claim this Pentecost experience as the fulfillment of Joel’s inspiring vision of what is looks like for God’s Spirit to be poured out “on all flesh” (verses 17-21). “All flesh” means young and old, women and men, slave and free. All will prophesy, which means speaking God’s word into reality. Peter says, “it’s happening now!” The Jesus community, through the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, challenges existing religious norms just as Joel did. These dreams and visions turn the Jesus community outward, proclamation through outsiders’ mother tongues.
What language would you speak in your missional location, if you were filled with the Holy Spirit? How might those outside your congregation hear their mother tongue and be welcomed home?
Invite your hearers to consider the native language of those outside your congregation: It might be a specific human language like Vietnamese, English, or Somali, spoken in the surrounding neighborhood. Or it might be a form of communication, like emojis, texting or digital images. Or perhaps the native language of those outside your circle of Jesus followers is the language of science or music. Or perhaps it is a particular spiritual dialect, a language of the heart that speaks deeply into people’s lives. Can we ask the Holy Spirit to gift us with such native languages?
Pentecost was the Jewish celebration 50 days after Passover that marked the giving of the Torah and was also the time of giving first fruits at the temple. The gathered disciples would already be celebrating God’s gifts, unawares that another gift was coming. This new gift of mother tongues turned them outward, toward those outside their movement.
The church birthed at Pentecost carries this deep DNA, to make a home in God’s life and invite others, in a way they can understand, to make a home in God’s life, too.