Acts 2:1-21, 42-47 | NIV
When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them. Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken. Utterly amazed, they asked: “Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language? Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “What does this mean?” Some, however, made fun of them and said, “They have had too much wine.”
Then Peter stood up with the Eleven, raised his voice and addressed the crowd: “Fellow Jews and all of you who live in Jerusalem, let me explain this to you; listen carefully to what I say. These people are not drunk, as you suppose. It’s only nine in the morning! No, this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel: “‘In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy. I will show wonders in the heavens above and signs on the earth below, blood and fire and billows of smoke. The sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood before the coming of the great and glorious day of the Lord. And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”
Those who accepted his message were baptised, and about three thousand were added to their number that day. They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favour of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.
Babel to Pentecost
A long time ago, the people of earth decided to build a tower. As they built it higher and higher, they became proud of their work. They thought they could reach heaven, perhaps even become gods themselves. God realised their ambition and arrogance knew no bounds, and so he confused their languages. They could no longer understand one another, so their tower was abandoned and fell into disrepair. Perhaps this is a true story, or perhaps it is a story that holds truth. However it came to pass, the people of the earth spoke different languages, and while there was beauty in the difference, the people could no longer work or worship in unity, and they were scattered.
Years upon years passed, and then there came a man called Jesus who said he would draw all people to himself. He said and did many more extraordinary things besides, and some who followed him came to believe that he was no ordinary man but God in flesh. He reminded the people of what God had always told them, that they must love one another and act with mercy and justice and humility.
Many believed in him and in his words, but others were scared and angered, and so they took him and they hung him on a cross, and there he died and was taken away to be buried. But on the morning of the third day, his tomb was empty, and he appeared to his friends. He still bore his wounds, but he spoke and broke bread as he had before, no ghost but alive once more. And those who believed knew that he had conquered death and the evil that had killed him, and that he was giving them a taste of the life that was to come. Forty days he remained with them, and then he was taken up to heaven, leaving them with a command to make disciples of all peoples, and a promise that the Spirit of God would come to them to help them accomplish the work.
Ten days later, as Jerusalem filled with people who had come to celebrate the feast of Pentecost, marking the first harvest and remembering the giving of the Torah, those who had followed Jesus most closely were gathered together. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting, and then they saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Spirit who had hovered over the waters of creation and inspired the prophets and been promised as a counsellor and companion.
They ran out into the street, and they began to tell the people of Jesus. And though the people gathered in the city were Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome; Cretans and Arabs, they all understood what they heard. They were amazed by what they heard, and many believed and joined those who followed Jesus. Those who believed devoted themselves to teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and prayer. They met every day and had everything in common, and more joined them.
The confusion of languages that began at the tower did not end that day. The beauty in their differences remained and was not diminished, but a new language was added to their number, a divine language which could be translated into every human tongue. And in that language was the hope that the people could work and worship in unity once more.
I wonder which part of the story had you most excited?
I wonder which part of the story you would have most wanted to see for yourself?
I wonder which part of the story you find most difficult to believe?
I wonder what questions this story has left you wanting to ask?
I hope your wonderings have taken you to some interesting places, but let’s dig into the story together now. It all takes place on the day of Pentecost, the last of four spring festivals in the Jewish calendar. Its Hebrew name is Shavuot, which means weeks because it is celebrated seven weeks after the Feast of Firstfruits, which falls on the day following the Passover, during the Feast of Unleavened Bread. Pentecost is its Greek name, and means fifty because it is marked fifty days after Passover. It is a second celebration of the firstfruits over the harvest, particularly the barley harvest, and has also become a commemoration of the giving of the Torah to Moses on Mount Sinai. During the first century, offerings would have been made at the temple, which is why so many people had gathered in Jerusalem. Now it is customary to stay up all night studying Torah, and a few hundred years ago in Eastern Europe, it became common for children to be introduced to Torah with sweet cakes and honey so they would associate it with sweetness and joy. That doesn’t really help us in terms of background for the passage we have read, but I do love the sense of scripture being something to be excited about, to be devoured with all the giddiness of a midnight feast.
I want to avoid any supersessionist idea that the Christian meaning of the festival is the true meaning of the festival, but I do think there are some interesting parallels between Pentecost as it is celebrated within Judaism and Pentecost as it has come to be celebrated by the church, just as the themes of sacrifice and salvation provide parallels between Passover and Easter. The barley harvest celebrates the bringing in God’s provision, while the fellowship of the believers celebrates the bringing in of God’s people. And the giving of Torah formed the basis for the Jewish community, while the giving of the Spirit became the basis for the Christian community. There is a newness to what is happening but also a familiarity and a continuity, because God is as God was and as God will be.
So the Spirit is given, but what is the Spirit? Two weeks ago, we heard Jesus promise the Spirit as a paraclete, an advocate and a counsellor and a helper and a comforter and a companion. We also remembered that the Spirit hovered over the waters of creation and inspired the decoration of the tabernacle and spoke to the prophets. The Spirit is the presence and power of God in our lives and in our selves, at home and at work in the world from the very beginning but known and experienced in deeper and fuller ways since this great outpouring. The Spirit is not easy to describe because it is like nothing else, but I think we learn to recognise the Spirit through the fruit and the gifts it brings into our lives. Where we know love and joy and peace and patience and kindness and goodness and gentleness and self control, there the Spirit it is. Where our deepest joy meets the world’s greatest need and we offer ourselves in service, there the Spirit is.
The Spirit comes on the disciples in full power, and the first thing that happens is that the disciples pour out into the streets to speak of Jesus. As I heard someone say this week, "church was never meant to be a private gathering". At house group in recent weeks, we have been thinking about how we live out the kingdom’s purposes in our everyday lives, and we have talked about a pattern of gathering and scattering. We meet together for worship and encouragement, and then we go out to be the hands and feet and mouth of God in the world. We’ll explore this together in church soon, and think about how we can send and support one another in that work, so I won’t say too much more on this theme for the moment, but Pentecost is a good time to remember our call to share the good news and be the good news.
It’s not absolutely clear what happens when the disciples speak to the crowds. We are told that they spoke in other tongues and that everyone heard in their own language. Did the disciples speak the languages of the Parthains and the Egyptians and the Libyans? Or did they speak in tongues of the Spirit which were then translated in the minds of the hearers? Perhaps it doesn’t matter and perhaps the real significance of the miracle is not in the speaking but in the hearing. Everyone heard and so everyone could understand and so everyone could respond. There were no barriers to the gospel that day. And yet the speaking is also important, because the understanding couldn’t have happened without it. That might lead us to ask how we might speak other languages, and I don’t think the answer is only clocking up hours on Duolingo. It is important that people are able to access scripture and worship in their mother tongue, but we can also be divided by a common tongue, and there can be a kind of Christian speak that is practically unintelligible to those not already in the know. It is very easy to misunderstand one another if we don’t share frames of reference, so we have to take time to understand the cultures around us, and speak in ways that those without church backgrounds can understand. (I acknowledge here that eight years of theological study can warp your sense of what is intelligible, so please do challenge me if I use language that is unhelpful or unclear.)
I have heard this story at least once a year for my entire life, but this week I was struck in an entirely new way by the reference to women in the verses Peter quotes from Joel. "Your sons and daughters will prophesy...Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit." Given the disregard religion has so often had for women, it has also been significant for me that the Spirit was promised to us too, but for the first time I wondered why Peter thought of that particular prophecy at that particular moment. Could it be that he had just seen daughters prophesying? Might we suppose that he had witnessed the Spirit being poured out on women? Peter stands up with the Eleven, but the passage begins by saying “they were all together in one place”, and that doesn’t leave out the possibility that there were other followers of Jesus there, and we know from the gospels that this group included women. It’s an exercise in prophetic imagination, but it is wonderful to me to even consider that there were women proclaiming the gospel that day.
Our first hymn called God to “defeat our Babel with your Pentecost”, and the Godly Play retelling began with the infamous tower, so before we finish I want to spend a moment considering why those two stories have been brought together. That there is a connection between them is perhaps obvious, but I think it is about more than just language. The people at Babel were trying to build their own kingdom, to establish their own power and revel in their own glory, but the disciples at Pentecost were beginning the work of realising God’s kingdom, to demonstrate God’s power and reveal God’s glory. Babel led to frustration and division (and wouldn’t that have been the case even without divine intervention?) while Pentecost led to joy and community. And yet Pentecost doesn’t simply reverse Babel, because it doesn’t do away with our distinctions, but rather it transforms our discord by bringing it into harmony. So may we sing the song of the Spirit which guides and animates all our work for the kingdom, that the power and glory of God might be known by all people.
**Bonus thoughts: It's not just the Greek word pneuma that is translated both spirit and breath, the Hebrew word ruach has the same range of meanings too. And of course Genesis tells us that God breathed life into the first humans, just as John tells us that Jesus breathed on the disciples when he came to them after the resurrection. In reflecting on the coming of the spirit at Pentecost, it's always important to remember that the Spirit may have inspired the church but did not come first to the church and does not belong only to the church. God has been breathing the Spirit into the creation since the very beginning, and "the wind blows wherever it pleases" (John 3:8).**