Sermon Commentary for Sunday, May 15, 2016
Acts 2:1-21 Commentary
What’s the best way to celebrate a birthday? How should one celebrate the birthday of important people or institutions? In fact, how should we celebrate what some have called the “birthday of the Church” that is Pentecost?
When we celebrate our sons’ birthdays, we sometimes recall stories of their birth. Of how one was born so quickly that his doctor didn’t even arrive in time to deliver him. An intern did it. Or of how his mom and I didn’t finalize another’s names until we were travelling to the hospital to give birth to him.
In a similar way, perhaps the best way to celebrate the Church’s birthday that is Pentecost is to retell the story of how she was born. One possible pathway into this rich text is to focus on the way Pentecost’s Holy Spirit transforms Jesus’ disciples. Barbara Brown Taylor notes we can see that Jesus was the Messiah when we think about his followers in a kind of before-and-after set of pictures.
Before Pentecost they didn’t fully recognize who Jesus was, even though he ministered and lived with them for years.
Jesus’ disciples didn’t stick with him when he got into deep trouble with the authorities, instead abandoning him as quickly as they could. Then, when he, just as he had promised, rose from the dead, they struggled to fully believe that he was alive again.
On Pentecost, however, those very same slow, timid, bumbling disciples become utterly fearless leaders. Jesus’ disciples proclaim the gospel in front of both large crowds and menacing authorities. After Pentecost, they heal sick people and exorcise demons. Jesus’ disciples even go to jail gladly where they sing hymns that shake their prison’s foundations.
That miraculous transformation begins with what Acts 2:1-21 describes. Among the last things Jesus told his disciples before he ascended to the heavenly realm was to wait in Jerusalem for God to keep his promise to baptize them with the Holy Spirit. So with what we suspect was little idea of what Jesus meant, Jesus’ disciples obeyed him by returning to Jerusalem.
In Jerusalem, while they waited, these assembled people prayed “constantly.” They may even have asked God to tell them about just what they were waiting for. After all, John the Baptizer had said something about how Jesus would baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire. It probably sounded dangerous.
Perhaps thankfully, then, Jesus’ disciples had to wait only ten days for God to answer their prayers. On the day of Pentecost, a festival the Jews celebrated fifty days after the Passover, the disciples received what Taylor calls “a crash course in power.”
First there was what Luke calls “a sound like the blowing of a violent wind.” Then there were what looked like “tongues of fire.” Finally, God filled Jesus’ disciples with the Holy Spirit, so that they began to talk in all sorts of foreign languages. One spoke Parthian, another Latin. Some even managed to curl their tongues around the exotic nuances of Egyptian and Arabic.
We can picture God-fearing Jews from all over the known world responding by slowly filling all the doorways and windowsills in that “one place.” After all, a bunch of untrained Galileans was telling about God’s power in languages that left no one feeling out. God’s Holy Spirit turned out to be an amazing linguistics teacher whom everyone present could understand.
Yet it still confused both the listeners and speakers. They were in the middle of something that was illogical. Since some of Jesus’ disciples’ audience couldn’t explain it, they began to hunt for explanations for this foreign language phenomenon. Some made fun of Jesus’ inspired disciples, accusing them, in verse 13, of having “too much wine.”
The once-timid but now inspired bold Peter, however, boldly rejects this explanation. These men aren’t somehow drunk, as you suggest, he says to the crowd in verse 14. After all, it’s only nine o’clock in the morning.
Then Peter delivers a stirring sermon that bases its content on Joel’s second chapter. “In the last days,” he announces, quoting Joel who quotes God, “I will pour out my spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophecy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams.”
That’s exactly what’s happening right now, Peter tells his stunned audience. God is pouring out his Holy Spirit on all God’s children, and this is exactly how it looks. Wind sweeps through the room, just like wind blew through Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones. Fire falls on heads, much like fire led Israel through the wilderness.
What’s more, tongues rest on each person, much like the tongues that erupted at Babel, only this time in reverse. At Babel, after all, God confused human speech so that people could no longer understand each other. At Pentecost, according to Brown, “God reverses the curse. What sounds like babble is intelligible speech – better yet, is gospel – and everyone present understands it.”
All of this miraculously happened by the power of the Holy Spirit about whom the Bible speaks largely in two ways. Sometimes the Scriptures and confessions emphasize God’s abiding presence through God’s Spirit. This Spirit stays with God’s people, providing them with safety and comfort. This is the Holy Spirit that most of us know and love. It’s the Spirit of peace and joy, of comfort us when we mourn and strengthen us when we stumble. This is the Spirit who is with us always, to the very end of the world.
However Acts 2 reminds us that the Spirit also sometimes acts in ways that can be far less comforting and far more unsettling.
The Holy Spirit also blows and burns. The Spirit may come howling down the chimney and turn all the furniture upside down. If hearers don’t believe that, invite them to ask Job about the whirlwind or Ezekiel about the chariot of fire.
Or ask those who were gathered in that “one place” on the first Pentecost. There the Spirit blew like a violent wind and came down like tongues of fire. Then the Spirit scattered Christians to the four corners of the globe. Ask those who were together in that one place on the first Pentecost if they’d like to go through that every Sunday.
The Christian Reformed Church in North America’s contemporary testimony, Our World Belongs to God, also recognizes the sometimes-unnerving work of the Spirit. In Number 32 it reads, “The Spirit thrusts God’s people into worldwide mission. He impels young and old, men and women, to go next door and far away into science and art, media and marketplace with the good news of God’s grace. The Spirit goes before them and with them, convincing the world of sin and pleading the cause of Christ.”
This is the unsettling Spirit, the One who thrusts, impels and goes before us. While that Spirit may not force us out into the world, we certainly get the impression that the Spirit pushes and shoves us pretty irresistibly. If this is the Spirit whom God wants to pour out on us, we might prefer that God simply skipped us. We might rather put up an umbrella when God pours out this Spirit with wind and fire.
It’s certainly appropriate to pray for the gentle Holy Spirit sometimes. It’s legitimate to pray for the Spirit’s renewal, comfort and abiding presence. It’s appropriate to ask God to send God’s Holy Spirit to restore some predictability and remove us from risk.
However, Pentecost is also God’s reminder that there’s another side to God’s Spirit. For the Holy Spirit can also blow us around and set us on fire, change our lives and turn our world upside down. This Spirit thrusts us both into worldwide mission and impels us into our communities with the good news of God’s grace.
This offers Acts 2:1-21’s preacher and teachers an opportunity to explore with hearers where that Spirit might be thrusting God’s adopted sons and daughters. They might discuss some of the places overseas where God is already at work and eager for us to join the Lord in doing that work. Yet even if the Lord doesn’t send God’s people very far away, the Spirit may thrust them into the lab or backyard with the gospel’s great news. God may send us to the gym or to the market with the great news of God’s amazing grace.
God’s children may even ask for the power of that Holy Spirit. But as someone once said, “Be careful what you ask for. You might just get it.”
(During the Easter season, the Lectionary appoints texts from Acts as Old Testament lessons).
Bridge to Terabithia is very fertile soil for people who want to preach or teach about transformation. It’s Katherine Patterson’s remarkable story of Jess Aarons and Leslie Burke. Their friendship transforms Jess in remarkable ways.
In it we read of how Jess later “thought about it all day, how before Leslie came, he had been a nothing — a stupid, weird little kid who drew funny pictures and chased a cow field trying to act big — trying to hide a whole mob of foolish little fears running riot in his gut. It was Leslie who had taken him from the cow pasture into Terabithia and turned him into a king.”
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