Sermon Commentary for Sunday, June 4, 2017
Acts 2:1-21 Commentary
Just before he ascended to the heavenly realm Jesus promised his disciples they’d his “witnesses … to the ends of the earth.” Yet nothing any of them had done or said up to that point had even hinted that they were up to that task.
In fact, the gospels consistently portray Jesus’ disciples as a bunch of slow, timid bumblers who never quite fully recognized who he was. They also abandoned him as quickly as they could when he got into trouble. “Witnesses … to the ends of the earth”? Peter couldn’t even be the embattled Jesus’ witness to a servant girl in Jerusalem.
On the other hand, Jesus’ disciples seemed to be pretty good at calling and attending meetings. They, after all, met on the first Easter. The disciples also obeyed Jesus’ command by meeting in Jerusalem. And on the first Pentecost they’re still “all together in one place.”
But to be Jesus’ witnesses in Jerusalem alone, to say nothing of “all the world,” those disciples would have to adjourn their meeting. To be Jesus’ witnesses in “to the ends of the earth” they’d also have to speak more than just Aramaic or a little Hebrew.
Acts 2’s preachers, teachers and those who hear us can’t fully appreciate how startling the first Pentecost’s results were until we consider the enormity of the task to which Jesus calls his disciples. And those disciples’ complete lack of preparedness for that huge task.
In the contemporary testimony, Our World Belongs to God, members of the Christian Reformed Church profess God pushes us to the “ends of the world” as ambassadors of God’s peace. The Spirit sends us out to announce forgiveness and reconciliation, as well as proclaim the good news of grace.
What’s more, God propels God’s adopted sons and daughters into science and art, media and marketplace and, in fact, into every area of life so that we can point to the reign of God by what we do and say.
Yet few of us feel up to that job any more than Jesus’ disciples seemed up to the job Jesus gave them. Sure, most of us can talk about God with people who share our belief in that God. But many of us feel unqualified to share the message of God’s forgiveness, reconciliation and grace with our unbelieving friends and neighbors.
Those who hear us may be able to talk all day about black holes or dangling participles, but feel tongue-tied when they try to talk about Jesus. Some are experts on the best detergents and lawn mowers, but feel they know less about the Bible than they should.
Those whom we teach and to whom we preach may be able to talk all day about cells, spreadsheets or amicus briefs. But talk to their unbelieving co-workers and neighbors about forgiveness, reconciliation and grace? Who’s really up to that?
Candidly, none of God’s people are naturally up to sharing our faith and working for the Lord any more than Jesus’ disciples originally were. That’s why Jesus’ followers’ overhaul in our text is so startling.
When the day of Pentecost comes, the disciples are huddled in one place, wondering what to do next. In fact, it sometimes seems as if that’s all they’ve done since Jesus rose from the dead.
Suddenly, however, out of nowhere the sound of a howling gale fills the disciples’ conference room. Tongues of flame seem to swoop down onto each of Jesus’ followers. And, adds Acts, “all of them were filled with the Holy Spirit.”
Christians sometimes link such being “filled with the Holy Ghost” to feeling comforted and confident. However, the Bible generally seems less interested in what being filled with the Holy Spirit feels like than it what such filling does to people.
Just before the risen Jesus returned to the heavenly realm, he promised his disciples “power” when the Holy Spirit comes on them. They clearly receive that power on the first Pentecost. Luke begins his gospel by telling us Jesus calls 12 people to be his first disciples. Jesus then sends them out to tell people about God’s mighty actions.
Now, Luke basically begins Acts by telling us that calling is no longer limited to those 12. After all, when verse 1 speaks of those who are all together in one place, Acts 1:14 suggests it includes “women, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and … [Jesus’ brothers].” In fact, when it talks about those whom the Spirit filled, it also refers to Acts 1:15’s 120 “believers.”
“All of them,” Luke insists in verse 4, “were filled with the Holy Spirit.” How can we tell? First, they “began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.” The Spirit turns the fiery tongues that rested on Jesus’ followers into the gift of speaking in other “tongues.” The Spirit’s first gift is the gift of the ability to speak in other languages.
Christians sometimes assume that any change we make must come from somewhere within us. So we assume we need to accumulate and store up more will power, or wisdom, or strategies.
In fact, some preachers and preachers like to tell people what a lousy job they’re doing of loving their enemies, feeding the hungry and caring for creation. Then we tell them to go out and be better parents, or children, or friends, or neighbors or co-workers. And we sometimes imply that if they just pray or go to church more or try harder, they’ll be able to do all that … and more.
Yet the disciples’ Pentecostal power to speak in a variety of languages clearly comes from outside themselves. After all, none of them had ever sat through Elamite 101 or listened to the Phrygian Rosetta Stone series.
What’s more, only the Spirit could have lifted to his feet the apostle who had not just once but three times denied even knowing Jesus. This time Peter denies not knowing Jesus, but that Jesus’ followers are somehow drunk. He insists that their linguistic skill is, instead, simply a fulfillment of Joel’s prediction that God would pour out God’s Spirit “on all people.”
Our text suggests that it doesn’t matter in some ways whether you’re a man or woman. It doesn’t matter if you’re a child who still has a lot to learn about adding or playing the piano.
It doesn’t matter if you’re so grey your boss, company or family no longer thinks they need you.
In some ways it doesn’t matter if you’re a woman in a world that still questions if you have what it takes to make it in a man’s world. It doesn’t matter if you come from a family that descended from slaves or willingly immigrated to this country without a cent to its name.
After all, God pours God’s Spirit into all who call on the Lord’s name. And when God pours out God’s Spirit on God’s sons and daughters, they “prophecy.” When God pours out God’s Spirit on young men, they “see visions.” When God pours out God’s Spirit on old men, even we “dream dreams.”
My colleague Will Willimon notes that when God pours out God’s Spirit on people, those who speak are often those whom the world tries to silence. Various servants whom we tell to keep quiet and just do what we tell them. Children and young adults whom we tell are too inexperienced to speak. Old people whom we tell since their day is past, they’re just too old to say anything meaningful anymore.
We’re not exactly sure just what Peter refers to when he talks about the “visions” and “dreams” the Holy Spirit gives God’s people. We are, however, reasonably confident he’s not talking about what ordinarily happens while we’re asleep.
A lot of the dreams and visions the Bible talks about turn people’s worlds upside down. Jesus’ dad Joseph’s dream about what God has sent their Son to do. Peter’s dream about God’s plans for God’s gentile as well as Jewish sons and daughters. John’s dreams about God’s victory over stubborn sin, Satan and death.
Of course, we don’t like having our worlds turned upside down. We prefer the status quo, especially when it benefits our own interests. So our world, culture and even the Church sometimes try to silence dreamers and visionaries.
So those who preach and teach Acts 2 invite and challenge those who hear us to keep dreaming the dreams and seeing the visions the Holy Spirit gives each of us. After all, that’s perhaps the best way to genuinely celebrate Pentecost.
When I read that Martin Luther once claimed, “prophesying, visions and dreams are all one thing,” I thought of Olga Sanchez Martinez. In her book, Enrique’s Journey, Sonia Nazario describes her work at the shelter of Jesus the Good Shepherd.
Some refugees who try to flee Central America for the United States through Mexico lose limbs to the train on which they’re riding. Some end up in Martinez’s shelter in the city of Tapachula, Mexico.
There Olga tries to heal those whom what Nazario calls “the beast” have wounded. She buys blood and medicine for them. Martinez also nurses injured refugees until they can be taken back home. A local surgeon says, “Without her a lot of patients would have died.”
As Olga sits on the corner of the battered refugees’ hospital beds, she strokes their hair as she tells them God has spared them for a reason. “If he wanted,” Martinez tells the bruised people, “he could have killed you. But he didn’t. He left your eyes open. When you are in this much pain and despair, there is only one place to find strength. God has a plan for you. You will learn to live in a different way.”
You might argue Olga isn’t being fully sensitive to the injured refugees’ loss and grief. You might even argue she’s just offering clichés to young people who need so much more. You might even argue that her theology of the relationship between God and evil is shaky. However, it’s hard to dispute the fact that Olga is speaking God’s truth into situations where it seems so scarce. That she’s one of God’s “daughters” whom the Holy Spirit is equipping to prophesy.
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