Throughout nearly all of recorded human history, people’s inability to communicate with each other has divided us. So for people to somehow come (and stay) together, something dramatic must happen. In fact, since human efforts to fully unify people have proved largely futile or temporary, we might add that something dramatic must happen to us.
Acts 2 begins its account of the first Pentecost by reporting that Jesus’ disciples are united, “all together in one place” (1). Yet that sounds a lot like Luke’s description of them forty days earlier. Luke 24:33, after all, describes Jesus’ frightened disciples as “assembled together.”
So we almost get the sense that Jesus’ disciples have just moved in a clump, first to the site of Jesus’ ascension, then to the temple and then to a room in Jerusalem. Now, on the day of Pentecost, Jesus’ followers are again (or perhaps still) “all together in one place” (1).
Their unity physically separates them from the other Jews who have come to celebrate Pentecost. It isn’t just the walls of a place, however, that separate these Jews from each other. After all, they’ve come from what Luke calls “every nation under heaven.” So though they’ve gathered to thank God for the spring harvest, they can’t understand each other. Though these Jews have assembled to remember God’s gift of the law at Sinai, they can’t even talk to each other about it.
While the Romans have dispersed these Jews throughout the known world, their faith in God has temporarily drawn them back to Jerusalem. Yet Luke reports that they now speak a startling variety of languages. So these people who share a common faith in God don’t share a common language. While they can babble at each other, they can’t understand each other.
This, however, wasn’t always the case. While Genesis 10:5 says Noah’s descendants spoke a variety of languages, Genesis 11 also suggests that they also somehow spoke some common language. At Babel, however, God confuses proud people’s language. As a result, people can no longer understand each other. They eventually speak the languages of the Parthians, Egyptians, Libyans and others.
So we can imagine the cacophony that filled Jerusalem’s rooms, streets and alleys on that first Pentecost. We can almost hear and see the chaos of people who speak at least fifteen different languages trying to communicate with each other. It reminds us of the chaos that reigned before God’s Spirit blew order into the creation.
It isn’t, however, just language that separates people from each other. Sometimes even religion divides us. Some scholars suggest there were as many as ten or fifteen strains of Judaism already in Jesus’ day. So it’s certainly possible that some of those strains were represented in Jerusalem on the first Pentecost.
What’s more, at least some of the denominations or churches to which those who proclaim Acts 2 belong are the results of schisms. The Christian Reformed Church in North America to which I belong is the daughter of a schism. Our ancestors ignored the 95% of the things on which they agreed to break away from the Reformed Church in America over issues like worship style and membership in fraternal orders.
Christians, however, isn’t the only religious people that divide from each other. A few years ago the New York Times featured an article entitled, “In Jihadist Haven, a Goal: To Kill and Die in Iraq.” It described the longing of some Jordanians to go to Iraq to kill Americans, Brits and other westerners.
However, the article reported that Sunni militants had become just as angry with Shiite Muslims as they were at westerners. One imam said, “They have traditions that are un-Islamic and they hate the Sunnis.” He said his targets are, “First, the Shiites. Second, the Americans. Third, anywhere in the world where Islam is threatened.” The Shiites, the imam added, “hate our caliphs [leaders of the ancient Islamic world] and they hate Sunnis.”
On the first Pentecost God graciously and miraculously both audibly and visibly responds to such brokenness. First God sends the sound of a tornado-force wind to fill the whole building where Jesus’ followers are gathered. Then witnesses then see what looks like a wildfire of tongues spread onto each of those followers. Finally, they hear each of those disciples speak their own diverse languages.
Luke reports that these sounds and sights draw people together. They’re, after all, what one paraphrase calls “thunderstruck” to hear untutored Galileans speak their mother tongue. After all, ex-fishermen and tax collectors who never spent a moment in Parthian 100 or listened to a second of the Egyptian Rosetta Stone program speak their languages and more.
“What does this mean?” the shocked Jews, perhaps including Jesus’ disciples, ask themselves and each other. Clearly no one can make what one paraphrase calls “heads or tails of any of this.” So some people even ask, “Are these guys drunk on cheap wine?”
Now watch the Holy Spirit draw together these Jews whose confusion also divides them. Watch them try to crowd close enough to Peter to try to hear him explain just what all of this means. “We aren’t drunk,” he begins by telling people. “God is just keeping God’s promises.” One of the Old Testament’s prophets had, after all, promised that God would send God’s Spirit on all God’s people in such a way that it would shake the whole creation.
Once upon a time, Peter says, people, including perhaps some who are listening to him, had handed Jesus over to die. They’d demanded the Romans crucify Jesus even though he’d done amazing miracles right in front of them. Peter goes on to insist that God raised this same Jesus from the dead. God, this disciple concludes, has made this Jesus the very Lord and Messiah for whom the Jews had been waiting for centuries.
Though the text the Lectionary assigns for this Sunday doesn’t include it, Peter’s speech draws these Jews, divided by language, confusion and guilt even closer together as they press Peter for how they should respond. “What do we do now?” (37) we can almost hear them beg the denier-turned-articulate spokesman.
“Change your life!” Peter boldly answers (38). “Turn to God and be baptized. Receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. After all, God longs to forgive the sins of you, your children and even people who are still far away from the Lord.”
Now watch that crowd that so many things have scattered draw even closer together. How, after all, do people respond to Peter’s invitation? Three thousand of them come together to receive God’s grace with their faith on that first Pentecost.
Yet their shocking new unity doesn’t end even there. After all, these converts don’t just return to their normal lives once they become Christians. In fact, the end of Acts 2 describes perhaps the most dramatic form of unity that the Holy Spirit has ever created. After all, one paraphrase says that this new Christian community commits itself to the apostles’ teaching, its life together, common meals and prayer. These new Christians even unite to pool their resources so that no one goes hungry.
So Acts 2 shows how the Holy Spirit graciously unites a huge crowd in its commitment to its new Savior and each other.
Yet once the Holy Spirit draws these new Christians together, that same Spirit sends them back out into the world. Jesus had promised his disciples they’d be his missionaries in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, in fact, to the ends of the world.
The rest of the book of Acts describes the Spirit’s fulfillment of that promise, in part by using Stephen’s murder to spread Christians throughout Judea and Samaria. It also describes the missionary journeys of apostles like Paul to the ends of the known world.
Those who preach and teach Acts 2 may want to invite hearers to consider how that same Spirit continues to draw diverse people into their own congregations and denominations. They may even want to add concrete examples of how the Spirit is uniting God’s naturally scattered people to do God’s work throughout God’s world.
However, the history of too many denominations and local churches shows the fragility of such unity inspired by the Spirit. So the Holy Spirit of Pentecost constantly invites God’s adopted sons and daughters to deepen our unity, to even simply agree to disagree sometimes. It also invites us to reach across even religious barriers to work for the common good with people of other faiths or even no faith.
If you’ve ever tried to communicate with someone whose language you didn’t speak or understand, you know how hard it is to converse with that person. When my family visited Europe when I was growing up, we managed to communicate with most people by speaking either English or German with which at least some of us were familiar.
Most Belgians, however, wanted to speak only French. Since my grandfather was the only person who claimed to know some French, we let him do our speaking in Belgium. However, it was all quite comical because his French was pretty elementary.
After all, what almost naturally happens when people can’t understand each other? We tend to just speak louder and louder, hoping our sheer volume will somehow shatter the language barrier. So it was with my dear grandfather and the Belgians with whom he tried to communicate.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, May 20, 2018
Acts 2:2-21 Commentary