Sermon Commentary for Sunday, May 31, 2020
Acts 2:1-21 Commentary
Every pulpit veteran has preached on this story many times, but this year we have a ready-made angle into it. We have seen more than our share of violent winds the past year, haven’t we? Hurricanes in the Caribbean, tornadoes all over the South, and in my home territory of West Michigan those bomb cyclones that levelled whole stands of trees and some houses. When we hear the sound of a mighty wind today, it sends us running for the basement and puts us on our knees asking God to protect us from its destructive power.
So when we tell our churches today that we should all be on our knees asking God to send us a windstorm, they may wonder if we have lost our sanity. But, of course, we are referring to this Pentecost story, in which the coming of the Holy Spirit into the church and into the world was announced by “a sound like the blowing of a violent wind from heaven.”
The reason for that phenomenon lies in the ancient biblical languages. The word “Spirit” in both Hebrew and Greek is a word that also means wind or breath. The Bible often speaks of the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Trinity, as the breath or wind of God. In the Pentecost story we see what happens when the wind of God blows through a church and a city. Let’s look at the story of the most famous windstorm of all time, the story of Pentecost, “the day the wind blew and the church grew” (my suggestion for a title for this sermon).
Notice two things to begin with—the condition of the church before the wind and the condition of the church after. Before the storm, Acts 2:1 says, “they were all together in one place.” And that’s good—they were together, all of them, all 120 of them, meeting in one place. Verse 13 of the previous chapter tells us that they were in an upper room. It doesn’t take a great deal of imagination to see them in the very same room where they had shared the last supper with Jesus. They probably spent a great deal of time retelling their memories of Jesus.
That previous chapter also tells the story of the election of the 12th apostle to take the place of Judas the traitor. They did it carefully and prayerfully. Earlier in that chapter in verse 14 we read that they “all joined together constantly in prayer.” For 10 days they had been doing that; undoubtedly that’s what they were doing the day the wind blew.
In other words, they had been conducting the business of the church, decently and in good order and with deep dependence on God. The church at the beginning of Acts 2 before the storm was a neat, tidy, well-run, devoutly prayerful little band of genuine believers in Jesus Christ who loved to get together to do the proper business of the church. Which of us wouldn’t love to serve a church like that?
Then the wind blew. What was the church like at the end of Acts 2, after it blew? Well, they, too, were all together. They were still devoted to the teaching of the apostles and to each other and to prayer and to the celebration of communion. But it doesn’t sound like the same bunch. For one thing, there were 3000 more of them now. And they weren’t so neat and quiet anymore. There is a general sense of awe and excitement bubbling up out of them and all around them.
They were no longer shut up in the upper room. Now they have gone public, out in the temple, where the people and their enemies were. And they were spilling over into each other’s homes, eating together with glad and sincere hearts. Miracles were happening, not the least of which was a sacrificial generosity. People were selling their possessions and giving to anyone who had need. Everyone was praising God. Even non-believers were speaking well of them. It was a holy, happy hubbub, a big, boisterous love-in. And the Lord kept adding daily to their number those who were being saved.
What had happened? We know the answer. The wind of God blew and that wind produced two great miracles, perhaps the two greatest miracles God has ever done, after the creation of the world and the resurrection of Jesus. No, I’m not talking about the tongues of fire and the speaking in tongues. I’m talking about what the church did with its newfound ability in foreign languages and how the people who heard Peter responded. The two greatest miracles of Pentecost are the fact that the church began to testify about Jesus out in the world and the world responded with repentance and faith. The wind of God blew open the church’s mouth and the world’s heart.
Before Pentecost, the church was eager, but unable. They were willing to carry on the mission of Jesus. They said, “Lord, are you going to restore the kingdom to Israel? We’re with you Jesus. We want to see your kingdom come. Let’s go.” And he replied, “Wait for the promise. You need power to be my witnesses.” They were eager, but they lacked the power.
It wasn’t that they lacked knowledge and needed to learn more, take some more classes. They had gone about with Jesus for 3 years, had heard his teaching, and knew him personally as their Savior and as the Risen and Ascended Lord. But they weren’t able to share that knowledge with a lost world. They lacked the power.
So, in spite of their eagerness and knowledge, their lips were sealed out in the world. Then the wind blew. God breathed them full of the Spirit, and they began to speak of Jesus to everyone they met in ways that filled everyone with awe and praise. It was a miracle. It still is.
Perhaps even greater was the other miracle of Pentecost. When Peter spoke to the crowd that day, he was speaking to people whose hearts were absolutely closed to Christ. In fact, in verse 23 he identifies them as Christ killers. “You, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross.” (For my cautionary comments on the use of “Christ killers” see my April 19, 2020 piece on Acts 2:14a, 22-32 on this CEP website.) These were people whose hearts were hardened. Though they had heard the words of Jesus and witnessed his miracles, they had hearts of stone toward him.
But then on this day when the wind blew, they heard the gospel of Jesus Christ and, it says in verse 37, “they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and other apostles, ‘What shall we do.’” The word “cut” there means to pierce or stab with a sharp instrument like a needle, or a knife, or a sword. That, of course, is exactly what happened. When the wind blew Peter’s mouth open and he preached this sermon about Jesus, the Holy Spirit pulled the sword of the Spirit out of its scabbard and plunged it deep into the hearts of these Christ killers. And suddenly hearts that were closed in hardened unbelief were opened and softened, and Christ killers became seekers after Christ. “What shall we do?” And before the day was done, 3000 of them were baptized believers. Because the wind of God blew into their hearts and blew the doors off. It was a miracle. It still is.
So, we can clearly see what Pentecost is about. It is about new possibilities for the church and the world, for you and me and the unbelievers we love and the unbelievers we don’t even know. The church today needs to have its doors blown off by the wind of God. I do, and so do many of you. We don’t need more knowledge; at least most of us don’t. We know Jesus and we know a lot about him. We don’t need a greater sense of duty; we know what we’re supposed to do. We even want to do it, at least in our better moments. What we need is power, the power only God’s Spirit can give, the power to speak the name of Jesus out in the world. Only the wind of God can turn a neat, tidy, devoted band of genuine disciples who love Christ’s church into a dynamic, bubbling, Gospel-sharing church that loves the world as God does.
What the world needs is to a change of heart. Politicians and educators, business leaders and social commentators, artists and activists agonize over race relations, gender equality, climate change, international tensions, political rivalries, poverty and war and disease and billions of individual tragedies. What causes all this pain and evil? As they flail around looking for an answer, the words of Jesus in Matthew 15:19 come back to us again and again. It is “out of the heart that evil thoughts come, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, and the like.” What the world needs, what every human needs is a change of heart. We need to have the wind of God blow through our world and pierce hearts and open them to Christ and turn people’s lives around from the inside out.
Here’s how I would end my Pentecost sermon on “the day the wind blew and the church grew.” If you have a burden for the church or the world, if you are troubled by the church’s ineffective witness in the world or by the hardness of the world’s heart, or, more personally, if you are dissatisfied with your own witness for Christ or you have someone you love who is absolutely closed to Jesus, pray for a windstorm.
Now, I know that Jesus told Nicodemus in John 3 that the wind blows where it wills. Of course, that’s true. You cannot command the Spirit. But it is a fact that the early church had been praying for 10 days about this very thing, when suddenly the wind blew. And it is a fact that Jesus promised God will answer your prayer. In Luke 11:13 he said, ‘If you then who are evil know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him.” So pray, my friends, pray for a windstorm.
That’s what it will take to change the church and the world, you and me, as we face a world filled with problems and questions. As the old folk song said, “The answer my friend is blowing in the wind, the answer is blowing in the wind.”
The church today often looks like a mirror image of the early church. Instead spilling out into the world speaking the Gospel in many languages so that people from all over the world are gathered into one body, various segments of the church are speaking to each other in closed little groups, each with its own secret, coded, special interest, politically charged language. No wonder the western church isn’t growing. No wonder the number of people who identify as “none” is now nearly a quarter of the population in the US. There’s not awe and wonder at the miracles happening in the church as people of all stripes love each other with abandon and sacrifice. Instead there’s scorn and ridicule at the church’s hypocrisy and division. If ever we needed a bomb cyclone, a tornado, a hurricane of the Spirit, it is now. Let us pray.
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