Sermon Commentary for Sunday, May 23, 2021
Acts 2:2-21 Commentary
Arguably it is harder to write a fresh sermon on Pentecost than on Christmas or Easter. Those last two major events in redemptive history are proclaimed in multiple Biblical texts, so there are different angles to take on Christmas and Easter. Pentecost, on the other hand, is reported in only one text, our text for today. And having written on this text the last two years in a row, I couldn’t imagine finding anything new and fresh to write about for Pentecost 2021. I would have simply referred you to my Sermon Commentaries of June 3, 2019 and May 25, 2020.
I say, “would have,” because, as I was thinking those discouraging thoughts, I recalled something I always said to preaching students who were worried that they would eventually run out of fresh material over 30 or 40 years of preaching. Based on my own 40 plus years of preaching, I told them that they could always count on two things.
First, things will change. The world will change. (Who could have ever have imagined 2020 even one year ago?) The church will change. (A whole year of virtual church? Whoda thunk?) You will change. (Your age, health, marital status, family dynamics, spiritual maturity, knowledge of Scripture.) Though the Scripture will not change, you will bring something different to it every year.
Second, the Holy Spirit will always blow in fresh ways into your mind and heart. Our text is the quintessential example. As I noted last week, the infant church was nearly perfect. Everything was perfectly in place. It just wasn’t going anywhere. Then the wind blew and everything changed. We can count on that happening every Sunday. We just need to pray and wait, as the early church did, expectantly and hopefully, Bible in hand.
So, I did. And the Spirit used the current situation in my nation to show me something in this text that I hadn’t noticed before. I offer it to you. In this deeply divided time, note that the Pentecost story emphasizes how the Holy Spirit used the Gospel of the Risen Christ to unite a deeply divided world into “one holy Catholic church.”
Acts 2 begins where Acts 1 left. “When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place.” What place was that? The Upper Room where they went after the Ascension of Jesus (1:13)? The precincts of the Temple, where they had a ready-made congregation for the first Christian sermon? Wherever they were, they were a holy huddle doing what the church always does, marching in place, not moving into the world. “Brothers we are treading where we’ve always trod” (a parody of “Onward Christian Soldiers”). Until the Wind blew open doors of the church, the mouths of the disciples, and the hearts of a murderous mob.
Thus, the story begins with the church “all together in one place.” Then, the church, scattered by the Wind of God, encountered the world in one place. By the providence of God, “there were staying in Jerusalem God fearing Jews from every nation under heaven.” That’s clearly a homiletical hyperbole, but the listing of nations (verses 9-11) represented in that crowd indicates that they came from the four corners of the known world, or at least the three contingent continents of Asia, Africa, and Europe. With a map on a screen, you can show your church how Dr. Luke scans from east to west and south to north. God arranged to have the United Nations there.
And when the Wind blew, the crowd from “every nation under heaven” was swept together to hear the Gospel. “When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment….” What was “this sound?” Not the roaring of the wind or the crackling of the tongues of fire, but the babbling of tongues “speaking in their own language.” The confusion and dispersion of the Tower of Babel was reversed by the preaching of the Gospel in all the languages of every nation under heaven. Heaven has come down and has begun to undo Babel.
Further, notice how the crowd that came together in bewilderment stayed together in belief. After the preaching of the Gospel of the Risen Christ, three thousand people “from every nation under heaven” repented, believed, were baptized, and joined the church. “All the believers were together and had everything in common.” The awe born of confusion over the multi-lingual preaching of the Gospel is replaced by the awe born of the multi-lingual community of disciples whose former divisions have been blown away by the wind of the Spirit (2:43).
All of which is to say that, from the very beginning, the “one holy Catholic church” of the Apostle’s Creed has been as diverse as the world. As Peter says at the very beginning of his Pentecost sermon, quoting God in the prophecy of Joel, “I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh.” In what follows, he proclaims that the company of the saved will not be divided by age, or sex, or class, or language, or nation, or color, or political persuasion. “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” Everyone! Everyone! That’s the world changing conclusion of the first part of Peter’s sermon.
Then the Holy Spirit applies that conclusion to real people, people from every nation under heaven. When Peter declares that “God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ,” people are cut to the heart and are blown into the multi-generational, multi-national, multi-lingual, borderless, classless, colorless, genderless church in which “there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave or free, male or female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal. 3:28)
Of course, there are still male and female, and Jew and Gentile, and upper class and lower class, and Romans and Parthians, and so forth. The Gospel does not erase the realities of life in this world. It changes how we react to them. Because Jesus is our Lord and Savior, the former boundaries that divided us don’t matter anymore. We are bound together in him. Always have been, always will be.
Which means that the Gospel is anti-nationalism—not anti-patriotic, but anti-nationalism that looks down on and dominates other nations. And the Gospel is anti-xenophobic—not anti-loving your own, but anti-hating the other. And it is anti-prejudice—not anti-acknowledging differences, but anti-treating people differently because of those differences. The Gospel is against dividing the human race based on the differences inherent in the human race.
Does this sound like social gospel? Of course, it does. But it isn’t the social gospel that is divorced from the saving gospel. It is, instead, the social result of the Gospel of the crucified and risen Christ, the result that God had in mind when he sent his Son to save the world, the result that Jesus prayed about when he was about to die for the world, the result that the Holy Spirit produced on that first Pentecost and is continuing to create today.
For those who are concerned about being sucked into some leftist agenda, here’s the biblical proof of that social dimension of the Gospel. In Ephesians 1:10, Paul talks about the deep mystery of God’s will, which is “to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ.”
In John 17:20 ff, Jesus prayed, “I pray also for those who will believe in me through their (the apostles’) message, that all of them may be one, just as you are in me and I am in you…. May they be brought to complete unity….”
And in Ephesians 4:3, Paul speaks to the newly united Jews and Gentile, “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to one hope… one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all….”
Unity is what the Gospel is all about—unity with God first of all, but also unity with the rest of the human race, and within each person, and with the created world around us. God wants his fractured world whole again. Shalom is God’s desire, good pleasure, will, and plan.
Peter’s Pentecost sermon begins with words heavy with portent—“In the last days….” Pentecost is the beginning of the last days, the beginning of the end of all things. And the beginning of the end of all things is God beginning to re-unite all the things that sin has divided. The end of all things will come when Jesus repopulates the new heaven and the new earth with “a multitude that no one could count, from every nations, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb.” (Rev. 7:9)
In these days, the events of Pentecost remind us that the key to unity is not new political leadership, not new policy priorities, not new humanitarian ventures, not new social justice initiatives (as helpful and good as those things may be), but the preaching of the crucified and risen Jesus in the power of the Spirit. And our response to that preaching ought to be the same as that original multi-national congregation. “They were cut to heart….” May we be cut to the heart, repent of our complicity in the world’s divisions, and bring our sins to Jesus for forgiveness. Then let us “all be together” in Christ by the Spirit’s power.
William Kent Krueger has recently written a wonderful novel entitled, This Tender Land. It’s billed as cross between Grapes of Wrath and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Set in the Great Depression, it follows the adventures of 4 children—two white boys, a teenaged Sioux Indian, and a little girl. The boys were residents of an abusive residential school for Indians in Minnesota, while the girl was the daughter of one of their teachers. Subject to horrible abuse, the boys are delighted when the little girl’s mother offers to take them in. Their world is about to get immeasurably better, when a giant tornado roars across the prairie and destroys the farm of that good woman, kills her in the process, and scatters the boys’ hope to the four corners of the earth. The youngest boy is devastated and angry. So, as the little band of four begins its escape from the horror of that school and that tornadic destruction, he climbs to the top of the water tower at the school and leaves his testimony. In huge black letters, he writes, “God is a tornado.”
As this tiny band floats in a small canoe down the Mid-Western rivers that empty into the Mississippi, they experience unexpected blessings and unimaginable disasters. It’s a mixture of hope and despair, of goodness and evil, but the young boy remains steadfast in his conviction. Whenever there is hope and goodness, he bitterly reminds himself that God is a tornado who always blows things apart.
That’s often the way it seems in this fractured world. But the story of Pentecost reminds us that God is actually a mighty wind that will finally blow things back together. The image of a Tornado God might be helpful in preaching this text about a “violent wind.”
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