It’s hard to remember a Pentecost Sunday on which the brokenness and division of the world into which God sent the Holy Spirit was on fuller display than 2023’s. So much pulls groups of people and nations apart that if people are to be united, something drastic must happen.
Yet Luke begins his description of the first Pentecost by reporting that Jesus’ friends are not divided, “all together (pantes homou) in one place” (1). Ironically, that sounds like his description of them right after Jesus rose from the dead (cf. John 20:19, 26). So it’s as if Jesus’ disciples have simply moved in a clump from a Jerusalem room where they met the risen Jesus to another Jerusalem room where they await Jesus’ promised Spirit.
However, Jesus’ disciples are also somewhat isolated, even in their togetherness. They are, after all, separated from the other Jews who have gathered to celebrate the annual Feast of Weeks. While they share a common faith in God, they don’t all share a common language.
So we can only imagine the cacophony that echoed through Jerusalem’s streets and alleys on that first Pentecost. People who spoke at least fifteen different languages were trying to communicate with each other. And what naturally happens when people can’t understand each other? We speak louder, hoping our volume will somehow shatter the language barrier.
This Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson’s preachers can point to divisions among God’s people that mirror the first Pentecost’s. It’s not just that divisions plague our denominations, churches and families. We can also point to the loud volume with which Christians sometimes try to make the case for our own perspective on those divisions.
However, it isn’t just our understanding of our faith that divides us. Divisions between people of various races and political loyalties run deep. Most of the countries from which we come and in which we live are no more “together” than God’s people were on the first Pentecost.
Pentecost offers churches an opportunity to lament and repent of Christians’ failure to see people who are different from us as those God creates in God’s image. It also offers God’s people a chance to recommit ourselves to uniting to unconditionally love and treat each other the way God loves and treats us.
Yet we do so not in the despair that grips so much of citizens of the 21st century right now, but in hope. After all, on the first Pentecost God responds to the kind of brokenness that seems so pandemic by graciously drawing together God’s divided people.
God sends both the sound of a howling wind (pnoes biais) to fill the place where Jesus’ followers are together in one place and what looks like a wildfire of tongues (glosai pyros) onto those followers. Witnesses then hear each of those disciples speak their own languages (heterais glossais).
Luke reports that when pilgrims hear this, they’re what one paraphrase calls “thunderstruck” (synechethe) to hear unschooled Galileans speak their native languages. After all, former fishermen and tax collectors who’d never spent even a moment in Parthian 100 or learning Egyptian on Babbel now speak those languages fluently.
“What does this mean?” the shocked Jewish pilgrims (and perhaps Jesus’ disciples) ask both themselves and each other. No one can make heads or tails of any of what they’ve seen and heard. So some people even sneer, “Are these guys drunk on new wine?”
Yet Acts’ author insists that the Holy Spirit continues to draw these baffled Jews together. While their language divides them, verse 5 reports that what it calls these “God-fearing Jews” (eulabeis Ioudaioi) come even closer in order to hear Peter explain what this means.
“We aren’t drunk,” the apostle begins by telling them, “God is fulfilling Old Testament prophecy.” A prophet had promised that God would send the Holy Spirit on all God’s people in such a way that it would rattle the whole creation. Today, Peter announces, that Spirit has gotten sons and daughters, young men, old men, and even servants “all shook up.”
Once upon a time, Peter says, people, including perhaps some in the crowd to which he so boldly speaks, handed God’s Son Jesus over to die. They convinced the Roman authorities to crucify him even though he’d done amazing things right in front of them.
However, even as some of members of Peter’s audience may recoil from these strong words, the Spirit draws them back together to keep listening. They hear Peter go on to insist that God raised this same Jesus from the dead. This risen Jesus, he concludes, is both the Lord and Messiah for whom the Jews had been waiting.
Yet even after Peter finishes his Pentecost sermon, the Spirit isn’t finished drawing people together. Beyond this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson’s parameters, Acts reports that Jews, divided by language, confusion and guilt, unite to press Peter for how they should respond to his message.
“Change your life!” the denier-turned-articulate-spokesman boldly answers. “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.”
Acts goes on to report that that crowd that so many things have scattered responds by drawing even closer together. How, after all, do people respond to Peter’s invitation? Luke reports that three thousand of them receive God’s grace with their faith on that first Pentecost.
Yet their togetherness doesn’t end even there. After all, the Spirit draws them even more closely together after they become Christians. In fact, the end of Acts 2 describes perhaps the most dramatic form of togetherness that the Holy Spirit has ever created.
As one paraphrase says, this new Christian community commits itself to the apostles’ teaching, life together, common meals and prayer. In fact, these new Christians even pool their resources so completely that no one goes hungry. They, in other words, become even more fully united.
Acts 2 first shows its readers an immense crowd of God-fearers who are in Jerusalem, but whose language and culture divides them. Yet by the end of the first Pentecost, the Holy Spirit has completely united them in their commitment to both their Savior and each other.
Yet once the Holy Spirit unites these new Christians, that Spirit doesn’t keep them together in one place. The Spirit, instead, sends Jesus’ new followers back into the world. Earlier Jesus had promised that his disciples would be his missionaries throughout the world.
The rest of the book of Acts describes how the Spirit graciously keeps that promise. First the Spirit uses Stephen’s martyrdom to scatter Christians throughout the region. Then the Spirit sends apostles like Paul on missionary journeys to the ends of the known world.
This Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson’s preachers might point to evidence of that same uniting Spirit’s presence, by God’s grace, in Christians, local churches and Christ’s worldwide Church. Preachers might offer specific examples of the way the Spirit draws worshipers together in their own churches.
So much divides Jesus’ friends, whether it’s our ethnicity or politics, COVID-19 or our response to it. As people who traffic in words, preachers are keenly aware of words and actions’ power to heighten those divisions, as well as failure to all by themselves overcome those divisions.
Acts 2’s preachers might invite our hearers to look for ways to work together – even as various things make it hard for us to worship together. We might summon our churches to search for ways to stay together – even as our understanding of the shape of Christian discipleship differs.
After all, while it is wonderful to come together to worship God and support like-minded Christians, the Spirit can also unite Jesus’ friends in a variety of ways. However, the same Spirit who sent the disciples out to minister in Jesus’ name also sends Jesus’ followers out together in new and fresh ways.
Rhys Bowens’ Evans Above’s Evan Evans is the constable of the village of Llanfair, Wales. At the end of its street two rival chapels stand across from each other. One’s sign reads “‘Vengeance is mine,’ says the Lord.” The other’s, “Forgive your enemies. Turn the other cheek!”
When one pastor came out with a new billboard quote, the other rushed “straight to his Bible to contradict or better it. There was no animosity more passionate than that between rival Christians (italics added), Evans thought.”
For a commentary on I Corinthians 12:3b-13 see this link: https://cepreaching.org/commentary/2020-05-25/1-corinthians-123b-13-2/
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, May 28, 2023
Acts 1:1-21 Commentary