Top of Page ILLUMINATING AND THINKING ABOUT THE SERMON
Our weekly Bible study group recently did a month-long series about spiritual gifts. We studied the Acts and 1 Corinthians passages from this week’s lection, as well as others, and we each filled out a detailed spiritual gifts inventory that would help us discover what gifts God had given us.
The biggest joy for me was watching my parishioners finally put a “spiritual name” to the activities they had done their entire lives—gifts of faith, discernment, hospitality, mercy, administration, intercession. I watched their eyes light up as they realized that the Holy Spirit truly had given them gifts to build up the body of Christ.
The biggest revelation for the members of the group was finding out that the everyday, routine things they had always done truly were in fact gifts of the Holy Spirit. One man was delighted to learn that all his puttering at the church and helping with building and grounds maintenance was actually a ministry. He had not thought of that work as being a way of praising or serving God. He had not thought of himself as having any real gifts to share. A woman from the group was pleased to learn that her desire to pray for people regularly really was the same gift of intercession she had read about in the Bible. It was as true today as it was in the first century when the Holy Spirit gave gifts to the believers to build up the church.
We tend to think of Pentecost as an ancient miracle that happened a long time ago and we treat it almost like a fairy tale. The Holy Spirit coming as the rush of a violent wind. That’s figurative, of course. Each person speaking in a different language so that everyone understands the Message. Well, some of those people were probably bi-lingual, after all, and could do that. In Paul’s writing—do we really believe in gifts of healing, prophecy, miracles, tongues, interpretation? In many mainline denominations we’re much more comfortable glossing over some of those. We can handle administration, teaching, preaching, and we might even be able to handle wisdom and knowledge. And as far as the Holy Spirit being present with us today guiding, teaching, and admonishing—well, that can be easily explained as our “conscience” that is nudging us to do the right thing or resist that temptation we know will do us harm. We’ve found a rational, reasonable explanation for everything that happened in Acts and we’ve explained away a lot of what is in our Corinthians passage. Unintentionally, we often downplay the significance of the Holy Spirit in our lives. We only see the actor in the mirror, and fail to be aware of the director behind the camera and the producer who make it all possible.
But Pentecost was real, and it was significant. In Acts 2 we discover an opening ceremony as the Holy Spirit falls on those gathered together for worship. The Advocate promised by Jesus in John has come to guide, to teach, to call together the Christian church and give new life to the disciples. Just imagine what actually happened there:
1. After Jesus ascended into heaven, the followers still gathered for worship, on faith that Christ meant what he said when he promised this Advocate. Though they could no longer see the physical body of Jesus Christ among them, they believed without seeing.
2. Each person heard in his or her own language. That can only be a miracle of God. Those who witnessed it must have never been the same.
3. Perhaps the most amazing miracle in Pentecost is the transformation of Peter. The disciple who had denied Christ three times not two months ago got up and gave an eloquent and clear testimony about Jesus Christ. If we continue past verse twenty-one, we learn that those listening to Peter were “cut to the heart” and wanted to know how to respond. Peter told them to repent and be baptized, and that day 3,000 were saved. They joined together in prayer and fellowship, worshipping and eating together, and “day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved. (see Acts 2:37-47) All from the man who “did not know Jesus” when asked by a servant girl and two men that chilly, dark night in the courtyard.
Pentecost is about transformation and continuing change, not just of the gathered people. It is not just a memory, not just a celebration of something that happened almost 2,000 years ago, but a chance for renewal and rededication and revival in our very congregations. In preaching this text, we might consider the following:
1. How would we react today if the Holy Spirit came to us this Sunday as boldly as that first Pentecost? A preacher might explore the spiritual health of the congregation or ask those in the pews to consider how they’ve grown in the last year. Have we been open to the working of the Spirit, have we been open to spiritual gifts we’ve been given?
2. Some of the spectators not only doubted what was happening that day but accused those speaking in other languages of being drunk. They saw the same thing the believers saw, but interpreted it very differently. This might be a time to talk about how to deal with those who don’t believe and are hostile toward the Christian faith. Given, in America we are not persecuted or martyred for our faith as some are in other countries, but there are plenty of things happening in society that are not consistent with Christian living. Do we need to wake up to the fact that there are many that wish to discredit and destroy our faith? What does it mean for us to be a disciple in a world where money, fame, sex, and power rule?
3. What does it mean for us to be the Church? What does it mean for us to be the body and Christ to be the head, or to be called together at this time, at this place, to worship God? One also could explore what it means to be the Church, how are we like or not like the first Christians, and what is God’s vision for us as a people? Expanding on that, what does it mean to be one particular church in an entire city of churches? What does it mean to be the community of faith with our brothers and sisters in other churches?
Sometimes a name, belonging to one particular person, becomes so attached to a particular object or product that we forget where it originally came from. The obvious example is ‘Hoover’: in England at least we speak of ‘the Hoover’ when we mean ‘the vacuum cleaner’, happily ignoring the fact that quite a lot of vacuum cleaners are made by other companies which owe nothing to the original Mr Hoover. It is as though Henry Ford had been so successful in car production that people said, ‘the Ford’ when they meant ‘the car’, even if in fact it was a Volvo.
Something similar has happened with the word ‘Pentecost’. If ‘Pentecost’ means anything at all to most people today, it is probably something to do with ‘Pentecostalism’. And that—again, if it means anything to people at all—probably signifies a somewhat wild form of Christian religious experience and practice, outside the main stream of church life, involving a lot of noise and waving of arms, and (of course) speaking in tongues. We often forget that all Christians, not only those who call themselves ‘Pentecostalists’, derive their meaning from the first Pentecost. We often forget, too, perhaps equally importantly, just what ‘Pentecost’ itself originally was and meant.
For a first-century Jew, Pentecost was the fiftieth day after Passover. It was an agricultural festival. It was the day when farmers brought the first sheaf of wheat from the crop, and offered it to God, partly as a sign of gratitude and partly as a prayer that all the rest of the crop, too, would be safely gathered in. But, for the Jew, neither Passover nor Pentecost were simply agricultural festivals. These festivals awakened echoes of the great story which dominated the long memories of the Jewish people, the story of the Exodus from Egypt, when God fulfilled his promises to Abraham by rescuing his people. Passover was the time when the lambs were sacrificed, and the Israelites were saved from the avenging angel who slew the firstborn of the Egyptians. Off went the Israelites that very night and passed through the Red Sea into the Sinai desert. Then, 50 days after Passover, they came to Mount Sinai, where Moses received the law. Pentecost, the fiftieth day, isn’t (in other words) just about the ‘first fruits’, the sheaf which says the harvest has begun. It’s about God giving to his redeemed people the way of life by which they must now carry out his purposes.
All of that, and more besides, keeps peeping out from behind what the New Testament says about the spirit, and about Pentecost in particular. For Luke there is a kind of easy assumption that people would know about the first fruits. He can more or less take it for granted that readers will see this story, of the apostles being filled with the spirit and then going on to bear powerful witness to Jesus and his resurrection and to win converts from the very first day, as a sign that this is like the sheaf which is offered to God as the sign of the great harvest to come. And, when we look closely at the way some Jews told the story of the giving of the law on Mount Sinai, we can see some parallels there, too. When the Israelites arrived at Mount Sinai, Moses went up the mountain, and then came down again with the law. Here, Jesus has gone up into heaven in the ascension, and—so Luke wants us to understand—he is now coming down again, not with a written law carved on tablets of stone, but with the dynamic energy of the law, designed to be written on human hearts.
‘Pentecost’, then, is a word with very particular meaning, which Luke is keen that we should grasp. But of course the first day of Pentecost, and the experience of God’s spirit from that day to this, can no more be reduced to theological formulae and interesting Old Testament echoes than you can reduce a hurricane to a list of diagrams on a meteorologist’s chart. It’s important that someone somewhere is tracking the hurricane and telling us what it’s doing, but when it comes to Pentecost it’s far more important that you’re out there in the wind, letting it sweep through your life, your heart, your imagination, your powers of speech, and transform you from a listless or lifeless believer into someone whose heart is on fire with the love of God. Those images of wind and fire are of course what Luke says it was like on the first day. Many Christians in many traditions have used similar images to describe what it is sometimes like when the spirit comes to do new things in the lives of individuals and communities.
It is most significant, in the light of what we said before about the ascension, that the wind came ‘from heaven’ (verse 2). The whole point is that, through the spirit, some of the creative power of God himself comes from heaven to earth and does its work there. The aim is not to give people a ‘spirituality’ which will make the things of earth irrelevant. The point is to transform earth with the power of heaven, starting with those parts of ‘earth’ which consist of the bodies, minds, hearts and lives of the followers of Jesus—as a community: notice that, in verse 1, Luke stresses the fact that they were all together in one place; the spirit comes, not to divide, but to unite. The coming of the spirit at Pentecost, in other words, is the complementary fact to the ascension of Jesus into heaven. The risen Jesus in heaven is the presence, in God’s sphere, of the first part of ‘earth’ to be transformed into ‘new creation’ in which heaven and earth are joined; the pouring out of the spirit on earth is the presence, in our sphere, of the sheer energy of heaven itself. The gift of the spirit is thus the direct result of the ascension of Jesus. Because he is the Lord of all, his energy, the power to be and do something quite new, is available through the spirit to all who call on him, all who follow him, all who trust him.
The wind and the fire are wild, untamable forces, and the experience of the wind rushing through the house with a great roar, and the fire coming to rest on each person present, must have been both terrifying and exhilarating. Of course, there are many times later in this book, as there are many times in the life of the church, when the spirit works softly and secretly, quietly transforming people’s lives and situations without any big noise or fuss. People sometimes suppose that this is the norm, and that the noise, the force and the fire are the exception—just as some have supposed, within ‘Pentecostal’ and similar circles, that without the noise and the fire, and particularly the speaking in tongues, something is seriously lacking or deficient. We should beware of drawing either conclusion. Luke clearly intends to describe something new, something that launched a great movement, as a fleet of ships is launched by the strong wind that drives them out to sea or a forest fire is started by a few small flames. He intends to explain how it was that a small group of frightened, puzzled and largely uneducated men and women could so quickly become, as they undoubtedly did, a force to be reckoned with right across the known world.
In particular, Luke highlights this strange phenomenon of ‘speaking in tongues’. This has been a prominent feature of some parts of church life in the last century or so, though for many previous generations and in many parts of church history it has been virtually unknown. It occurs, it seems, in other religions, as Paul was aware (1 Corinthians 12:2–3). Some people try to sweep ‘tongues’ aside as if it was a peculiar thing which happened early on and which, fortunately, doesn’t need to happen any more. Sometimes this is combined with a sense of the need to control the emotions, both one’s own and other people’s. But ‘speaking in tongues’ and similar phenomena are, very often, a way of getting in touch with deeply buried emotions and bringing them to the surface in praise, celebration, grief or sorrow, or urgent desire turned into prayer. It is hard, seeing the importance of ‘tongues’ in the New Testament, and their manifest usefulness in these and other ways, to go along with the idea that they should be ruled out for today’s church.
In particular, it is precisely part of being a genuine human being, made and renewed in God’s image, that people should do that most characteristic thing, using words and language, in quite a new way. We are called to be people of God’s word, and God’s word can never be controlled by rationalistic schemes or contained within the tight little frameworks that we invent to keep everything tidy and under control.
People sometimes feel guilty if they think they haven’t had such wonderful experiences as the apostles had on the first Pentecost. Or they feel jealous of those who seem to have had things like this happen to them. About this there are two things to say. First, as we saw in the first chapter, God moves mysteriously among his people, dealing with each individual in a different way. Some people are allowed remarkable experiences, perhaps (we can’t always tell) because they are going to have to go into difficult situations and need to know very directly just how dramatically powerful and life-transforming God can be. Other people have to work in quiet and patient ways and not rely on a sudden burst of extra power to fix all the problems which in fact need a much more steady, and perhaps much deeper, work. There is no room for pride or jealousy in a well-ordered fellowship, where everybody is as delighted with the gifts given to others as with those given to themselves.
Second, it is clear from words of Jesus himself (Luke 11:13) that God longs to give the holy spirit to people, and that all we have to do is ask. What the spirit will do when he comes is anybody’s guess. Be prepared for wind and fire, for some fairly drastic spring-cleaning of the dusty and cold rooms of one’s life. But we should not doubt that God will give his spirit to all who seek him, and that the form and direction that any particular spirit-led life will take will be (ultimately, and assuming obedience and faith) the one that will enable that person, uniquely, to bring glory to God.(Wright, T. Acts for Everyone, Part 1: Chapters 1-12 [2008, London] pp. 20–25)
In listening to the story of the formation of the church at Pentecost, we are pursuing the truth about this peculiar new community. We are not inquiring into the truth as facticity—truth as to what happened. Rather, we are concerned about truth as to what is claimed—what is asserted in the story about the nature of this community. In reading the Pentecost account in the second chapter of Acts, we are part of an author’s struggle to bring to reality something of the truth about the church, something which cannot be known except by this story. Therefore, we shall pass over questions of probable historical context, possible psychological motives, or other questions that might interest us; we must let the story have its way with us. We shall let the narrative re-describe and create new reality for us, trying to uncover the answers to the questions the story would have us ask. In reading the stories of Acts, we may note that these Acts narratives seem to have little interest in the things that make for a “good story” today—relentless introspection, detailed individual character development, probing interiority. We may read a great deal about Peter or Paul in Acts but learn little about them as individual personalities. Acts cares little for the trials and psychic makeup of individual personalities, because this is literature in service to the community. The community is at the center of Acts, with the God of the community being the chief actor in the drama.
The story of Pentecost day in Jerusalem is, for the church, a kind of “classic” (David Tracy, pp. 99–299), a story to which the faith community assigns authority and to which it returns again and again as a guide for its life. Here is revealed what the community is by recounting its origin in a powerful work of the Spirit. Sometimes this story has given the church hope; sometimes this story has judged the church and found it wanting.
Luke seems to believe that the truth is available only as narrative, always hidden from direct explanation or easy accessibility. We can expect surprises because the truth here disclosed is not unambiguous. More than one interpretation can be offered for what happened in the upper room at Pentecost. No single formulation can do it justice. We are listening to the account of something strange, beyond the bounds of imagination, miraculous, inscrutable, an origin which, as far as Luke is concerned, was the only way one could “explain” the existence of the church. No flat, prosaic explanation can do justice to the truth of how the church came into being and how the once timid disciples found their tongues to proclaim the truth of Christ.
The ambiguity and mystery of the story are indicated by the manner of narration. It is the dawn of the day of Pentecost and the followers of Jesus are gathered to wait and to pray. The new day begins with an eruption of sounds from heaven and of wind (2:2). Things are coming loose, breaking open. Can it be the same wind which on the very first morning of all mornings swept across dark waters, the wind of creation (Gen. 1)? The wind is once again bringing something to life.
What was first heard is then seen—tongues like fire (2:3). It is not until verse four that we learn that this strange irruption is none other than the promised Holy Spirit. John the Baptist had said that the Christ, “will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire” (Luke 3:16). With playful ambiguity Luke expands these fiery “tongues” into the gift of “other tongues” that the Spirit miraculously enables the assembly to speak. The first gift of the Spirit is the gift of speech, the gift of speech in different languages. So we are hearing a story about the irruption of the Spirit into the community and the first fruit of the Spirit—the gift of proclamation.
The scene quickly shifts from inside the upper room, where the disciples are gathered, to the street outside, where the gospel is already drawing a crowd. In the beginning of his Gospel, Luke characterized John the Baptist as one who “will turn many of the sons of Israel to the Lord their God” (Luke 1:16). Out in the street, “Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven” (v. 5) for the first time confront the church, and their response is bewilderment. The irruption of the Spirit leads to proclamation by the community, which leads to the bewilderment of bystanders. These “tongues” are obviously various languages of “every nation under heaven,” since each foreigner exclaims that “we hear, each of us in his own native language” (v. 8). No nationality of dispersed Jews is excluded from the proclamation, as Luke’s rollcall of the peoples makes clear.
Yet nothing is clear to the bystanders, who are thoroughly “amazed and perplexed” by the whole episode, questioning, “What does this mean?” (v. 12). Some of the bystanders do not want to know. They have their own urbane, sophisticated yet mocking theory for such strange manifestations of religious enthusiasm: “They are filled with new wine” (v. 13). That power the church proclaims as gift of God the world explains as inebriation. The inbreaking of the Spirit is profoundly unsettling and deeply threatening to the crowd in the street, and so it must devise some explanation, some rationalization for such irrationality.
In so few verses Luke has given us a glimpse of much of the plot of Acts. His treatment of this inaugural episode reminds one of a similar opening scene, Jesus’ visit to his hometown synagogue in Luke 4. There we see the congregation’s pleasure with “Joseph’s son” turn from admiration to wrath when Jesus reminded them of how the powerful love of God had irrupted into the lives of foreigners. The hometown first sermon becomes a foreshadowing of the rest of Luke’s Gospel.
Acts 2 is a kind of precis of the rest of the story, functioning in much the same way as Luke 4. Once again, the power of God irrupts into a conventional assembly of the faithful in a most unconventional way (“Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” [Luke 4:21]).
Once again, everything hinges on the Spirit’s ability to set proclamation in motion. Once again, the proclamation evokes questions, bewilderment, and scorn. Here, in the interchange between the faithful and those snide mocking ones and those earnestly inquiring ones in the street, we see a pattern which will be repeated again and again in Acts.
The crowd’s questions become a cue for one of the disciples to stand and speak; and Luke expends about twice as many verses interpreting the meaning of the ecstatic events than he spent reporting the event itself. As in his Gospel, Luke uses miracle as an occasion for proclamation.
Who could have predicted the one who now speaks? We have heard him speak before in Acts 1:16–22. But then, because of our still lingering memory of how Peter himself had proved quite capable of repeated betrayal when the going got rough (Luke 22:31–34, 54–62), we could hardly hear Peter speak to the necessity of finding a replacement for the betrayer Judas. It was Peter who only “followed at a distance,” Peter whom the maid drove to utter the terrible words, “Woman, I do not know him” (Luke 22:57). We left him weeping in the courtyard, a disciple tested and found wanting.
Therefore, we detected something a bit hollow in Peter’s quick effort to condemn and then to replace Judas in Acts 1:16–22, reminding ourselves that Judas was not alone in his treason. Yet here, before the half inquiring, half mocking crowd, Peter is the first, the very first to lift up his voice and proclaim openly the word that only a few weeks before he could not speak, even to a serving woman at midnight.
In Genesis 2:7 the Spirit of God breathed life into dust and created a human being. In Acts 2:1–4 the Spirit has breathed life into a once cowardly disciple and created a new man who now has the gift of bold speech.
The richness of Luke’s account of Pentecost yields other layers of interpretation. We, in church listening to this story, resemble the crowd in our multiple interpretations of so strange and wonderful an event. For one thing, we recognize that Luke’s story of the gift of the Spirit differs from the account in John 20:22. Luke seems to have separated into three events what had once been regarded as one event—the resurrection, exaltation, and bestowal of the Spirit. Perhaps Luke does this in order to give each aspect of the Easter triumph its own development in the story. Also, Luke reads the Spirit in a different light than that of the Fourth Gospel. There, the gift is related to the binding and loosing of the church, the forgiveness of sin. Here, even though forgiveness of sin is included (Acts 2:38), the Spirit is the power to witness, the engine that drives the church into all the world. By separating the resurrection from the ascension/exaltation by forty days, Luke created the sequence that is familiar to us in our celebration of the liturgical year, even though, as we noted above, resurrection, ascension, and Pentecost should be viewed as a unit, a threefold explication of the power of God to accomplish what he wants in spite of all obstacles. The wind blows where it wills.
One popular interpretation of Pentecost is that this story sigifies that Babel has been reversed (Gen. 11:1–9). Human language, so confused at Babel, has been restored; and community, so scattered there, has here been restored. It is doubtful that Luke had this in mind. The “mighty works of God” are proclaimed only to Jews at this point. The time is not yet ripe in the story for the division between Jew and gentile to be healed. The story does not claim that there is only one language now—Luke reports that the disciples speak in a multitude of languages. Nor is there a claim that Pentecost is about the miracle of hearing instead of speaking, so that everyone receives instant translation. The miracle here is one of proclamation. Those who had no “tongue” to speak of the “mighty works of God” now preach.
It is doubtful that Luke is describing ecstatic speech here, the glossolalia of 1 Corinthians 14, because that sort of speech needed translation for anyone to understand. Judging from the discussion of glossolalia in 1 Corinthians 14, the Spirit manifested its presence in a variety of ways in Paul’s churches. Luke’s concern is with the description of a Spirit-empowered intelligible proclamation in foreign languages (2:6, 8).
Other interpreters have attempted to link the story of Pentecost to the giving of the law on Mount Sinai—the old law was given on Sinai, a new law was given at Pentecost. The thought might belong to Paul (2 Cor. 3), but not to Luke. In Peter’s following speech (2:14–40), there is no reference to Sinai or to the covenant. Linkage between Israel’s beginning at Sinai and the church’s beginning at Pentecost is tenuous and can only be accomplished by references to material outside of the story itself (Talbert, Acts, pp. 14–15).
To those in the church today who regard the Spirit as an exotic phenomenon of mainly interior and purely personal significance, the story of the Spirit’s descent at Pentecost offers a rebuke. Luke goes to great pains to insist that this outpouring of the Spirit is anything but interior. Everything is by wind and fire, loud talk, buzzing confusion, and public debate. The Spirit is the power which enables the church to “go public” with its good news, to attract a crowd and, as we shall see in the next section, to have something to say worth hearing. A new wind is set loose upon the earth, provoking a storm of wrath and confusion for some, a fresh breath of hope and empowerment for others. Pentecost is a phenomenon of mainly evangelistic significance, as the central question of the crowd makes clear: What must we do to be saved? Whereas the crowd who heard Jesus’ sermon in Nazareth sneered, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” Luke is delighted to report that Peter’s sermon inspired by the Spirit produced enthusiastic converts. Now “Jews from every nation under heaven” are coming to the good news. In these last days, as Luke 2:32 predicted, true Israel is being restored and, as we learn later (Acts 11:18), shall be a light to all the nations.
As the psalmist sang, “Our God comes, he does not keep silence, / before him is a devouring fire, / round about him a mighty tempest” (Ps. 50:3).
(Willimon, W. H. Acts [1988, Atlanta GA] pp. 28–33)
What we need to put to the for this Sunday is the depth and meaning of Pentecost. We should not allow these wonderful moments to be confined to just a few denominations or to a narrow interpretation of being the Church’s Birthday. We should concentrate upon the fullness of the Spirit, the meaning of God in the middle of our lives. We should concentrate upon the unlimited way God’s Spirit works in each of our lives.
Top of Page ILLUSTRATING THE SERMON
There are three phenomena that are associated with the day of Pentecost. The first is verse 2: “Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting.” That’s the first thing: a violent wind. Notice it says they heard and felt something like the blowing of a violent wind. This is quite an image.
My wife Kathy went out on our balcony just briefly during Hurricane Sandy, and she came back saying, “I’ve never felt anything like that. I’ve never felt that kind of force.” Now actually I was caught outside in the 1980s during a tornado, so I have felt that kind of force. That might be one of the reasons I didn’t go out on the balcony in Hurricane Sandy. I don’t know.
The point is that what happened to them was like … It doesn’t say it was a violent wind; it was like a violent wind. The point is they experienced something coming from outside them. This was not an internal psychological experience arising from inside. They all felt it. They all heard it. They all saw it. It was coming not just down from outside them, but from outside the whole world. It says it came from heaven.
Therefore, to be filled with the Spirit means to have a divine power come from outside of you and come into you. It’s not just a kind of emotional or psychological experience arising from within. That immediately puts us on a collision course with our culture and what the culture tells you and me about our problems and the solution.
The culture says all of our problems come from outside of us, and inside you have what it takes to solve them. Christianity says your main problem comes from inside you, and out there God has the power to give you what you need. I was watching a TV newscast, and they showed some rock star who had just finished her performance, and to her cheering fans, as soon as the music was over, she put her fists in the air and said, “Whatever you aspire to be and do, you have all the power within you to make it happen.”
That’s what the world tells you. If you have problems, they’re out there: social prejudice or dysfunctional family or political and economic corruption. The problems are out there, and you have inside you everything you need in order to solve your problems. The Bible says the opposite. Martin Luther says human nature is (he used a Latin term) incurvatus in se, which means curved in on itself.
Our fundamental nature is to be self-centered, is to feel like we are the center of the universe, and we’re so self-centered we are blind to how self-centered we are. We’re so self-centered we can’t admit how self-centered we are. This is the reason the world is a miserable place. You have a whole bunch of little centers of the universe running around, and only one person can be the center of the universe, so we’re constantly clashing with each other.
The world says the problem is out there and the solution is in here. Christianity says the problem is in here and the power of God is the solution out there. By the way, if you want proof of what I’m telling you, take a look at what the culture says. Take a look at an article in the New York Times magazine today by Lori Gottlieb called “What Brand is Your Therapist?”
She points out something interesting, that there are 30 percent fewer people going to psychotherapy today than there were 15 years ago. She is a therapist and a journalist, so she was interviewing people who have been in therapy for years. What they say is years ago people came in saying, “I need to understand myself and change.” Now people feel like, “My problems are because there are people out there who need to change.”
For example, in the article she said she talked to one woman who’s a therapist, and she says now when she speaks or writes a newsletter she puts herself forward differently. She says, “I see fewer and fewer people today saying, ‘I want to change.’ What I see is more and more people saying they come in because they want someone or something else to change.” So at professional networking events or in newsletters her pitch went from “I treat people with depression and anxiety” to “Are you having trouble with difficult people in your life?”
What Lori Gottlieb points out is a couple of generations in America of bombarding kids with self-esteem means we are an entire culture of people who say, “If I have a problem it’s not me; it’s you.” Do you realize how hopeless that is? If all of your problems are circumstances and people you don’t have any control over, what a frustrating life. But what if your main problems are you? Then there’s hope, because God has some power that will come into your life and change you.
Verse 3 is the second of the two phenomena that are associated with Pentecost. “They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them.” Do you know how significant this is? In the Old Testament, when God’s glory presence, his special presence, shows up, it shows up as fire.
When he’s making a covenant with Abraham in Genesis 15, he appears as a blazing torch. When he appears to Moses the very first time in the wilderness, he appears as a burning bush. When he comes down on Mount Sinai to appear to the people of Israel (we’ll get back to this later), he comes down in fire and smoke. This special presence, this glory presence, this relational presence of God, is depicted as fire. He expresses it as fire.
When he’s leading the children of Israel through the wilderness, at night he’s a pillar of fire. In Ezekiel 1, when Ezekiel has a vision of the glory of God, he sees fire everywhere. Whenever the fire of God, the presence of God, in the Old Testament showed up, it was overwhelming. It was intolerable. It was fatal sometimes. Now do you realize what’s happening on the day of Pentecost? Every believer is now a burning bush.
The glory of God, the presence of God, has now come into every single believer. That presence that was once fatal now comes in everyone. Notice it says it came to rest on each of them. I want you to consider something. In that room were the apostles, and the apostles were the most ordained people in history. Why do I say that? Well, what does it mean to be ordained? Ordained means you’re trained, you’re a leader in the church, you’re set apart, and you have authority.
Now I’m all for that. I believe the Bible does say there should be leaders, there should be authority, and there should be ordained. But in the history of the church, there have never been officers like the apostles, because they were chosen directly by Jesus Christ, recruited and trained by him and set in their place, so they were really ordained. They were really installed. They were really authorities. Yet guess what? They’re not the only ones who got the Holy Spirit.
The tongues of flame rested on each one of them, the humblest Christian, male and female, clergy and lay, everybody. You say, “Okay, well, that’s amazing, but what does it feel like? What does that actually mean?” Let’s keep asking that question … What does this mean? Whenever I read in the Bible about the fullness of the Spirit, it’s expressed in many ways, but I think I perceive, after all of these years of looking at this, a thread through them all.
When the Holy Spirit comes upon Jesus in his baptism, he hears a voice saying, “This is my son in whom I’m well pleased. You are my son, and I delight in you.” You say, “Well, that’s Jesus,” but in Romans 8:16 we’re told for all Christians the Spirit comes into our hearts and bears witness with our spirits that we are children of God. In Galatians 4:6, it says the Spirit of God comes into our hearts crying, “Abba, Father.” It’s the same thing.
The job of the Spirit is to come in and tell you about his love for you, his delight in you, and the fact that you are his child. How does the Holy Spirit do that? In John 14–16, Jesus is talking about the Holy Spirit he’s going to send, and he says, “Look, I’ve told you many things, but the Holy Spirit will take what I’ve told you and manifest it to you.” That means these things you know in your head the Holy Spirit will come and make real to your heart, will make a fiery reality in your life.
Now all of this, everything I’ve been telling you … I feel like there has never been a better illustration of what I’m trying to tell you distilled down to one little image than Thomas Goodwin’s story. Thomas Goodwin was a seventeenth-century British Puritan pastor. He tells a story to try to get across this idea of the fullness of the Spirit.
He says one day he was watching a father and a little son walking along the street, and they were talking, but at one point they turned to each other, and the father swept the son up into his arms and hugged him. His little boy put his arms around his father’s neck, and they hugged and kissed and said they loved each other. Then after that was done, he put the boy down, and they kept on walking.
Thomas Goodwin asks was the little boy more a son in his father’s arms than he was down on the street? Legally, no. He was as much a son in the arms as on the street, as much a son on the street as in the arms. Legally, no difference. Objectively, no difference. Subjectively, experientially, existentially, all the difference.
In other words, in his father’s arms he was experiencing his father’s love. He was experiencing his sonship. What that means is when the Holy Spirit comes down on you in the fullness, you sense your Father’s arms. It’s an assurance of who you are. It’s taking the things you might know with your head and making them real. You say, “Well, how does that work out?” All right, I’ll tell you.
Here’s the voice of the fullness of the Spirit. It’s when you are able to say, “Wait a minute …” By the way, it takes the power of the Spirit to say this. You say, “Wait a minute. If someone as all-powerful as that loves me like this … He delights in me. He has gone to infinite lengths and depths to save me at infinite cost to himself. He says he’ll never let me go, that nothing in heaven and earth or time and eternity will ever, ever make him lose me.
He will always hold on to me, and he’s going to glorify me and make me perfect and take everything bad out of my life eventually. If that’s all true, why am I worried? Why am I upset about money? Why do I care if that person snubbed me? Why do I ever get down?” That’s the voice of the fullness of the Spirit. When you can talk to yourself like that, you have it.
What does it look like on the outside? It looks like you’re drunk. Look at verse 13. Some said, “They’re drunk.” Later on, Paul picks up on that in Ephesians 5:18 and says, “Don’t be drunk with wine but be filled with the Spirit.” What does that mean? What it means is being filled with the Spirit must be like being drunk but it’s also unlike being drunk. “Don’t be drunk with wine; be filled with the Spirit.” It means it’s like being drunk and it’s not like being drunk.
Well, how is it like being drunk? I’ll tell you how it’s like being drunk. The reason they thought they were drunk was because of the joyful fearlessness. They were speaking the gospel without inhibition out in public. They were too happy to care what people thought. They were too happy to be afraid of anything.
Now when you see this joyful fearlessness, this lack of inhibition, it can remind you of being drunk, because alcohol does that. It takes away your inhibitions, and you’re fearless because you’re so happy. In that sense, being filled with the Spirit is like being drunk, because to feel your Father’s arms around you, for his love for you to be a fiery reality makes you so joyful it does make you fearless.
But the Holy Spirit does not do it like alcohol does it. That’s what Paul means when he says, “Don’t be drunk with wine; be filled with the Spirit.” Why? Well, those of you with a medical background know alcohol is a depressant. You say, “Wait a minute. Alcohol is a depressant? I know when people get drunk they get pretty happy.” Oh no. It doesn’t mean it makes you depressed; it means it depresses part of your brain functions.
The reason you’re happy when you’re drunk is because you’re stupid. It’s because you are less aware of reality. The things that bothered you when you were fully aware of reality don’t bother you, because you’re happy. Why? Because you really can’t think very straight. In other words, reality is hidden from me. What’s really wrong is hidden from me. I’m happy through stupidity, because alcohol is a depressant.
The Holy Spirit is not. The Holy Spirit gives you joy through intelligence, not through stupidity, because it shows you that reality. It says, “Wait a minute. The only person whose opinion and power matters loves you to the stars, will do anything for you, has done anything for you, has given up everything for you, and will never let you go.”
That means the Holy Spirit makes you more aware of reality. It shows you all of reality. As a result, the things that were bothering you become small. There’s stupid happiness and there’s intelligent happiness, and the Holy Spirit gives you joyful fearlessness by making you more aware of reality, but especially, in particular, absolutely acknowledging and assuring you that you are his child.
The mark of “Spirit-filledness” is … what? It’s the third of the phenomena. It says, “All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.” Then down in verse 11 it says, “… we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!”
When you read it say “They began to speak in other tongues,” right away you say, “Ah, that’s Pentecostalism, right? Pentecostalism is that branch of Christianity in which people speak in tongues, so that’s talking about that, right?” The answer is yes and no. The reason no is because the tongues that happen on the day of Pentecost are not like the tongues we see even in the rest of the Bible.
In 1 Corinthians 12–14 Paul talks about tongue speaking, and when he does he says, “Now if you pray in tongues in a worship service, nobody can understand you, so you need to interpret it or have somebody interpret it.” Notice Paul is assuming when he’s talking in 1 Corinthians that if you’re praying in tongues people don’t understand you, but these tongues everybody understood in their own language. It was a miracle.
Now what were they saying? They were happy and joyful, but what were they talking about? When they were filled with the Spirit, they didn’t talk about being happy. They didn’t get out there saying, “I’m happy. Are you happy?” “Yeah, I’m happy too.” That’s not what they were talking about. They were talking about the wonders of God. The word wonders translates the Greek word megaleios, which means the mighty works of God, the mighty actions of God, and it’s a word that means the miraculous acts of salvation by God in history.
In the Old Testament, it refers to the parting of the Red Sea, in which God delivered the children of Israel from oppression in Egypt through a miraculous act in history, but in the New Testament, it means the miraculous way God has saved us through Jesus, through the incarnation (God becoming human), through the resurrection (God breaking the bands of death), through the cross. They were talking about the gospel.
That means the third mark of Spirit-filledness is to be joyfully obsessed with the gospel. If you’re really Spirit filled, you’re not thinking about how happy you are, though you are. You’re thinking about the gospel. You’re thinking about the mighty acts of God. You’re obsessed with the gospel. You’re obsessed with talking to people about the gospel. You have new facility in speaking to people about the gospel. You want to do it, because your joy is grounded in the gospel of what Jesus Christ has done for you, of course.
But it’s not just that on Pentecost we’re shown that Spirit-filledness means joyful utterance and being joyfully obsessed with the gospel. This first presentation of the gospel was in every different language at once. Do you see this long list of all of these people? It was a little tedious certainly for the Scripture readers today. That’s a long list of big words.
Why was Luke so careful to show you how many different countries and how many different languages were represented in Jerusalem, which was normal, by the way. This was Pentecost, 50 days after the Passover. Jews came from all over the world. They lived all over the known world, and they came back for the great feasts, and, of course, most of them did not speak Hebrew as their first language. They spoke something else. Therefore, you had all of these various languages present.
When the gospel was first preached to the world, it was preached in every language at once. Do you know the significance of that? I don’t think we’ve actually come to grips with it. By a deliberate miracle, God made sure there was no language and, therefore, no culture (because language is the bearer of culture) that has precedence over any other in the Christian faith. There is no culture that has pride of place.
There’s no language or culture that everybody can say, “Ah, but that’s the original, and everything else sort of comes in secondary.” No, it was all done at once. Do you know what that means? Lamin Sanneh, who teaches at Yale Divinity School as an African professor of missions, has written two books that are very important books. One is called Translating the Message and one is called Whose Religion is Christianity? Let me tell you something about what he says in each one.
In Translating the Message, he points out something that is pretty well known, that Muslims will tell you the Qur’an cannot be translated. You say, “What do you mean? Surely you can get the Qur’an in English.” Yes, but usually even on the cover page it’ll tell you that’s not really the Qur’an; that’s the English explanation of the Qur’an. Why?
Lamin Sanneh points out (he used to be a Muslim; he understands this pretty well) that as far as Muslims are concerned God speaks Arabic. All original revelation was in Arabic. All the original communication of Islam to the world was in Arabic. Therefore, if you want to hear God’s Word, you must hear it or read it in Arabic. All other translations are not really translations. That’s not really God’s Word. It’s just a kind of derivative or explanation.
Lamin Sanneh says Christianity, because of Pentecost, is totally different. We do believe the Word of God can be translated. If you have it in Chinese or if you have it in English, that is the Word of God in English; that is the Word of God in Chinese. But wait. There’s more to it than that. Lamin Sanneh says there is a unified Islamic culture. There is an Arabic language and an Arabic culture that wherever you are …
Any place Islam becomes ascendant, it actually, in a sense, takes the culture and makes it unified with all other Islamic cultures. There’s a unified worldwide Islamic culture. He says that’s not true of Christianity because of Pentecost. Not at all. As a matter of fact, Christianity is the most culturally diverse religion on the face of the earth. It takes radically different forms, because in Christianity, because of Pentecost, there is no one language. There is no one culture that is the right culture.
Therefore, Christianity comes into every culture and renews every culture but, at the same time, honors every culture. Therefore, if you’re Chinese and you become a Christian, you’re lifted out of your culture to a degree. The gospel is a powerful story. If you’re African, it lifts you a little bit out of your culture. It tells you about a man who died for his enemies. It tells you he did so by giving up power and giving up riches to save us. He calls us to love God and love our neighbors.
When you become a Christian, Lamin Sanneh says (and he’s right), it takes you a little bit out of your culture, because every culture is, to some degree, judged by the gospel. You’re actually given a perspective as a Christian, whatever culture you’re from, and you see excesses and imbalances and God substitutes in your culture, so you’re not the same.
But if you’re African and you become a Christian, you don’t become European. You are an African Christian. You’re a Chinese Christian. You’re a Korean Christian. You’re still in your culture. Christianity leaves you there. It does not steamroller every culture but allows for this incredible diversity. Why? Because of Pentecost, because God refused to let one culture or one language be the predominate one in Christianity.
In fact, one example Lamin Sanneh gives … I can only give it to you because he gave it to me. He says it’s not just all other religions are less culturally diverse than Christianity, but even secularism is far less culturally diverse, and he gives an example. He says think about what it means to be an African. He says the core of being an African is you believe the world is spiritually alive. You believe there are spirits everywhere, that there are good spirits and evil spirits. The world is supernaturally and spiritually alive.
Now, he says, what if you are an African and you go off to Harvard or Yale or Princeton and you get a good Western education? Do you know what they’re going to do? They’re going to celebrate cultural diversity. What they’re going to say is, “Oh, I love the way you dress. I love your music.” But then they’re going to tell you, “Oh, there are no miracles. There are no evil spirits. There are no good spirits. Everything has a scientific explanation.”
They will totally flatten your Africanness and celebrate your Africanness. They’ll say, “Oh, we love your diversity.” Why? “We love your food. We’ll destroy your culture, we’ll destroy the heart of your Africanness, but we really appreciate your food. We all have different foods here.” He says Christianity won’t do that. He says secularism will destroy your Africanness. Other religions will take that away. But here’s what’s going to happen. He says, “Christianity helped Africans become renewed Africans, not remade Europeans.”
Here’s how he explains it. He says something like, “Africans see the world filled with spirits. They see it as a spiritually alive place. Christianity accepts the reality of the spirit world but removes the tendency in African cultures toward superstition and violence, because it shows Christ as the victor over all evil spirits, and he is the victor over evil spirits with love and service, not through violence.”
Therefore, Lamin Sanneh says, what Christianity does is it comes in and renews you as an African but leaves you an African. It doesn’t make you into a European. It doesn’t make you into a secularist. It doesn’t make you something else. If you go off to Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, for all their talk of cultural diversity, they will make you into a European. They’ll take away the very core of what makes you African.
Now you can multiply this, but I’m not going to, because I don’t have the time. Nor do I have the courage to go through and look at every single culture, including mine, and say, “I’m white, but I’ve been pulled out of my white ‘Europeanness,’ and at the same time I’m still what I am.” Christianity doesn’t steamroller all of the different cultures. It loves them. It honors them. It renews them.
What does this mean? You say, “Practically, tell me, what are we talking about?” Here’s what it means. First of all, don’t you dare take your culture, your way of arguing, your music … Yeah, that’s part of it, but also all of our cultures are different. Our cultures have different levels of emotional expressiveness, different ways of making decisions, different beliefs in the relationship of the individual to the group.
So different cultures have different narratives about how free an individual should be, different understandings of time and punctuality and good use of time, different understandings of social power, different understandings of how you argue and reason. Christianity doesn’t steamroller those things. But here’s what you have to be sure not to do. I must not think my particular kind of Christianity in my culture is real Christianity.
“I love 45-minute expository sermons with a lot of footnotes and the guy talking about Greek and Hebrew. That’s real Christianity, not this out there where the guy is walking around and raising his voice and being so emotional.” How dare you? Don’t you know that on Pentecost God didn’t let the gospel go out just through one language and one culture? It says, “What’s going on? We hear them declaring the gospel of God in our own tongues.” Everybody in their own tongues.
We need, on the one hand, not to insist that the particular kind of Christianity we have at Redeemer is the only kind. Even here at Redeemer we need to be working as much as we possibly can to be as racially and culturally diverse as we can, because that’s what the Spirit wants. I want you to know that in this world today, the churches that lift up the power of the Spirit and the Spirit is a big part of their theology, those churches are the most interracial and multicultural human institutions in the world. It works.
Keller, T. J. (2013). The Timothy Keller Sermon Archive, 2012-2013. New York: Redeemer Presbyterian Church.
During more difficult times in my ministry, often Acts 2:13 pops into my head: “But others sneered and said, "they are filled with new wine.’” It reminds me that not everyone witnesses events the same way, and that some miss the point altogether! What I see as a great opportunity for ministry may look like a dumb idea to others who don’t see it the same way. I also quote this verse when members of my church begin a new ministry or mission to remind them that there will always be those who sneer, who disbelieve, who are sure it won’t work and aren’t afraid to say so. Peter still stood up and boldly proclaimed the message of Jesus Christ, though he knew some in the crowd disbelieved. And 3,000 were saved that day. He didn’t let the rumors stop him.
We joke at our church that the flame of Pentecost has come to us a few too many times. Since its construction in 1871, our church has burned completely to the ground once and almost completely a second time in 1917 (and almost caught fire a third time during a rather eventful Advent candle lighting service a few years ago). Both times the church burned down, it was May, right around Pentecost. My parishioners tell me that if this is the work of the Holy Spirit, they could do without that, thank you very much. Fortunately, the flame of the Holy Spirit is not destructive or harmful to us. It is a cleansing, refiner’s fire, meant to burn out the impurities but not devour us. When the Holy Spirit abides in us and pushes us to grow, it can feel harmful because it hurts to grow! It hurts to loosen our grasp on those old, sinful ways. But the Spirit’s work is that of transformation, gently but firmly pushing us toward a life of obedience and discipleship.
It is said that there are over 25,000 separate Christian denominations in the world. Many of these denominations came about when one group split into two or three. Instead of focusing on unity, so often our focus is conformity...if people believe exactly as we do, they are welcomed into the fold. If they don’t, let them start their own flock somewhere else. Yet when the Holy Spirit came to the first believers, there were people representing several countries, several languages, several races. The body of Christ is made up of all Christians in all the world. How often do we remember that those worshipping in other churches around our cities are truly our brothers and sisters, called by the same Spirit, as the Christian Church?
A face-to-face encounter with the Holy Spirit leaves us changed, transformed, and often a bit confused. One member of my church converted to Christianity as an adult and specifically remembers seeing a vision of what his life would be like if he didn’t turn to Christ. He described it as a visit from the ghost of Christmas future from A Christmas Carol, but later he said that he knew it was truly the Holy Ghost, grabbing him from the trenches and setting him on firm ground.
There are moments in life when God’s Wind drops from the sky, forcing water through every pore in your secure home or Dark Fury uproots everything you’ve held on to. When those moments come that Freight Train Terror sweeps across our well-planted lives and devastates a lifetime, there comes afterwards an awesome stillness. In that stillness, the mystery of peace flourishes. This peace contains both the capacity to grieve and the conviction to rebuild. This is a time when the whisper of peace and the mystery of mercy replaces our burnt out home with the fire of renovation.
Today’s Pentecost reminds us that sincere discipleship is once again fashionable! People are recognizing the Universal Author in Jesus’ words. We do this by acknowledging the authorship of Spirit in the words of Jesus. If we read his words, we will recognize in his words the sublime wisdom of God. If we read his words, we will acknowledge the authority of Spirit in the words of Jesus. His words contain the compelling wisdom of God. We can also recognize the Universal Author in Jesus’ works. We do this by accepting the mercy of Spirit in the activity of Jesus. If we approach his works with an open heart, we will recognize in them a balance of acceptance of current human condition along with the invi-tation to wholesome reconditioning. We may even finally come to accept the salvation of Spirit as we view the suffering of Jesus, for in his suffering we will recognize the mystery of redemption through his astonishing resurrection.
Pentecost gives our character the opportunity to be reformed. We may join "Club Jesus’ and allow His peace to fill us rather than the world’s anxiety to cripple us. Joining Club Jesus will allow His faith to empower us forward rather than the world’s fear to crush us. Being embraced by the Spirit will allow Jesus’ hope to sustain us in the darkness rather than being fed by the world’s pessimism. Being touched by the Spirit will allow Jesus’ love to define us with our neighbor rather than being divided by the world’s passion.
Pentecost also gives our conduct to the opportunity to be transformed. We can have our actions instructed by the content of Scripture and the scope of the church’s historic confessions rather than by the ignorance of popular media. We can be infused by the healing of Spirit and the care of the Shepherd rather than wounded by the terror and pessimism of the evening news. Pentecost will instill the poor with genuine resources for advancement so that they have something to give rather than waiting for someone to give them a handout that is only sufficient to keep them dependent on the next handout.
Receiving the Holy Spirit produces transformation! Conversion breaks the power of sin. Each Gospel writer tells us this good news in slightly different ways, but the message is unmistakable: Jesus is the Messiah whose word of power, touch of mercy, or instruction of faith liberates us from the fear of punishment, chains of guilt, and stains of shame. John describes this simply as "new birth.’
Communion infuses the power of grace. Luke’s description of life among earliest believers is still an accurate depiction of a healthy congregation: spending much time together in a fellowship meal and an instructional time devoted to hearing the witness of those who most fully know Jesus.
Receiving the Spirit enables us to transform others! When we announce God’s deeds of power in our own life, we have instant credibility. There is no more compelling act of God’s power than the account of God’s work in your own heart. These folks know us the best and see us at our best. They see how you’re able to forge ahead with grace and integrity in the midst of difficulties. The way we live our lives is a daily announcement of God’s transforming power.
Replicate Christ’s deeds of liberation. There is no more liberating mission of Christ than setting free the heart pulsing before you. Each of us has immediate access to specific people in unique ways, people who will never hear the preacher or see the inside of a sanctuary. The can become people whose lives are bent toward freedom by the words we speak, the dependability we exhibit, the kindness we demonstrate and the mercy we extend toward them.
Donald Shriver, the former president of Union Theological Seminary in New York, once asked in a sermon how we could say in our Confession of Faith, “I believe in the Holy Spirit” and not really expect to meet the same powerful Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead.
Henri Nouwen is among those who have believed that one of the signs that the church has largely neglected the Holy Spirit is found in the fact that Pentecost is a non-event in many congregations. Nouwen points out that while Christmas and Easter are prominently indicated, Pentecost is noticeably absent on most calendars. Yet it is Pentecost, not the resurrection, that transformed the disciples into bold messengers of the gospel. (Philip Yancey, Reaching for the Invisible God: what can we expect to find? [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000], p. 150)
One of the effects of Pentecost was an elimination of distinctions that had previously separated the different populations. With the arrival of the Holy Spirit, all were suddenly able to have equal access to the same word of God. As a result, there were no longer insiders and outsiders when it came to the Christian faith. Throughout history, though, we seem to have a desire to organize ourselves in hierarchies, with some being on the top and others on the bottom. For example, the term “snobbery” first came into use in England in the 1820s. It was common at many of the colleges at Cambridge and Oxford to write sine nobilitate (without nobility), or “s.nob,” next to the names of ordinary students in order to distinguish them from the children of nobility. In the word’s earliest usage, a snob was taken to be someone without high status, but “soon the word came to have the exact opposite meaning, referring instead to someone who was offended by a lack of high status in others,” a person who believed that social rank equated to human worth. (Alain de Botton, Status Anxiety [New York: Pantheon, 2004], pp. 75-76)
The multitude of languages that arose with the coming of the Holy Spirit is a powerful reminder that God’s word is not the domain of any one particular group of people; rather God desires to be the God of all people. Our tendency, however, is often to seek God’s blessing upon our own group, usually at the expense of some other group. In Norway, for instance, government officials have become increasingly outspoken about the way that many ministers pray for their favorite local soccer teams during worship services. The Minister of Culture and Church Affairs acknowledged that it is important for the church to touch upon those matters that are important to worshipers, but she called praying for soccer teams “too banal.” A Norwegian bishop, though, has supported what the priests are doing, saying, “I don’t think praying for victory is strange to God.” The National Council of Churches of Norway has also weighed on, suggesting that the trend toward praying for soccer teams is positive because it involves what parishioners are interested in. Theology professor Jacob Jervell disagrees, contending that praying for a sports team to win is nearly blasphemy. (“Christian Democrat blasts soccer prayers,” Afterposten: News From Norway, 9/27/04)
A particular movement of the Holy Spirit manifested itself in the Los Angeles area in 1906. In April of that year a revival, led by the African American preacher William Seymour, took place in a converted barn on Azusa Street. During those services, foreign languages suddenly began to be spoken among the worshipers, just like had happened on the biblical Day of Pentecost. Reports testify that Greek, Latin, French, and German were spoken and understood by members of the congregation, who for the most part had not been exposed to advanced education. In addition, “speeches in Chinese and Tibetan resounded in the sanctuary.” A group of Russians “broke down in tears when they heard preaching in their native language, complete with perfect pronunciation,” from Christians who had never before studied Russian a day in their lives. (Richard Wightman Fox, Jesus in America: Personal Savior, Cultural Hero, National Obsession [San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2004], p. 340)
In the Bavarian diocese of Eichstätt, on Pentecost a carved wooden dove, symbolizing the Holy Spirit, was lowered down on the worshipers through a hole in the church’s roof. Such a hole was a common architectural component in many large German churches. Soon after the dove was lowered, though, buckets of water were poured through the hole. The member of the congregation who was most thoroughly soaked became known as the town’s Pfingstvogel (Pentecost bird) for the coming year. (Diarmaid MacCulloch, The Reformation: A History [New York: Viking, 2004], p. 24)
Pentecost is a time when we marvel at the way that the Spirit enabled people of different languages to suddenly understand one another. For years linguists have assumed that most of the languages spoken across Europe and Asia, ranging from English to Hindi, have a common ancestry. Yet a disagreement has persisted over whether the Indo-European tongue was spread by nomadic horsemen riding out from Asia’s steppes around 4000 B.C., or whether the languages originated with farmers who migrated thousands of years before that from Turkey. Russell Gray and Quentin Atkinson of the University of Auckland in New Zealand have used “data-crunching tools” to examine languages throughout history, and their conclusion, published in December 2003 issue of Nature is that the Indo-European language family began branching out nearly 10,000 years ago, supporting the hypothesis that is was “farming, not fighting, that spread the languages far and wide.” (U. S. News & World Report, 12/8/03)
The Spirit, like the wind, cannot be contained. However, that is not stopping some people from attempting to sell wind on eBay. A day after this past summer’s Hurricane Frances blew through Florida, more than 170 storm-related items went on sale on the Internet’s premier auction site. One such item was “a Tupperware container said to be filled with wind from the storm.” The starting bid was set at a penny. Somewhat surprisingly, bidding for the item quickly passed the $10 mark. (“Wind From Hurricane for Sale on eBay,” Associated Press, 9/7/04)
When the Spirit appears in a community’s life, a real crowd might start to gather. Yet not everyone thinks that is such a great thing. A chef in Stockholm was fired last year for being too successful at what he did. Richard Norberg was hired to be the chef in the cafeteria of an engineering company. But his food was so good that it attracted long lines of people at mealtimes, meaning that people had to wait lengthy periods of time. The human resources department said that their company makes pipe-installation parts, and they are not equipped to run a popular restaurant as well. Norberg’s specialties included “Swedish pancakes, pea soup, and pork chops.” Normally the cafeteria served lunch to about a hundred people each day. But after Norberg arrived, noontime traffic soared to over 300. (Associated Press, 1/29/04)
The sad reality is that most churches in North America are not having anywhere near the success in reaching out to the general public as those Christians did on the day of Pentecost. Yet rarely do congregations pause and do some deep soul-searching as to the reason for that. In like manner, businesses that are lagging in their attempts to find success among the public often fail to do the self-analysis that they ought to do. For instance, last year, Schlotzsky’s Deli, a 513-store sandwich chain, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. Many analysts explained the company’s failure in terms of the competitiveness of the restaurant market, poor operating procedures, or not enough advertising. Yet others believe that pointing to those things as the explanation for the company’s failure is merely a diversion from the obvious cause of the company’s problem—the company’s name. First, who can even spell Schlotzsky’s? Second, the name comes dangerously close to sounding like “schlock,” a Yiddish term for something of poor quality. In Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind, the author contends that “the single most important marketing decision you can make is what to name the product.” If that is true, Schlotzsky’s didn’t do its homework well. Why are many churches not succeeding at reaching out to the unconverted? The answer may be more obvious than we realize. (“What Schlotzsky’s Teaches Marketers: Bad Names Can Kill a Brand’s Potential,” AdAge.com, 10/4/04)
Many people long for the kind of Spirit-filled passion that was exhibited on that day of Pentecost. Tony Campolo says that Friedrich Nietzsche originally attended Christian worship services, but he eventually walked out, frustrated with the lack of passion. He pointed at the priest and asked, “Does that thing up there ever laugh or cry?”
The events of Pentecost demonstrate that God intends for the church to be not so much an institution, but to be a community of believers empowered to announce the gospel: “We took a liberated community of believers living in the freedom of unqualified grace and converted it into a navel-watching institution dedicated, inevitably, to the preservation of its own structure.” (Robert Farrar Capon, The Astonished Heart [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996], p. 4)
The Pentecost experience reveals that the Holy Spirit is an all-encompassing power: “The Holy Spirit cannot be located as a guest in a house. He invades everything.” (Oswald Chambers)
The Holy Spirit seeks to be not just an external phenomenon that we examine from a distance; rather the Spirit seeks to take control of our lives by dwelling within us: “To be controlled by the Spirit means that we are not controlled by what happens on the outside but by what is happening on the inside.” (Erwin W. Lutzer)
From the Pentecost story in Acts, we discover that if the Holy Spirit is truly filling us, we will find ourselves compelled to announce the gospel to others: “The Holy Spirit is God the evangelist.” (J. I. Packer)
Top of Page prayers (WorshipAid)
Leader: May the glory of the Lord endure forever
People: May the Lord rejoice in his works.
Leader: I will sing to the Lord as long as I live;
People: I will sing praise to my God while I have being.
Leader: May my meditation be pleasing to him
People: For I rejoice in the Lord.
Loving God, you gave us your Holy Spirit to guide us, to teach us, to call us together as the church. But too often, we fail to act like the body of Christ. We focus on conflict instead of unity. We forget our brothers and sisters in need. We decide for ourselves who is included and who is excluded. Forgive us when we have failed to put Christ as the head and act like the body of Jesus Christ. We pray in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.
God of grace, you have given us so many blessings. You sent your Son for us. You sent the Holy Spirit to teach us. Everything that we have comes from you. We offer you what we have, our tithes and ourselves. Use us to your glory. In the name of Jesus Christ we pray. Amen.
God of wind and fire, today we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit and the official formation of the Christian church. We thank you for calling us together as the body of Christ, with Jesus as the Head of the Church. We come before you with our joys and concerns, knowing that you hear us when we pray to you.
We pray for churches around the world celebrating this day, and for countries in which there are those who must worship in secret. We pray for your Spirit’s presence upon all peoples today, especially upon those who are impoverished, who are alone, who feel that there is no hope. Empower and enrich the lives of your children that we all may discover the power of your Spirit.
We pray for the community around us, for your Holy Spirit to transform and teach us that we may reach out to one another. We pray for those who are sick or suffering in mind, body, or spirit. Be with them, show them your presence, and help us discern how to best be Christ to one another. We pray in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.