This coming Sunday, the Church will celebrate Pentecost: the coming of the Holy Sprit upon the Church. The narrative of the first Pentecost is recorded and handed down to us from the second chapter of Acts:
"When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place. And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance. Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven. And at this sound the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one was hearing them speak in his own language. And they were amazed and astonished, saying, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language? Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians—we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God.” And all were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others mocking said, “They are filled with new wine.” But Peter, standing with the eleven, lifted up his voice and addressed them: “Men of Judea and all who dwell in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and give ear to my words. For these people are not drunk, as you suppose, since it is only the third hour of the day. But this is what was uttered through the prophet Joel: “‘And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams; even on my male servants and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy."
We, as Christians, tell a story together. We are people fundementally and profoundly shaped by story, as all human beings are. The narrative that we tell together as the Church centers around what the Father, the Son, and the Spirit has done, is doing, and will do in our world. The Church begins this story every year with Advent, remembering the first coming of Christ and longing for the second. We then move to the joyous remembrance of the incarnation during the 12 days of Christmas. In Epiphany, we tell the story of the early life of Jesus and the revelation of the Son of God to the whole world (beginning with the visit of the Magi). In Lent, we journey into the desert with Jesus and experience a season of fasting, prayer, and generosity that reaches its peak during Holy Week, when remember the passion and victory of our Lord on Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday. Then, for 50 days, we bask in the hope of Easter, remembering that Christ has risen from the dead. Last Thursday, the Church celebrated the Ascension of Jesus into Heaven, the Lamb of God and Lord of all taking his place upon the throne of heaven. And this Sunday, we finally arrive at Pentecost!
But as Leslie Newbigin says:
“There are three great festivals in the Christian year, three occasions when we are invited to celebrate the great events of our salvation. They are Christmas, Easter and Pentecost….But we all know very well that it is only the first two of these festivals which are celebrated with real joy and enthusiasm in our churches. Christmas and Easter are great occasions when even the most careless Christian feels an obligation to come to church, and when there is joy and happiness in every Christian home. But the feast of Pentecost passes almost unnoticed. The outside observer of our churches would surely conclude that while it means a great deal to us that Jesus was born for us and died and rose again, the coming of the Spirit means very little or nothing." (The Holy Spirit and the Church, 12)
I think Newbigin is right and I suspect that the reasons are not just liturgical but also theolgical: we often don't dwell on the gift and presence of the Holy Spirit.
Maybe it would help us to experience the significance of Pentecost if we see how it is positioned in God's great story and what it means for the Church today.
Pentecost: Before, During, and After
“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters. And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light…then the LORD God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature.”
(Genesis 1:1–3, 2:7)
Without the creative power of the Spirit of God, all remains void, chaotic, and lifeless.
Artists take formlessness and they create form. The painter takes raw materials of dyes, and minerals, and color and texture and fills a blank canvas with her creative intent. Musicians fills staves and sonic spheres with harmonies, melodies, rhythms. Writers and poets fill pages, or, these days, pixels to bring something that didn’t used to exist into existence. God is the Artist above all others, and Pentecost is his great masterpiece.
There are many days that I wake up in this world inundated with chaos, both internal and external. Competing ideas and ideologies, endless arguments, talking heads on television or twitter arguing about everything, seemingly endless problems, wars and threats of wars, scandals, racism, injustice, grinding poverty, and on and on. Darkness was over the face of the deep. And it doesn’t often seem much better in the church: theology, ethnicity, political theory, worship style, denominational splits and then splits off the splits, preaching style, gender, etc. How much contradictory babbling must one listen to?
Babbling. From the word Hebrew word Babel. Genesis chapter 11 tells the story of Babel and its Tower. It tells a story about how all the peoples on the earth had one language, and they banded together to build a tower that was as high as the heavens so that they could make a name for themselves. God, their creator, had told them to multiply and disperse over the earth and they, in effect, said, “No, we’ll stay right here so that we can be more powerful together.” A desire for control and autonomy and power apart from the Creator, a social unity and stability that would, theoretically, make God irrelevant. So God confused their languages, and they spread out over all the earth, formed different people groups, and called that place Babel. More on that later.
Pentecost was, and still is, a Jewish holiday also known as the Feast of Weeks or Shavuot. This year, it falls between May 19-21. Pentecost was one of three great holy days in the Jewish year, which included Passover, Shavuot, and Yom Kippur, the day of atonement. Back in Leviticus 23, God had instituted this feast to be counted 7 weeks and a day after the celebration of Passover. Pentecost in the Greek (pentecostos) means 50, which is why this holy day is named so here. It was a feast to give thanks to God for his abundant provision in the harvest and to celebrate God as the generous Giver. Over time, and by the time of our story in Acts 2 takes place, this celebration of Pentecost had become not just a harvest celebration but one where the people of Israel were to remember what had happened in Exodus 19 when the Lord descended, came down upon Mt. Sinai in a pillar of fire, and gave his people the Law. He had delivered them from the land of Egypt, that’s Passover, but they needed to be given a new way of life, they needed to know how to accomplish what God had for them in the world, and they needed to be constituted as God’s people; that's Pentecost.
And, here we are, over a thousand years later in the story from Sinai, and thousands still more from the story of Babel. But both are important to understanding what happens in Acts 2. We read that at least 120 men and probably many women were dwelling together in a house in Jerusalem. Most likely, they were all roughly the same kind of people: Galileans who spoke the same language, who looked similar to one another. Unlike the folks at Babel, they were not scheming a way to reach into heaven. They were waiting for heaven to come down to them.
Jesus, their Lord, had told them of a worldwide commission, saying that “repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem." But there was somethingthing that would preceed this work, the Lord had said: I am sending the promise of my Father upon you. But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high. (Luke 24:47–49) They were waiting to be clothed before they were put to work.
Millions were in Jerusalem for Pentecost and were all around the house. We can almost hear them speaking in their many different languages from many different places all over the world. There we both ethnically Jewish Israelites and those who have converted to Judaism from other peoples, called Proselytes. Devout men and women from every nation under heaven, the text tells us.
Finally, In a sudden whoosh, the promised Holy Spirit, the power from on high, was given. Spirit, the English from the Greek pneuma from the Hebrew ruah, meaning "breath or wind." The same word used back in that Genesis passage when the LORD God…breathed into Adam’s nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature. Here again comes the ruah of God to create new life. Afterall, Jesus himself had said to Nicodemus ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit, (John 3:7–8).
It is a scene reminiscent of Sinai before: divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. A quaking and shaking, wind blowing through the whole house. They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance.
Speaking in tongues. It’s hard for us to even hear the word Pentecost without associating it with the words “Pentecostal” or “Charismatic." I have many brothers and sisters who would proudly say that they are Pentecostal or Charismatic Christians, and I will often use the same label when describing some of my beliefs about the worship of God's people. I like to call myself a “Presbycostal,” after all. But often the situation that this creates for us is that when we begin to speak about the Spirit, we focus solely on how you or I indiviually experience the Holy Spirit in worship: whether we exercise the extraordinary gifts of the Spirit in worship. But the Holy Spirit’s coming is far bigger than you and I’s experience in worship, though that is important. No, this is about much more. This is about a cosmic reality that changes everything for the people of God and their mission in the world, that is Pentecost.
The tongues given to these 120 are languages. Not babbling, but speaking in foreign (to them) languages. Evidently the crowd around this house began to hear those who were obviously Israelite Jewish folks speaking in languages from all over: Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language? The Apostle Peter harkens back to the Prophet Joel to help the people understand what is happening:
And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, (both women and men) and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams (all ages) even on my male servants and female servants (all classes of people) in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy. Before this point the Holy Spirit has shown up in Scripture in isolated incidents, chiefly to the prophets, priests, kings, and judges of old. But God had long ago foretold of a time when God would put His spirit within all of his people, giving them a new heart and spirit (Ezekiel 36:26). The time has now come!
Ethnic, national, and cultural diving walls crumbled down to create a new people of God in the name of the Father, Son, and Spirit. The great reversal of Babel, wherein unity and power would be found not in human ingenuity and homogeneity but rather in Spirit-ual gifting and grace among the diverse mosaic of all peoples. The Spirit of God floods upon the Church like a rushing torrent of God’s power and love. And no matter what scheme human beings may devise to stop that torrent from flowing across the face of the earth, they cannot. If you keep reading in the book of Acts, you will see that the Spirit begins to flow across all sorts of cultural, ethnic, and historic barriers. This comes to a climax in Acts 10-11, when the first Gentile convert, Cornelius, and his family are given the Spirit, believe the gospel, and become part of the Church. The "power from on high" keeps on flowing to create and re-create the Church.
So the question is before us this week: Pentecost: so what? What difference does it make? We must say that it makes all the difference.
The Church is the Body of Christ and every body needs breath in order to live. The Holy Spirit is that breath! The Holy Spirit animates that Body, giving to its many members different kinds of gifts that compliment, serve, and empower one another to do God’s work in God’s way. The Spirit sanctifies the Church (1 Peter 1:2), making it holy and dedicated to the Lord by convicting it concerning sin and righteousness and judgment (John 16:8).
Pentecost opens the floodgates. Never again will cultural homogeneity be either possible or desirable for the people of God. This is why you see the brilliant diversity of Christianity in the world. Not only in ethnic groups, but even within the different cultures and expressions within ethnic groups. Each of these streams has a kind of tongue, a dialect of speaking the mighty acts of God. We all do it differently.
There is no church without the Holy Spirit. In fact, what would we be left with without the work of the Spirit? Mary, the mother of Jesus, became pregnant with the Messiah through the Holy Spirit. The Spirit descended upon Jesus at his baptism and empowered him for ministry. The Spirit led Christ out to be tempted. Jesus was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead. It was the Spirit who descended upon the Church and gave it life and power to go unto all the peoples and nations with the gospel. And beyond that:
- We have hope in this life because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. (Romans 5:5)
- For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. (Romans 8:2)
- But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness...For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, (Romans 8:10, 14–16)
- Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. (Romans 8:26–27)
- Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. (1 Corinthians 2:12)
- For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit. (1 Corinthians 12:13)
- But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, (Galatians 5:22)
- If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit. (Galatians 5:25)
- And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. (Ephesians 4:30)
- Do not quench the Spirit. (1 Thessalonians 5:19)
And that sample is barely a fraction of what is there. It is only scratching the surface of the mysterious depths of the third person of the Trinity. The life we live as the Church is a life lived in the Holy Spirit, in his power, in his guidance, following his steps. Communion with God means communion by the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit unifies the Church, even if we often resist that work and grieve/qunech the Spirit, the Spirit is on a mission and will not be stopped until everything is re-created and made new.
What is the significance of Pentecost? It is the birth of the Church of Jesus Christ and the beginning of God's new creation.
I pray that we have a blessed Pentecost together this Sunday!
In the name of the Father, Son, and Spirit,
All scripture quotations from the English Standard Version® (ESV®) Copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.All rights reserved.