If you were with us last week, you’ll remember that we’re spending the next few Sundays exploring the book of Acts with a specific question in mind: what is God’s mission in the world, and how is that mission accomplished when Jesus isn’t here in flesh and bone?
So as we celebrate Pentecost today, we’re looking specifically at what the Holy Spirit empowers these disciples to do.
But before we listen to this familiar story, I want to give us a bit of background. Pentecost was originally the Greek name for a Jewish festival called Shavuot. It’s called Pentecost in Greek because it takes place 50 days after Passover, and it celebrates the giving of the Law.
So it’s no surprise, then, that the disciples are gathered together in one place in the middle of Jerusalem – and it’s also no surprise that there are faithful Jewish people from every corner of the known world gathered there for the festival.
The surprise is in what happens when God shows up.
Scripture: Acts 2:1-21
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, ‘Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, 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 Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.’ All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, ‘What does this mean?’ But others sneered and said, ‘They are filled with new wine.’
But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them: ‘Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:
“In the last days it will be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon 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 upon my slaves, both men and women,
in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
and they shall prophesy.
And I will show portents in the heaven above
and signs on the earth below,
blood, and fire, and smoky mist.
The sun shall be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood,
before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.
Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”
A rush of wind, mysterious flames, and a bunch of fishermen from Galilee telling the stories of Jesus in languages they had never learned: that’s how the Holy Spirit makes her grand entrance.
It’s easy to be amazed and perplexed by the strange circumstances, the confusing place names, and the bit of prophecy that gets a little scary at the end—but if you look at the end of verse 11, the disciples aren’t just babbling in every language under heaven. They’re testifying, and preaching to everyone within earshot about God’s deeds of power.
This isn’t just a party trick – the point is the story, and the miracle is a means to making that story heard.
Luke doesn’t tell us what exactly they say. Did they tell about the time Jesus had five loaves and two fish to feed five thousand people, and wound up with leftovers? Did they tell the story of Jesus walking on water out to the boat, when they thought he was a ghost? Did they tell about the bleeding woman who only had to reach out and touch his jacket to be healed? Maybe they said something about how even when they were hiding in a locked room, the resurrected Jesus appeared among them and said “peace be with you.”
Whichever stories they told, this scene drew a crowd.
There’s a lot to be said about this moment and what it represents in the kingdom of God – God’s affirmation of all kinds of diversity, especially.
But here’s what I want us to hear today: when the Holy Spirit empowers the disciples to testify to God’s action and presence and power in our lives, she also empowers them to meet people precisely where they are.
Some of the men, at least, would’ve been able to read or speak biblical Hebrew. A decent number would’ve spoken Greek, which was the language of trade and diplomacy. The disciples could have gone with the least common denominator and gotten through to a certain number of people.
But that’s not enough for our God. When the Holy Spirit comes with power, she goes all out and gives the disciples the words they need so that everyone can hear them in the language they’re most comfortable with—the language of their hearts.
What the Holy Spirit does not do is sit this crowd of a few thousand people down and say “if you’re going to be one of us, you need to learn to speak like us.”
The Holy Spirit is here to help us eliminate barriers to fellowship and communication, not build new ones.
I brought my hammer with me this morning, which looks a little beat up these days (and didn’t look weird at all when I was carrying it into the building this morning.) This particular hammer was a graduation gift from my youth pastor when I graduated from high school. It was partly practical, because we were going on a mission trip later that summer and we would need them.
But this gift was mostly symbolic: as we gathered around a campfire on our final night of youth group before graduation, he reminded us that God is in the business of tearing down walls and building bridges – and that as we went out into the world as followers of Jesus, we should not confuse the two.
Later in Acts, we’ll see the Holy Spirit breaking down barriers not only among the Jewish people, but the barriers between Jewish and Gentile believers, too.
So if the Spirit empowers Jesus’ disciples to meet people where they are and talk about the good news of Jesus in terms they understand, what does that look like for us, two thousand years later?
I believe that means leading with honesty, empathy, and curiosity.
It means resisting the temptation to get caught up in the either/or debates over issues that don’t have an either/or answer.
It means actively working against stereotypes about Christians with our words and our actions – reminding folks that we’re not all judgmental jerks (and no, it’s only 9 am, we’re not drunk.)
But mostly, I think it means rejecting the complacency of a comfortable church.
It means giving up the idea that “if we build it, they will come,” because no one is falling for the “come for the pizza, stay for the Jesus” thing anymore.
It means striving to see what we’re doing with new eyes, finding different ways to tell the story of Jesus in our own words, and being open to something new, even if we don’t fully understand what God is calling us to yet.
When Peter stands up to speak, he quotes from the prophet Joel and reminds the baffled crowd that this is what God promised so long ago: “I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh,” God says. “I will call up your sons and daughters, people young and old, even those on the bottom of the totem pole to speak in my name, to tell my story.”
This was not a once-and-done sort of thing. It’s not past, and it’s not just for the future. This promise is for today, for you, for tomorrow and every day after. The Holy Spirit may not call you up to speak in a language you don’t know, but she will absolutely push you to learn and grow and tell the story God has given you to tell.
And if you need some extra help along the way – if you want to talk, if you want to pray, if you want some help figuring out what exactly God is calling you to, that’s what I’m here for – and I would love to be a conversation partner for you on that journey.
But the question I want to leave you with today is this: what barriers lie between the Church and the rest of the world? What’s holding us back, keeping folks away, and preventing us from connecting with those who are desperate for God’s love, God’s hope, and God’s encouragement?
What do we need to take the hammer to before we can begin building bridges?
In the first chapter of Jeremiah, when God calls him to prophesy, God says:
“Now I have put my words in your mouth.
See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms,
to pluck up and to pull down,
to destroy and to overthrow,
to build and to plant.”
Even (and especially) today, I believe this is the work of the Holy Spirit among us and within us. Thanks be to God!