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Pentecost, May 15, 2016

My mother was the power in my family. My dad helped with homework, comforted us when we were sad, taught us how to ride bicycles. But it was mom who told us what to do. And her very favorite line was “Go outside”, especially in the summer. She probably wanted us out from under her feet so she could clean the house, since four of us doing various things inside were not manageable when you were trying to do something else. No matter what we were doing – reading or watching television or playing cards, we stopped whatever we were doing and went outside. Mom’s word was law and we all knew it.

The Holy Spirit is sometimes depicted as a gentle dove, more like my dad was, but not today. This manifestation of the Holy Spirit has power, power to shake up and transform those she touches, to unsettle their lives, to give them a new purpose. The disciples, a band of about 120 people, are together when the Spirit comes. And the Spirit just shatters them. She is huge gusts of wind that can be heard above any other sound. She is tongues of fire alighting on the disciples’ heads. She is the power of God coming to inaugurate a new season in the history of the people of God – the formation of the church.

The Spirit thrusts the disciples from the safety of the indoors to the world outside their doors. Literally thousands of people from all over the empire had been drawn toward the sound and had seen the flames. The Spirit’s power was irresistible. It drew pilgrims there for Pentecost to see what this sign meant. Before Pentecost, the disciples had gathered together separately. They had followed Jesus’ instructions to wait in Jerusalem until power came upon them. They wondered what this power would do, how it would act, as they prayed and gave thanks in the synagogue. They kept to themselves, probably still afraid of the authorities. But the Spirit’s orders were unmistakable. Go outside. Go outside and bring Christ to the world. And they went.

The great wind and the tongues of flame were enough to excite and frighten the disciples at the same time. But the Spirit was not through yet. More power came from heaven as the disciples were compelled to speak about the wonders of God to the Jews gathered outside. And speak they did, not in Aramaic, but in the languages of every person gathered there. The disciples spoke and each of the listeners was able to understand the message in his own language. They were amazed and perplexed and astonished at this new development. They could pick out their native tongue and hear it above all others. They heard about God’s deeds of power.

Some were really uncomfortable with this huge experience – something so great it could never have a rational explanation – so they tried to give it one by saying the disciples must be drunk on new wine (Linda E. Thomas) – though how this would make them speak in tongues is questionable.

The disciples had been shaken to their cores by the Holy Spirit’s coming, they had been compelled to go outside and speak and they had been empowered to speak in other languages. They were no longer a frightened band, but a new community of the church, ready to take the risks that giving such a message created for them. With the power of the Spirit, who could be afraid?

Peter then speaks, proclaiming a new age. He is concerned with grounding this new thing in Jewish history and Scripture so the people will be more open to the message. Peter is helped by the fact that it is Pentecost, a Jewish holiday when the end of the harvest is celebrated and the first fruits are sacrificed to God. It also came to be celebrated as the commemoration of the giving of the Torah, especially the Ten Commandments, to God’s people, which was traditionally done 50 days after the Israelites began wandering in the desert. Peter is giving a new message about reading the meaning and purpose for humanity through the person of Jesus Christ and his message of repentance and forgiveness of sins. It was a time that the Jews would be looking for signs of God’s presence.

Peter also quotes the prophet Joel, with a little shaping to put the prophecy in the present context. Instead of “in those days”, he begins with “in the last days” which he proclaims have been inaugurated by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ (Matt Skinner). God will not just pour out God’s Spirit on the Jews, but on all the people, Joel says – men and women, boys and girls, slaves and free, and the elderly. The Spirit will be given so they can prophesy, which is not the telling of the future, but is interpreting God’s meaning and purpose for the day (Matt Skinner). Everyone will have the Spirit, so all will have the ability to prophesy. The Spirit’s coming signifies the great and glorious day of the Lord approaching and there will be all kinds of signs in heaven as well.

The last line of Joel’s prophecy is “everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved”. It doesn’t say only Christians – it says everyone. In this new interpretation, does the statement it include the Jews, to whom Joel was writing? What about others of God’s people? Do they have to call on the Lord’s name in one specific way? Can the Holy Spirit work among all peoples of faith and perhaps even those with no faith to help them call on God’s name for salvation? I think God is always inclusive, going back to the time when he blessed Abram and Sarai to bless the nations of the world.

We are far removed from the day of Pentecost. There is no wind or fire that pulls us up out of our seats, shakes our reality and thrusts us out into the world to proclaim the gospel. But we are pulled, shaken and thrust none the less. Often we talk about the Holy Spirit as a Comforter as one who brings companionship and healing and wisdom; we are less likely to talk about the raw power that the Spirit brought that first Pentecost. We are even less likely to talk about the raw power that she brings now to us in gathered community, the community that was born on that Pentecost. But the Spirit turns disciples into apostles and that is what we are called to be. We are called to come together to worship and be strengthened and then go out again in service to the least of these and in witness – to tell the story of Jesus and what he means to us. We do not have to convert 3000 souls as Peter’s sermon did. In fact we do not have to convert any souls, because that is God’s job. But we have to share the story. We can’t wait inside as the disciples were waiting before the Spirit came. We already have the Spirit.

And we don’t have to do this work under our own shaky efforts. The disciples were powerless to preach the good news until Jesus sent that life-shattering Spirit to give them courage and hope and faith that God would be there for them, no matter what.

The power of the Holy Spirit is alive and well in the church that she created. We sometimes don’t want to notice her telling us to go outside and spread the word. We sometimes don’t remember that she will help us speak in the language the people we are in relationship with can understand. The wind and the fire are in us and around us if we will open ourselves to the power that the Spirit brings and what she is asking us to do. Go outside and make friends. That’s what Jesus did. Go outside and serve the Lord’s people. That’s what Jesus did. And go outside and tell of the amazing power of God in Christ. That’s what the apostles did. Go in the power of the Spirit and watch amazing things happen.


     -- Rev. Ann Barker

Works cited:
Linda E. Thomas, Feasting on the Word, Year C, vol. 3, Theological Perspective (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), p. 18.
Matt Skinner, Commentary on Acts 2:1-21, Working Preacher, Blog Post 5/11/2016