The Day of Pentecost

TEXT: 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. (Acts 2:1-4)


On Pentecost Sunday, we celebrate the birth of the Christian Church. You know the story. Christ has already ascended to heaven, after telling his disciples to go to Jerusalem and wait for the Holy Spirit to come upon them. They do as he tells them. And so, there they are, in Jerusalem, waiting. Then comes the harvest festival known as Shavuot, or Pentecost—which also celebrates the giving of the Torah to Moses.

Now, Shavuot—Pentecost—is an important Jewish holiday. And in the first century, it was an occasion when thousands of religious Jews would visit Jerusalem. They would have come from all over the known world—“every nation under heaven,” as it said in our passage from Acts. And all these people, even though they shared a common religion, would have spoken different languages. Many of them would have had some understanding of Greek, some would have understood Hebrew; but their “mother tongues,” the languages they understood best, would have been varied and many.

So, what happens? Well, again, I’m sure you know the story. The Holy Spirit chooses this time to descend upon the followers of Jesus—or to come upon them “with power,” since according to John’s Gospel, they had already “received” the Spirit when the risen Christ breathed it upon them (see John 20:22). Whatever it is that’s supposed to be happening here, whatever distinction we might want to make between “receiving” the Spirit and having it come upon you or fill you, the effect of it is quite astonishing.

The disciples are all gathered together in a room somewhere in Jerusalem when the Holy Spirit bursts in. Filled with the power of that Spirit, they begin to speak in other languages—presumably in languages they had not been able to speak previously. And they are speaking so loudly that the people out in the street hear them, even over the din and the bustle of the marketplace.

Soon a crowd gathers outside the house. They can’t believe their ears, because they hear the disciples speaking to them—to each of them, in the native language of each one. “What’s going on here?” they ask. Then they say:

“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.” (Acts 2:7b-11)

Not surprisingly, everyone is shocked and bewildered, and want to know what’s happening. And even though the text says that those who had gathered outside the disciples’ window could understand what was being said, it seems that not everyone out there in the street could. To them, it just sounded like gibberish—like the inebriated ravings of men who had been drinking too much wine too early in the day. They sneered, and—as we read in verse 13—they said of the disciples, “They are filled with new wine.”

Now, in every Pentecost sermon I’ve ever heard, that verse is just sort of passed over without comment. Usually, the preacher goes on to emphasize what happens next. Peter rises to the defence of his friends, declares that, no, they are not drunk at all, but are filled with the Spirit of God. Then he delivers what must qualify as the most successful evangelistic sermon of all time, because at the end of it some 3,000 people believe and are baptized. I wish Peter was still around to give me some preaching tips!

But today, I want to focus on that usually passed-over verse, where the nay-sayers put down the disciples by saying they’re just a bunch of drunks and rabble-rousers. I think it’s a very significant verse, because it points out something important about the gift the Spirit gave at Pentecost: it was not just a gift of speaking—it was also a gift of hearing. And not everybody received it.

Now, the Bible doesn’t tell us why some of them did not receive the gift. It doesn’t say why some of them couldn’t hear the message of love—could not understand the languages of love—which the disciples were speaking. But if I’ve learned anything about the gifts of God—about the gifts of the Spirit—it’s this: God’s gifts are freely offered, and they are offered to everyone. All you have to do is to be willing to accept them.

So it seems to me that these folks who could not understand what the disciples were saying, even though they were speaking in just about every language there is on earth, must have had some kind of barrier inside them, or in their lives, that made them deaf to the Spirit’s words of love. It seems to me that if there was a problem, it must have been with the hearers, not with the speakers.

As I said, the Bible doesn’t tell us what the problem was. It doesn’t let us know about the hang-ups, or the hatreds, or the petty jealousies or prejudices of those who could not or would not unstop their ears. But it does give us a clue—and it’s in that little verse which we preachers usually pass over: “others sneered and said, ‘They are filled with new wine.’”

They sneered. They treated the Spirit’s gift with derision. They treated the Spirit’s messengers with disrespect. They called them a bunch of drunks.

I have to wonder whether, perhaps, the sneering ones were not visitors to Jerusalem, but longtime residents. Folks who knew the disciples well. Or who had at least heard about them before. Or who, perhaps, had felt let down by this Jesus fellow when he didn’t turn out to be the Messiah they had been hoping for.

I mean, doesn’t it sound like there might have been just a touch of bitterness here? Like maybe there were some old tensions, some long-standing grievances, some hurt feelings from the past?

I’m giving my imagination free rein here, of course. But you know, I can hear these bitter folks saying things like:

“Look at those blasted show-offs! Look what they’re doing now! Jesus is gone, and they still want to be big shots.”

Or: “What a racket, this early in the morning! How undignified! Followers of Jesus shouldn’t draw such attention to themselves.”

Or: “Who does that Peter think he is, to be speaking in tongues, after he denied Jesus three times? There are certainly other people who deserve this gift more than he does.”

Or maybe some of them really did believe the disciples were drunk, and were upset because they thought the church’s money had been squandered on alcohol.

Whatever their issues were, whatever their grievances or grudges were, they became loud, bitter voices that drowned out the message that God so wanted them to hear. And that was a tragedy, because it meant that these people were now on the outside. While some 3,000 others made their way into the Kingdom of God on Pentecost Day, these poor souls remained on the outside, condemned by their own stubborn bitterness—by their own willful deafness to the voice of the Spirit.

I think there’s a warning here for all of us, even—and maybe especially—for those of us inside the Church. Because (I’m sad to say) church people don’t really have a very good track record when it comes to accepting new ideas, or encouraging novel ways of doing things. When stuff happens that is unfamiliar, or different, or which maybe just doesn’t suit our tastes, we tend to get our backs up. And sometimes our first reaction is an angry one, and we want to shut down this unfamiliar thing. Perhaps we even want to lash out at the people who are doing it.

Well, that’s a natural reaction, I guess. Someone once said, “Only babies like change.” And it’s been quite a while since most of us were babies (alas, that is especially true in my own denomination). But I think we have to be careful, and give some deeper thought to the way we react to things. Because we don’t want to allow old grievances, or new jealousies—or anything else—to put us on the outside of God’s Kingdom … do we?

Listen to the word of the Lord, being spoken anew:

I am about to do a new thing;
    now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness
    and rivers in the desert.

(Isaiah 43:19)

Look for the new thing, my friends. Look for the new thing that God is doing. Look for the way through the wilderness. In whatever desert you find yourselves, may you locate the river winding through it … and climb aboard the Spirit’s lifeboat.

Blessings on your journey. Amen.

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