The Day of Pentecost
TEXT: Acts 2:1-21
“… 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.’” (Acts 2:16-18)
On the day of Pentecost, the Church received its mission. And what is this mission? God calls us to see visions, to prophesy, to dream dreams of a new world modelled on what happened that day in Jerusalem. The power of the Holy Spirit created the Church to proclaim that the dream of a new, reconciled humanity had been fulfilled in Jesus Christ.
Devout people from all over the world were gathered in Jerusalem for the Jewish Feast of Weeks, 50 days after Passover. The Book of Acts offers a litany of the names of the nations from whence they came: Parthians, Medes, Elamites, residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt, Libya, Cyrene, Rome, along with Cretans and Arabs.
That list includes the entire known world of that era—places we know today as North Africa, the Middle East, southern Europe, the Mediterranean nations. What a diversity of peoples and races, of cultures and conditions!
Amongst them were the disciples of Jesus, who were awaiting the outpouring of the Holy Spirit—and yet not really knowing what to expect. And then the Spirit came upon them—loud and powerful and hot, like a desert wind.
When the wind of the Spirit blew through that gathering of strangers from lands far and wide, it brought them a tremendous gift—the gift of understanding. Where before there had been confusion—perhaps even animosity—now there was community. Where before they had found themselves divided for all the reasons we know so well—culture, race, language—now those differences did not matter.
A new world was being formed. In fact, it is in our time still being formed—but it is not here yet. Our modern history makes that all too plain.
Consider present-day Jerusalem, where far-right Israelis shout provocative slogans and insults while physically attacking Palestinians and journalists; where, only last week, Israel’s government held a cabinet meeting in a tunnel underneath Al-Aqsa Mosque to assert its sovereignty over the holy site.
As violence escalates in Jerusalem and throughout the Middle East, we see how desperately humankind still needs the Spirit’s power to reconcile. Today, in the very city of Pentecost, we find not peace, but hostility. For the people of Jerusalem, it seems, there is no peaceful coexistence.
How ironic! Here we sit—safe and sound in our comfortable sanctuaries—reflecting upon the blessed harmony manifested in Jerusalem so long ago. Yet in Jerusalem itself, there is profound discord, violence, hatred, and bloodshed. Alas, on this Pentecost Sunday, the same may be said for our entire world. It must make God weep!
You know, the Church has long treated Pentecost like a kind of “second-class holy-day”—especially compared to Christmas and Easter. And that’s a shame. Certainly, incarnation and resurrection are two key events of Jesus’ life. But Pentecost is the key event of the Church’s life!
Twice we are told, in today’s text, that those who witnessed the coming of the Spirit were amazed. According to a commentary I read, the ancient Greek word for “amazed” is used but rarely in the Bible—and only to describe someone’s reaction to a miracle.
Well, the birth of the Church was a miracle! And I’m inclined to think that the survival of the Church to the present day is pretty miraculous, too. We tend to take the Church for granted, forgetting what an amazing and wonderful gift it is.
The second chapter of Acts tells us that some of those who witnessed the described events were so utterly astounded that they accused the disciples of public drunkenness. And this accusation prompts the first-ever sermon of the fledgling Church.
In defence of those caught up in the power of the Holy Spirit, Peter rises to preach. And—like the generations of preachers that will follow him—he turns to a biblical text at the start of his sermon.
Peter reaches back some eight centuries to the time of the prophet Joel, who had predicted just this kind of outrageous display:
“Your young men shall see visions, your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your old men shall dream dreams.” (Joel 2:28)
Peter interprets the events they were witnessing as the dawning of the “Day of the Lord,” when God would redeem human history—and give us reasons to dream big!
Quoting Scripture, Peter gives the Church its marching orders: we are to be dreamers, envisioning a new and reconciled humanity living together in peace.
That vision has always been part of the Christian message, since the earliest days of the Church. Admittedly an ambitious project, it is about creating the Kingdom of God—here and now, upon this earth.
We are heirs of that tradition. Pentecost reminds us that the modern Church has inherited that ancient vision—that ideal of building human community in spite of human differences. We shall not be satisfied until that vision breaks forth.
Pentecost is about making real the dream of reconciliation. It is about healing the divisions between people. And it begins with you and me. Remember, the Spirit was not poured out upon an institution, or upon a religion, or upon a nation.
No. It was poured out upon individuals, and it transformed them. And when those individuals saw that others shared their dream of a reconciled humanity, the Church was born. And reconciliation has been on the Church’s agenda—to one degree or another—ever since.
The Pentecostal dream—the healing of the nations—is our responsibility. It is our vocation. This is what we Christians do! We dream of a new world, in which all peoples are one, where war is non-existent, where justice is perfect and hope is realized; where language, race, and culture no longer divide.
That’s the dream. We all know the reality is different. You don’t have to go halfway around the world to discover circumstances wherein human differences create division or distrust—or where fear gives birth to hatred, exclusion, and violence. Examples of all that abound in our own backyard.
Here in our civilized, multi-cultural Canada, we find ourselves with an enormously disproportionate number of First Nations people in the prison population. Furthermore, numerous accusations of racial profiling by law enforcement officers have come to light in the media and in the courts.
But it would be too easy simply to view racism as a problem of the police or the criminal justice system. It runs much deeper than that; it’s in our social order and in our cultural values. It feeds off our insecurities and fears. It tempts us to view every immigrant and every refugee as a potential terrorist. And we in the Church are not impervious to that temptation.
Today, on Pentecost, we remember that when the Church was born 2,000 + years ago, unity was its goal and reconciliation was its purpose. Finding a way to live together in spite of all that drives us apart—that has been our project ever since.
In 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr.—in his Letter from Birmingham Jail—penned a message to white, liberal, Christian ministers. His words sound eerily appropriate still today:
So here we are moving toward the exit of the 20th century with a religious community largely adjusted to the status quo, standing as a tail-light … rather than a headlight leading [people] to higher levels of justice.*
Headlight or tail-light. Here and now, a quarter of the way into the twenty-first century, I think we Christians have to ask ourselves just what role the Church is going to play in human history from this point on. Will it be a headlight illuminating the possibilities that lie ahead? Or will it be a tail-light—accommodated to the world, content with business as usual, turning a blind eye to injustice and human suffering? Will the Church be a beacon heralding the arrival of God’s Kingdom? Or will it be a flickering lantern, fixed to the backside of a rapidly-fading dream?
The noise and wind of the Church’s first Pentecost offer a fiery reminder of the work we have cut out for us. We have unfinished Pentecostal business—globally and right here at home—because, you know, it isn’t enough to simply dream about a new and better world; we also have to work for it. We are the ones being called to build God’s Kingdom! As a friend of mine put it, “Someone has to do the heavy lifting—and it might as well be us in the Church.”
After all, that was our charge at the beginning: to dream, and pray, and work to create a world wherein the differences amongst people will be seen not as barriers and threats, but as reasons for celebration.
Scripture declares that God was in Christ, reconciling the world; that is the good news we proclaim! Now, the Holy Spirit is calling us to live out the words we say.
Today, more than ever, humanity’s future may depend upon the Church’s faithful witness. May God grant us grace to “walk the walk” and not just “talk the talk!” For Jesus’ sake. Amen.
Pray for the peace of Jerusalem:
“May they prosper who love you.
Peace be within your walls
and security within your towers.”
For the sake of my relatives and friends
I will say, “Peace be within you.” (Psalm 122:6-8)