The Day of Pentecost
TEXT: Acts 2:1-21
When the Feast of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Without warning there was a sound like a strong wind, gale force—no one could tell where it came from. It filled the whole building. Then, like a wildfire, the Holy Spirit spread through their ranks, and they started speaking in a number of different languages as the Spirit prompted them. (Acts 2:1-4 from The Message*)
It is a familiar story to most of us, isn’t it? Through many years of worship services on the Day of Pentecost, we’ve heard this story told over and over again. I’ll bet some of you could almost recite it by heart—or at least manage to hit the high points:
- The disciples are all together, meeting in a house.
- Then, there’s a mighty rush of wind—and with the wind, fire!
- Tongues of fire rest upon each one of them, as they are filled with the Holy Spirit, and the Spirit empowers them to preach the gospel in foreign languages they have never learned.
Then all the visitors and natives of Jerusalem are “amazed and perplexed” by this astonishing display:
“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 2:7-11).
Of course, some want to dismiss it by saying the disciples have stayed too long at a champagne breakfast. But Peter sets them straight:
“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 … [and] everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved’” (Acts 2:16-17, 21).
Yeah, it’s a familiar enough story. And as Peter’s evangelistic sermon continues, it takes up almost the entirety of chapter two of Acts—the next 18 verses, in fact! And when he was finished, “those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added” to the church (2:41).
That’s some altar call! And that’s why we remember this day as “the birthday of the Christian Church.” (I don’t know if they had cake back then.)
This was what Jesus meant when, before his Ascension, he told the disciples that they would “be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now” (Acts 1:5).
Making the connection with Hebrew prophecy, Peter quotes the Book of Joel:
I will pour out my spirit on all flesh;
your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
your old men shall dream dreams,
and your young men shall see visions.
Even on the male and female slaves,
in those days, I will pour out my spirit.
Although Joel reported those words centuries earlier—and the Jews, at least, must have heard them before—the message they carried was jarring and revolutionary: the Spirit was to be poured out on all flesh—not just to chosen individuals.
This was a mark of the Messianic age, and it was a game-changer! From now on, things would be profoundly different. And perhaps no one would be changed as drastically as the disciples themselves. Because from this point forward, they would no longer be merely disciples, but apostles. No longer students, but proclaimers. Proclaimers of a radical new way—not just a new kind of religion, but a brand new way of life. A whole new way of being the church.
That’s really what Pentecost is all about. A whole new way of being the church. And for the past two millennia, the Spirit of Pentecost has remained alive and well—and forcefully disruptive—within the Church of Jesus Christ.
If you’ve done even a little bit of reading of church history, you’ve surely noticed how many, many times the church has re-defined and re-invented itself. In fact, I think that it is precisely because of this adaptability that the church has managed to survive: through the power of the Spirit, the church has been able to change with the times, even while holding on to what’s essential.
Which is an interesting thing to consider, in our present circumstances. Today, once again, we have to find a new way of being the church. That, essentially, is the task facing us in this era of COVID-19 and social distancing. For the time being, at least, many (if not most) of our faith-communities cannot meet in person, in the usual worship space. In the province of Alberta, as of right now, we would be allowed to meet, if the following conditions were met:
- congregants seated two metres apart;
- no singing;
- those 65 years of age and older discouraged from attending; and
- no more than 50 worshippers at a time.
Frankly, even if we could guarantee that somehow we would enforce all those rules (“Okay … the first 50 of you are allowed in … the rest of you go home!”) … I’m not sure I’d want to ask people to risk it. Besides, in most of our mainstream churches, if you banned all the senior citizens there wouldn’t be many folks present, anyhow. So the church I’m part of now will, I suspect, continue with live-streaming services at least until there’s a vaccine (or sufficient herd immunity).
On the surface … well, that’s a bummer. However, from conversations I’ve had (not in person, don’t worry) it sounds like way more of us than I might have guessed actually do understand that the church is not a building, but a body. A community. The Greek word for that is ekklesia.
That is a key understanding. As someone put it, “We can be the church anywhere.” Even online, watching in real time on Facebook or YouTube, or interactively via Zoom meetings. Twenty-first century social media technology is, I think, proving to be a greater blessing than perhaps we ever imagined it could be.
We can keep on being the church just as long as we can connect with one another through worship and praise and sharing. Even online, the ekklesia remains active and alive. As I said, that is a key understanding—a foundational understanding—when it comes to this business of doing church differently. We need to become innovators. And that, of course, demands something of us.
In order to step away from what is familiar—and step toward what is unfamiliar, untested, unknown … In order to do that, you require a lot of faith. Faith in the Spirit’s ability to lead you … as well as faith in those who are your companions on the journey.
Let’s keep the faith, my friends. For that is the Spirit of Pentecost. May it keep burning in each of our hearts. Together, we will get through this.
* The Message Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson