(If you're looking for posts about the book, please scroll down.)
I was back in Southern California last week for an event, and it was great to be back in my hometown. I got to eat at my favorite places with some of my favorite people: Mexican food with my pastor, breakfast at the local coffee shop with my dad and also my oldest friend, my mom and I had lunch at In-N-Out and a dinner at a great new place in Burbank called Granville Café.
I dropped in on my father-in-law on afternoon (my mother-in-law was in London with Julie and Ian), and when I left his place I had an interesting experience. Roger and Carol live in a large condo complex in Glendale—three or four stories on a large footprint. It’s a big place. It was warm as I left, so a lot of the residents had their doors open for air. As I walked down the hallway I heard a different language coming from each open door: Spanish, Armenian, Korean, Tagalog, and even (strangely) English. It was amazing.
1When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. 2Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. 3They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. 4All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.
5Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. 6When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard them speaking in his own language. 7Utterly amazed, they asked: "Are not all these men who are speaking Galileans? 8Then how is it that each of us hears them in his own native language? 9Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome 11(both Jews and converts to Judaism Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!" 12Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, "What does this mean?"
13Some, however, made fun of them and said, "They have had too much wine.
In our passage this morning we’re still in the beginning stages of the development of the church. The remaining disciples have been waiting in Jerusalem. They’ve heard Jesus’ final teaching and seen him taken up into heaven. They’ve stood around looking up at the sky, only to be told to get ready for something really great. They’ve prayed together, read Scripture together and even replaced Judas so they’d have 12 members again.
They did everything they were supposed to do, and so they were just waiting.
Remember that Acts is the second volume of Luke’s story of Jesus and his impact on the world. In his gospel Luke told the story of Jesus from birth to ministry to death to resurrection. Acts tells us what that story means for the world.
So we pick up the story 50 days after Easter—that’s what Pentecost means: 50 days. So we’re 7 weeks or so after the miracle of the resurrection and about 120 people are gathered together…waiting…when this wind kicked up and the people looked like they had flames on them and they started speaking in different languages. There were faithful Jews from all around the world there, and they were shocked to hear the locals speaking their languages perfectly. The reference to Galileans is similar to what you might call in the States, ‘hillbillies’ or ‘yokels.’ Galilee just wasn’t known for producing special or important people, but now these guys turn out to be UN quality translators, speaking and sharing the gospel in real languages from around the world.
Did you catch the responses from the onlookers? I love this part. Some of them are amazed and perplexed, Luke tells us. They look around at what’s happening and ask each other ‘What does this mean?’
But the other group of onlookers has a different reaction. They see the wind, maybe even see the flames, and they hear the jumble of languages all being spoken at the same time. What was their reaction? Those guys must be drunk. They’re hammered. You can see them shaking fingers at their kids and saying: ‘See? That’s why you shouldn’t drink too much.’
The question asked by the first group is the same one we have to wrestle with: What does all of this mean?
Well, something has clearly happened to these people. The scene is pretty dramatic, with all the wind and flames, but it’s also amazing that when the faithful spoke in those foreign languages, they were declaring the wonders of God.
Even Peter—the same guy who denied Jesus and demonstrated in dozens of ways that he wasn’t ready for the responsibility he was given—even Peter stands up, recites the same passage from Joel that you heard Connie read earlier, and then he preaches the first real sermon of Christian history.
And it’s a Doozey. He goes back into Israel’s history and brings them all the way up to the present time. He links Jesus to King David and shows how the smart people of the day managed to miss the point about who the Messiah was, and what the Messiah would do. The listeners, it says later on, were ‘cut to the heart’ by Peter’s words, and came to faith by the thousands.
What is it that happens in our text this morning? The disciples and the hundred or so people who were with them were given the gift of the Holy Spirit of God, just as Jesus promised, and the gift changed them—it changed their abilities and values and goals and courage.
In Shakespeare’s Henry V, when the crown is placed on Henry’s head, he changes. In Henry IV parts 1 and 2 he’s Prince Hal, the wild party boy who drinks and carouses and never takes anything seriously. But when he becomes king he changes. Shakespeare wanted us to believe that kingship was divinely ordained, and that God somehow prepared him for his role—for his responsibilities.
That’s what’s happening in our passage. The Holy Spirit comes, and suddenly Peter can explain the gospel of Jesus Christ using the entire narrative of the Bible. The Spirit comes, and Peter becomes the rock the church will be built on.
But I like the part about the languages. I like that bystanders and immigrants could suddenly hear the good news of Jesus Christ in a way that made sense to them. I like that when the Spirit came, those people could hear how much God loved them in the same language they learned from their mothers and fathers.
That’s meaningful in a place like London, or Los Angeles, or any other major city where people from all over the world live side by side. At this church, when I taught a Bible study last year, we had 12 people come to explore the Scriptures together. Out of those 12 people there were 8 countries represented, and it was wonderful.
But you know, the idea of God’s Spirit inhabiting us individually and as a community—the idea of God entering into us and changing us from the inside is hard for us to comprehend. But think of this passage a different way. Think of this as a message of hope and a challenge to all of us to remember that the gospel of Jesus Christ is for everyone—for every nation, tongue and tribe. The message we’re called to share comes in unlimited sizes and colors—it fits for everyone when it’s communicated in a way that makes sense—and it’s God’s Holy Spirit that does the heavy lifting.
Remember our working definition of the church as we move through Acts: A true church will be engaged in the culture, grounded in the Scriptures, and alive to the Spirit.
That’s the miracle of Pentecost. The faithful are gathered, praying and reading the Scriptures, when the Holy Spirit comes and brings them new power—new strength for the task ahead. Notice the first thing they do. They don’t sit around looking at the wind and the fire. They don’t argue about who got the biggest flame. They don’t even pause to make plans or sing songs or schedule a Council meeting.
When the Spirit comes they start sharing the gospel in the language of the world—they start engaging the culture. And not just their own culture, they engage cultures they didn’t even know or understand before that moment. They were engaged in the culture, grounded in the Scriptures, and alive to the work of the Holy Spirit in each one of their lives.
Does that model for the church make more sense now that we’ve reached the Pentecost story? It does for me.
The gift of the Holy Spirit makes everything different for those who are open to it. The Holy Spirit empowers us to live, love, spend, give, invest, risk and connect differently. The Spirit empowers this group of very different people to gather together as a community of shared faith, no matter where we’re from or what we have or even who the heck we think we are.
It’s the Holy Spirit that takes us in all of our flawed splendor—in all of our brokenness—in spite of all of our resistance to his love. It’s the Spirit that takes us as we are and empowers us to be the church.
That’s what we celebrate today. That’s why we wear red and sing a little louder and pray just a little harder for the future of Christ’s church in the world. From Burma to Burbank and from London to Lebanon, the message of the gospel has a place in every human heart and in every human culture.
The call to us is to allow the Spirit to speak through us and share that message in meaningful ways.
When I think back on my walk down the hallway of my in-laws’ apartment complex, I think that that’s what it might have sounded in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost. People from every corner of the globe talking, sharing, arguing, living. I wonder what it would be like to knock on their doors and share the gospel with them in their language—perfectly and without accent. I wonder if they would enjoy that, or if they’d think I was drunk.
This weekend we’ve been a part of a celebration of Pentecost all over London, and today we’ve had a baptism and we’re about to join together in Communion. If we take anything away from the Pentecost, make it this: As a part of a worldwide family of faith we have a call on our lives both as individuals and as a community to share our faith stories with other people in meaningful ways. The Gospel has something for absolutely everyone, and has something for absolutely everyone to do.