The Spirit can be a funny thing, can’t it? How many of us can say we fully understand who the Holy Spirit is and what the Holy Spirit does? Probably none of us, this side of heaven. I remember in seminary, in our Theology 101 class, when we were working through each person, or each article as it is called, of the Apostles’ Creed. When we came to the third article, the third person, the Holy Spirit, we had to write a short paper about the Spirit. After reading our papers, our professor came to class one morning and said, “You people just don’t get the Holy Spirit, do you?” Who could argue with her?
It seems even Scripture can’t argue with her. When Jesus meets with one of the religious leaders Nicodemus, Jesus tells him, ““The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:8). Anyone ever tried to understand the wind? We have meteorologists who can track it with charts and maps, but if you’re in the middle of a hurricane, the experience trumps anything any chart or map can tell you.
Luke’s story in Acts of the coming of the Spirit can be equally perplexing. He, too, finds the Spirit hard to describe, calling it “a sound like the rush of the wind” and “tongues as of fire.” Those of us who are in school or who still remember being in school, how were we taught to analyze a story? You look at the characters and character development, the plot and the story’s setting, its time and place. But Acts seems to have little interest in the things that typically make for a “good story.” Instead, the story is in service to the community: Luke seeks to reveal some truth about the community – that is, the church – something which can only be known by sharing this story, by letting go of our analytical questions, and by letting the story have its way with us. Sometimes this story has given the church hope. Sometimes this story has convicted the church and found it wanting. What will the story say to the church today? Let’s find out.
So I invite you to let go. Read Jesus’ story for his Church (Acts 2:1-21), and let it have its way with you.
Right from the start, Luke’s story shows its focus is community, for it begins with community – the disciples were all together in one place, in a room of a house. The story begins with community, and it will also end with community, but the two will look very different.
While they are all together in one place, suddenly there is that sound like the rush of the wind and tongues as of fire. Filled with the Holy Spirit, they begin to speak in other languages. When we hear about tongues and speaking in other languages, we may think Pentecost means Pentecostalism and its emphasis on the gift of speaking in tongues. But that kind of speaking in tongues requires an interpretation. Here the goal is not interpretation, but proclamation. No interpreter was needed, as we quickly discover, when the setting shifts from inside their house to outside on the streets, where there is a crowd of people already present.
We in the church often forget that Pentecost didn’t start with the birth of the church and the coming of the Spirit. It started over a thousand years before that. Pentecost was an agricultural festival established by God through Moses on Mount Sinai (Exodus 34:22). At Pentecost, the 50th day after Passover, farmers brought their first sheaves of wheat from their crops, partly as a sign of gratitude, and partly as a prayer that the rest of their crops would be just as fruitful. But that day on Mount Sinai wasn’t just the day God put a bunch of festivals on the calendar; it was also the day the people received the law, when God gave God’s people the way of life by which they must now carry out his purposes.
Pentecost didn’t start with the church, but it is fitting that the church started at Pentecost, for it was this day when God gave us God’s people the power of life by which we, too, must now carry out his purposes.
On this particular Pentecost, as was typical of every Pentecost, people from all over the region were present. They were gathered together for the sake of the festival, when suddenly something else drew them together – first the sound of the wind, and then the sound of their native language in a foreign city. Every tongue was on the tongues…of Galileans of all people!
You may have heard the joke: What do you call a person who speaks three languages? A trilingual. What do you call a person who speaks two languages? A bilingual. What do you call a person who speaks one language? An American. (It’s a sad commentary on us, but one that is hopefully changing.) The same joke could be told here: What do you call a person who speaks multiple languages? Certainly not a Galilean. But here they were, speaking not just a few languages, but the native language of every nation under heaven: from Elam in the far east, to Rome in the far west, from African nations such as Egypt and Libya, to the desert nation of Arabia and the island nation of Crete. Through this miraculous witnessing to people gathered from across most of the known world, the Spirit gave the disciples a glimpse of Jesus’ calling to be his witnesses to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8).
And not just to the ends of the earth, but to the ends of time. If you go back and read over the names of the various nations in Acts 2, some of these nations no longer existed at the time of this event. They were ancient people groups from long ago. But somehow they were there that day. It’s as if, by bringing these past nations into this global summit of present nations, God were showing the world how something he started centuries before was now coming to fruition…
It was an unbelievable event – awe-inspiring for some, unsettling and threatening for others. So, human nature being what it is, the crowd had to come up with some explanation to rationalize the irrational: “They’re drunk!” What other explanation could there be?
But there is another explanation, says Peter. If the first gift of the Spirit was the gift of communication, the second was certainly giving Peter courage to speak. This disciple, who just a few weeks beforehand had denied and deserted Jesus, now finds both the nerve and the words to proclaim what God is up to by citing a prophecy of Joel. A prophecy that captured the people’s hope for centuries, that answered the question the disciples asked Jesus right before his ascension (Acts 1:6). The question that threads its way throughout the book of Acts, that perhaps even threads its way through our hearts and minds today: “Lord, is this the time? Is this the time when you will restore the kingdom? Is this the time when you will finally make everything right again – when you will redeem, restore, and make all things new?”
The answer is yes – and not yet. That’s how theologians today describe the time in which we are living – between the already and the not yet – between the time when Jesus came and launched the start of his Kingdom, and the time when he will come again and complete his mission. The early Christians also believed they were living in between the last days and the ultimate last day, the day of the Lord, as Joel describes it. The way that they knew they were living in these in-between times? Because of what Joel tells them will be a sign: “I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh” (Acts 2:17). Before, in the Old Testament, the Spirit had been given to a select few – prophets, priests, kings, and other so-called “righteous” people. But now in these last days, on this Pentecost day, that same Spirit is given to all kinds of people – slave and free, men and women, young and old. And look where it began! Not in the temple or university or seminary or among other so-called “professionals,” but in an ordinary room with a group of ordinary people who simply had been willing to wait and pray together for God’s next move.
A good friend of mine Joan Gray compares these disciples’ “efforts” to the difference between a rowboat and a sailboat. In her book Sailboat Church, she says most of us are skilled rowers. Even if we’ve never been in a rowboat, if we were to find ourselves in one, we’d probably figure out how to make the boat move, because a rowboat relies on our efforts, our muscles. But we’re not all skilled sailors, because a sailboat depends on a different “muscle”: harnessing the power of the wind. Really, the main skill of a sailor is positioning oneself in the same path as the wind – because if you want to catch the wind, you have to put yourself where the wind is blowing.
That’s what the disciples did: They raised their sails and then prayed for wind. They were open and willing for that wind to take them wherever it blew, whether it was miles away from their comfort zone or just across the street from it – for where else do we have more need for the Spirit to be our Comforter (John 14:16) than when we are out of our comfort zones?
In his book Forgotten God: Reversing our Tragic Neglect of the Holy Spirit, author and pastor Francis Chan asks, “Why would we need to experience the Comforter if our lives are already comfortable? It is only those who put their lives at risk for the gospel who will most often experience Jesus’ being ‘with you always to the end of the age’ (Matthew 28:20). Though this verse is true for all believers (of course God is always with us), if we are never alone or feeling like we need Him, how much do we care or need to know that God is with us?”
Lutheran pastor Dan Mangler tells the story of his family’s Shetland sheep dog named Amber. Amber loved windy days. No matter how windy it was, whether it was a gentle breeze or a gale-like gust, Amber would stand on their front lawn, face the direction from which the wind was coming, stick her nose in the air – and immediately enter doggy heaven, totally oblivious to anything going on around her. Mangler says he finally figured out why: Her world, for the most part, was confined to the house or the yard. But the wind brought her experiences of a world beyond her power to visit – the smell of a dozen kinds of trees, the smell of a dozen kinds of squirrels, and of all kinds of lands and animals and peoples. When she smelled the wind, Amber caught whiff of the whole world.
Now, not to say who is the dog in this story, but I pray we all are – because that’s the invitation of Pentecost: to catch wind of what God is doing in the world, and then to join him in that mission.
So may we raise our sails this Pentecost Day. May we do whatever it takes to put ourselves where the wind is blowing. And when we catch a whiff of God’s Spirit, may it lead us to visions beyond anything we’ve ever dreamed. In the name of the Father, the Son, …and the Holy Spirit. Amen.