Acts 2:1-21 Pentecost 9 June 2019
After hearing the sound of a rushing, violent wind, and seeing the divided tongues like fire resting on each of them, and hearing those filled with the Spirit speak in other languages, it is no surprise that those present ask each other the question, “What does this mean?” (Acts 2:12).
Of course, some think they are drunk from wine from a party.
“What does this mean?”
It’s a great question. People have been interpreting this passage for centuries, trying to figure out what it means.
This Acts passage has a special place in my historical memory, since I spent my childhood and adolescent years in a Methodist church with Pentecostal leanings.
I heard and saw many things in that congregation. I heard people speaking in tongues. I saw people get slain in the Spirit. I heard ecstatic music with drums, organs, guitars and brass instruments. I saw people clapping, dancing and shouting. There were words of phrophesy, wisdom. There were healings, teaching, preaching. People used their gifts of hospitality, mercy and generous giving.
Pentecostalism, in all its forms, has exploded all over the world and is a major force in global Christianity, such that we have charismatic Catholics and charismatic Anglicans, perhaps even charismatic Kiama Jamberoo Uniting Church people. The world’s Christian population has shifted from western countries and this shift has been due to the tremendous growth of Pentecostal communities worldwide — in sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America and numerous parts of Asia.
The largest Christian congregation in the world, the Yoido Full Gospel Church, is in Seoul, South Korea, which claims 800,000 members.
As a person who has been in the church my whole life, I’ve seen and experienced all kinds of things in church in general, and in the church of my youth in particular. The rhythmic clapping and hand raising were captivating at times, to watch adults engrossed in worshipping God freely is amazing.
But what does it really mean? Or more accurately, what are its meanings?
Pentecost is the human experience of the first fruits of the Spirit. As Christians, it is vital to attempt to answer the question, “What does this mean?” because Pentecost — and Pentecostalism — is not going away; it is on the rise, if not in actual experience, in the collective consciousness of the global church.
The church is often a religious gatekeeper of who’s in and who’s out, but what Pentecost reveals is that which is different or foreign may actually be the gift we need. Pentecost has many meanings, but at the core of its meanings is the idea of gift.
Pentecost suggests that the ground of our spiritual life is fundamentally a divine gift. The coming of the Spirit is a gift, and all we can do, like the disciples, is wait for it (Acts 1:4), wait for the promise to be fulfilled. A gift is not something of our own creation; it just comes.
“And suddenly from heaven there came a sound …” (Acts 2:2 NRSV). The sound came. The Spirit came on divine volition. The Spirit is God’s gift to us. Divine agency is the prelude to human action.
We hear that “all of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability” (2:4). The Spirit gives the people the ability to speak in other languages.
“The first gift of the Spirit is the gift of speech” (Will Willimon), multilingual speech, affirming the tight connection between word and Spirit throughout Scripture (Genesis 1, Luke 4). The gift of words is a gift of the Spirit, and the words we speak are about God, not ourselves.
Tongues of fire “rested on each of them” (2:3) so others might be ignited. The gift is to be spoken and shared; so, there’s also the gift of understanding, though in Acts not everyone understood. Some were amazed, for sure. “But others sneered and said, ‘They are filled with new wine’” (2:13).
People don’t always understand the move of God or what is being said or played. It’s like an unknown tongue but the gift of the Spirit works toward comprehension and common ground.
When disciples are filled with the Spirit and speak in other languages as the Spirit enables them to do so, “Jews from every nation under heaven” become bewildered and amazed, because “each one heard them speaking in the native language of each” (2:5-6). The miracle is not the physical ability of hearing, but it is the understanding of what is said, despite the different cultures of the speakers.
Because they understand, they have to ask, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans?” (2:7). The speakers were not of the same ethnicity and culture, yet they heard and understood. They weren’t talking past each other. The lens of Pentecost urges us to seek understanding, not mere hearing. Understanding is just as important as speaking, and both are gifts of the Spirit at Pentecost.
The word is not monolingual. Pentecost reveals the Spirit’s embrace of cultural particularity and context and promotes “essentially worldwide proclamation” (Michael Welker).
Translation into each language demonstrates a divine care for diverse cultures, ethnicities and languages. In the Spirit, diversity is not a dirty word but a beautiful one in the light of God. If you have problems with diversity, you have to take it up with the Spirit, who creates diversity in the first place as the gospel is expressed in particular contexts, cultures, languages and bodies. As we say in the Uniting Church “unity in diversity”.
To have everyone speaking English or have certain ethnic names changed to English may be questioned in the burning light of Pentecost. We should not erase our names, our languages, our cultures, our skin colour, our hair texture, the colour of our eyes, the shape of our bodies, our identities. We should not obliterate whom and what God has created in order to suit our needs and comforts and opinions. God made all of us with our own native tongue, and when we are tempted to erase that which is different, it is an affront to God and God’s collective body.
Pentecost is the creation of a particular kind of human community, a God-centred community. The cultural particularity of the Spirit’s gift is not contrary to a universal quality. The gift of understanding or hearing in context reveals the common message of the Spirit: God. What the people heard in their native languages was the message about “God’s deeds of power” (2:11).
In whatever language, God is central. God is both the object and subject of life in the Spirit. A person is given a gift by God, through the Spirit, to speak of God and to build up the Body of Christ, the Church. Pentecost privileges God as the universal content of our message, though through particular cultural means.
Though God-centred, Pentecost reveals the gift of a community that represents boundary-breaking realities across culture, ethnicity, race and language. In the Spirit, there is no room for segregated enclaves that promote any sort of elitism and superiority, as if one model or way is the best spiritual mode. The Spirit breaks us out of our totalizing patterns, breaks us out of seeing and understanding God in only one way, one theology, one perspective.
The Spirit leads us to different views and voices, a different way of seeing the world and God. The Spirit leads us to embrace diversity as a gift of God while the Spirit moves us toward integration, collaboration and mutuality between different voices as a way to form community.
Without different tongues or languages, the fire of the Spirit might be dimmer. But with one another from every tribe and nation in the unity of the Spirit, we may come to understand the light and beauty of God in a fuller way.
The Basis of Union (para 13) GIFTS AND MINISTRIES The Uniting Church affirms that every member of the Church is engaged to confess the faith of Christ crucified and to be his faithful servant. It acknowledges with thanksgiving that the one Spirit has endowed the members of Christ’s Church with a diversity of gifts, and that there is no gift without its corresponding service: all ministries have a part in the ministry of Christ. ……The Uniting Church will (thereafter) provide for the exercise by men and women of the gifts God bestows upon them and will order its life in response to God’s call to enter more fully into mission.
In other words, your voice matters, and you are a essential to the church and to the community. There are gifts of the Spirit, and Pentecost reveals that you are important in your particular culture, ethnicity, voice, language, body, idiosyncrasies, interests, fields, talents, some with hair, others with not so much hair.
You have something to contribute to the church and world that only you can do. So: “Be you.” What does Pentecost mean? If you aren’t being you, we can’t really be us.