Lessons for the Feast of Pentecost, Year A: 1 Corinthians 12:3b-13; Acts 2:1-21; Psalm 104:25-35, 37; and, John 20:19-23
Shavu’ot, Weeks, Pentecost
Fifty days had passed since the Passover celebration, so there were a lot of people in Jerusalem for Shavu’ot, the Feast of Weeks, called Pentecost in Greek (meaning “fifty days”). Shavu’ot is a celebration surrounding the barley harvest, which became historically tied to the day Mose received the tablets of the law on Mount Sinai. This was not an ordinary Feast of Weeks, however. Jesus had been killed fifty days earlier, then he rose from the dead and ascended to the Father. But before ascending, he had asked his followers to remain in Jerusalem until the promised helper he had arrived. Today was the day!
As the narrative explains,
Suddenly from heaven, there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them.Acts 2:2-3
Now, have you ever wondered what they said? We discover later, after the two and a half verse roll call of nations, that the followers of Jesus were speaking about the wonders of God. But were these wonders reminiscent of God’s wonders in the Hebrew Bible? Or, were they wonders heard as personalized for each individual? Or, were they wonders of God yet unknown, still to come?
We might never know what was actually spoken by those faithful followers under the influence of the Spirit on that fateful day of Pentecost. But, it was certainly something special. What could possibly have been said that drew people in from the streets in droves? What could have been said that caused some to ask, “What does this mean?,” and others proclaim, “They are filled with new wine?” While my curiosity is piqued regarding what was actually said, there is no doubt that this was a miracle – a miracle of speaking and a miracle of hearing: A miracle of speaking through which the Spirit gave individuals the gift of language to describe the mighty works of God; and, a miracle of hearing by which those who in the streets were able to hear and understand.
I Needed a Seat
Have you ever been in a situation where nobody spoke your language? I can just imagine those foreigners in Jerusalem, from the four corners of the world, hearing their native tongue. It was something that felt like home, and something maybe stirred inside them. Roman, Libyan, Elamite, they were drawn nearby what they heard and by what was being said.
I was in a foreign land once where I didn’t speak the language, and then I heard someone speak to me in English. It was during my first school break while in Italy. I decided to visit southwestern Austria, from where my grandmother’s family came. I purchased a train ticket ahead of time so that I’d be prepared to board and be on my adventure. I had my ticket; but, it was an overnight train and I did not have a seat reservation. And, on the Austrian train that I was on, this meant that I had to find an unreserved seat. Now, there aren’t exactly flashing signs above unreserved seats, and the rather stout porter was unhelpful and did not want me to board the train. It was almost time for the train to leave soI managed to evade the porter and boarded the train through another car.
But I still needed a seat. I spoke a bit of German, a remnant from university; but, as my heart raced and adrenaline pumped, my German that came out might as well have been an imaginary language made up by my 6-year-old niece. The train was moving by now. Confused and a little scared, I stepped into a sleeper car that had appeared empty. Sitting alone in the compartment on the bottom bunk was a middle-aged Austrian man. Perhaps no one had reserved those seats, so I attempted to ascertain some information in an obvious rushed, incoherent, and jumbled mess of German words. Who knows what I actually asked the poor man! But then he introduced himself as Tomas and, sensing all of my anxiety, he replied in English.
My heart was full. At that moment my world stopped spinning. He said that it might be best to wait in the top bunk to see if it was reserved. Shortly after, the porter came for tickets, and with other passengers. The spots were reserved and I needed to leave. Tomas advocated for me and I spent most of the night hopping from car to car, looking for an unreserved seat. I even spent some time in the luggage car.
But in that place where I was lost and confused, someone spoke my language, the language I needed to hear to make sense of my situation.
Meet People Where They Are
But, you know, speaking someone else’s language need not be literal. And for most of us, it will not be. Instead, it is a metaphor for speaking so that someone can hear you. It is a metaphor for meeting people where they are.
A few years ago there was a viral photo of a group of young people hanging out of the window of a drive-thru coffee shop, all holding the hands of a middle-aged woman in her car. The woman was visibly distraught at the drive-thru window, and in response, the barista asked her about her day. The woman explained that her husband had just died. “There is nothing more that you can say,” the barista responded, “we’ve got this.” And that group of workers walked to the window, grabbed her hand, and said a prayer. One of the workers said of the moment, “I’m not religious but my own beliefs were secondary at the moment to the needs of that woman. She could have said she wanted an apple and would have gone and planted a tree and grown her an apple. It just happened to be religion that she wanted.”
That’s a miracle of speaking. They met her where she was, in her current condition, and they spoke the language that she needed to hear at that moment. It’s like how Jesus met Zacchaeus where he was, albeit in a tree. It’s like how Jesus called the disciples while they were at their places of work. It’s like how Jesus spoke the language of the woman at the well, someone so different from him in every way. Jesus met her where she was. Jesus spoke her language.
This is the work of the Holy Spirit, calling the followers of Jesus to speak words of good news so that others can hear them. That doesn’t mean that others will hear those words. Some will, like they did on that first Pentecost, accuse us of being “filled with new wine.” But it is, nonetheless, our invitation as followers of Jesus to allow the Holy Spirit to guide us to places where good news needs to be proclaimed.
Two events filled the news cycles these last few days, both in their own ways spoke good news into the darkness. The first was the launch of the SpaceX Crew Dragon Demo 2 aboard the Falcon 3 rocket. Over a million people watched the launch live, with well-wishes and blessings coming in from all over the world. I mean, Bob and Doug were the astronauts. Are there two better “dad” names, as my daughter noted, and my wife was struck by their two little boys, beaming with pride as their dads ventured off to space. Was this the voice of the Spirit? I don’t know. But, the event was a voice of joy and dignity in success, a bit of hope for the future in dark times.
Now, the second event, or rather events, are a bit darker but I think they point to the voice of the Spirit even more profoundly. The news, after all, has been filled with the nationwide wave of protests over the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Thousands have taken to the streets and parks and byways to call attention to a renewed and growing national crisis of racism, personal, institutional, and systemic. We might abhor the violence that has ridden the coattails of peaceful protest like some parasite, but voices are calling out from the wilderness, “Repent and be saved.” We lament and we cry, but will we hear them? Or will we accuse them of “being filled with new wine?” The voice of the Spirit is being raised.
Speak the Good News Unhindered-ly
We, as followers of Jesus, are empowered by the Spirit to speak and to hear the good news unhindered-ly. I don’t know if that is a word: unhindered-ly; but, the adverb characterizes well the book of Acts. It is, in fact, the last word of the narrative as the author describes Paul’s sharing of the gospel unhindered-ly despite being in custody and awaiting execution.
Friends, it is our baptismal mandate and our invitation as followers of Jesus to hear the good news and to share the good news unhindered-ly. It is our responsibility as followers of Jesus to allow the Holy Spirit to guide us to places where a word needs to be spoken. Who needs a miracle of speaking today? Who needs to be met where they are? In John 14, Jesus said that he would give us a helper and an advocate who would teach us and remind us of the things that Jesus taught us. We have that same helper today! It is the Holy Spirit! What a powerful resource and guide!
So what do you say? What will happen on this Pentecost Sunday? To whom will go and to whom will you speak in the power and the language of the Spirit?