May 20, 2018
It’s been fifty days since Easter. Fifty days of praying. Fifty days of anticipation. Fifty days of wondering what comes next. During these past fifty days, we’ve been reading from the book of Acts instead of the Old Testament each Sunday. Last week I mentioned that instead of “Second Luke” or “The Acts of the Apostles,” it might be more appropriate to call this book “The Acts of the Holy Spirit,” because the Holy Spirit has been on the move.
We’ve seen Jewish Christians become aware that Gentiles can be Christians, too. We’ve seen the established religious leaders of the day confounded by healing and preaching that they thought they’d gotten rid of when they crucified Jesus.
And we’ve seen thousands upon thousands of lives changed forever by believing that Jesus is the Christ and being baptized in his name.
Last week, we went back to the very beginning of Acts, to set the scene for
today’s passage. We heard Jesus say, “You will be my witnesses,” just before he was lifted into a cloud. The disciples who saw this happen headed back to Jerusalem and started praying. Whatever they were praying for, whatever we’ve been waiting for, this is it. We’ve arrived at Pentecost.
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.2 And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3 Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
5 Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem.6 And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. 7 Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 9 Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11 Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” 12 All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?”
13 But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”
14 But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them,
“Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. 15 Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. 16 No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:
17 ‘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.
18 Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
and they shall prophesy.
19 And I will show portents in the heaven above
and signs on the earth below,
blood, and fire, and smoky mist.
20 The sun shall be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood,
before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.
21 Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’
The flames and rushing wind of Pentecost usually get most of our attention in this story. If that loud wind came rushing through this room right now, with divided tongues like fire appearing over our heads, I think we’d probably be more than just a little frightened.
We like our worship services to be orderly and predictable. We like our Holy Spirit to show up in words and music, but not necessarily in the chaos of noisy wind and flying flames. We like our Holy Spirit to be tame, to show some self-control. We don’t want our hair to get mussed or our mouths to start speaking words we don’t know in languages we’ve never learned.
And, usually, the Holy Spirit does its best to get through to us within these boundaries we like to maintain, this order that we find comforting. After all, isn’t the Greek word that Jesus used in John’s gospel reading we heard earlier – “parakletos” – translated as Advocate or Comforter? Well, yes, but the word means more than that.
It literally means “one who comes alongside.” Certainly, there is an understanding that this means to come alongside us to comfort us in our confusion and despair, or to come alongside us as an Advocate would in a court of law. But if we look carefully at Luke’s description of Pentecost, we will notice that the way the Holy Spirit first descends on these gathered disciples is anything but comfortable.
Think about it – a loud rush of violent wind sweeps in and fills the house where the disciples are praying together. This does not sound comforting, does it? And at some point, the sound of their many voices, each speaking in a different language, gets loud enough that people outside the house can hear it, and they start to gather around, wondering what it means.
Luke doesn’t specifically state that the disciples go outside, but there isn’t any way they could have stayed inside for what happens next. That violent rushing wind must have propelled them outdoors, where people from every nation could identify their own languages being spoken. And when Peter stands up to explain what is happening, he addresses “all who live in Jerusalem,” so we get the sense that the wind and flames inside the house have now spilled out into the streets.
The Holy Spirit is on the move. Suddenly, the word “Pentecost” takes on new meaning. It means more than a Jewish harvest festival. It now means an outpouring of the Holy Spirit that signals the beginning of Christ’s church. The Kingdom of God is no longer confined to the heavenly realms. The Kingdom of God is not just “at hand” or “near.” The Kingdom of God is here. It is now.
Pentecost gives us another sign, one we may have experienced, even when the flames and wind weren’t visible. This sign has powerful and long-term effects. It is a manifestation of the Spirit that we continue to experience on a regular basis. I’m talking about prophecy.
For Peter and those early disciples, prophecy is truth-telling, not fortune-telling. It is naming the places and ways where God is active in the world. It is proclaiming the word of God and identifying God’s salvation at work. Peter does more than name prophecy in his sermon, he gives us a perfect example of it. We learn what prophecy is by watching him prophesy.
There’s a timelessness associated with real prophecy. Prophecy speaks to the present time, but prophecy also draws on promises and images from the past. It reminds us of prior testimony about God’s activity as found in scripture. It also involves ideas and promises that point toward the future, for Pentecost points toward the day of the Lord when God will ultimately accomplish salvation for all people who believe (2:20-21). For prophecy to be effective, the people hearing it have to understand what they hear.
Those rustic Galileans speaking a multitude of languages certainly captured the attention of all the people who had crowded into Jerusalem for the Pentecost festival. Capturing attention is one thing; making sense is another. The crowd wanted an explanation; they were looking for meaning. Peter’s entire speech answers the basic question they ask in verse 12: “What does this mean?”
Peter points to the prophet Joel for an answer, and he adapts Joel’s message to fit the occasion. Joel’s original testimony about God takes on new meaning in the person of Jesus Christ and this new outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Peter emphasizes that
God’s Spirit is bestowed on “all flesh,” given to young and old, to women and men alike, for one purpose only: so that they will prophesy.
Prophetic voices help us see the world as it really is. They point out to us the ways the Spirit is at work, and what that means for us. Prophets show how present events might connect to God and God’s purposes; they remind us that we belong to God. And we belong to each other as members of Christ’s body. The Holy Spirit comes alongside us, equipping us and making us bold to tell God’s story.
The Holy Spirit is more than Comforter, more than Advocate. The Holy Spirit comes alongside to strengthen us and give us courage for the daunting work of proclaiming Christ to a world that doesn’t always want to hear this good news. Sometimes, the Holy Spirit gives us the swift kick we need to get up, and get moving.
David Lose writes, “The Spirit doesn’t solve our problems, but invites us to see possibilities we would not have seen otherwise. Rather than remove our fear, the Spirit grants us courage to move forward. Rather than promise safety, the Spirit promises God’s presence. Rather than remove us from a turbulent world, or even settle the turbulence, the Spirit enables us to keep our footing amid the tremors.”
On May 24th in 1738, John Wesley reluctantly attended a meeting in a house on Aldersgate Street in London. As he listened to someone read Luther’s preface to the book of Romans, he felt his heart grow strangely warm, and he experienced the assurance that his sins had been forgiven. Wesley went on to develop a “method” for living a holy life that calls for full and complete commitment to the way of Christ.
Wesley’s experience 280 years ago led to a movement of the Holy Spirit that is still at work throughout the world, despite repeated human efforts to quench it. The Holy Spirit will not be tamed. God’s Spirit cannot be limited by our feeble attempts to control it, to keep it within polite boundaries. Just as the Holy Spirit warmed John Wesley’s heart, and propelled those first apostles into the streets of Jerusalem, it propels us into the streets of New Ulm, to be filled with a passion that can only come from full commitment to following Jesus and naming him as Lord.
So this morning, I invite you to pray with me the prayer that John Wesley used each year in a service of re-commitment to the baptismal covenant. And as we pray it, I invite you to make it your own, knowing that the Holy Spirit has come alongside you to be your advocate, your comforter, and your encourager in this life-long journey we call discipleship. Come, Holy Spirit, come. Let us pray together.
COVENANT PRAYER OF JOHN WESLEY
Lord, I am no longer my own, but yours. Put me to what you will, rank me with whom you will. Put me to doing, put me to suffering. Let me be employed for you or laid aside for you, exalted for you or brought low for you. Let me be full, let me be empty. Let me have all things, let me have nothing. I freely and heartily yield all things to your pleasure and disposal. And now, O glorious and blessed God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, you are mine, and I am yours. So be it. And the covenant which I have made on earth, let it be ratified in heaven. Amen.