Pentecost, 2023 – Sermon

Audio recording of this sermon

SERMON –For St. Mary’s Anglican​​​        ​​May 28, 2023

TEXTS:  Acts 2: 1-21

Opening prayer:  Let the words of my mouth…

The Day of Pentecost

About two weeks ago one of the boys in my granddaughter’s kindergarten class lost his grandmother. Let’s call him Bobby. Bobby had been babysat by his grandmother since he was a baby and was still going there every school day up until the week before his grandma died. For about a week Bobby stayed home and wanted to stay home even a few more days but his mother said to him: “you need to go back to school. Your kindergarten classmates will welcome you back and they will help you to feel okay about being in school again.”

So Bobby took his mother’s hand and went back to school. When the got to the school they were still holding hands. Together they walked down to the kindergarten room. They were a little late because of Bobby’s reluctance but then they were at the door.  And when they came in, 3 of his friends –I’ll call them Eva, Vassey and Sally – came right over and gave him a hug!

It was a beautiful moment and a wonderful expression of understanding and love.

It was a moment in history that will never be repeated in quite the same way by these little kindergarten students.  But its meaning will carry forward and hopefully, they will all be involved in situations where love and understanding are given and received.

Today’s lesson from Acts, I suggest is also a “moment in history” that will not be repeated in exactly the same way but will introduce a conviction and a presence that has extended through the centuries and is with us today.

Acts 2 verse 1 says: “When the day of Pentecost had come they were all together in one place.“ This is such a quiet and unassuming opening sentence – it hardly prepares us for what comes next.

On that very day the events of Pentecost begin and they do so with a vividness that is striking and sudden. Both audio and visual descriptions follow. There was a sound from heaven which was like the rush of a violent wind, a terrific windstorm. That sound was so loud that the entire house where these believers were at that moment sitting and standing, heard it – the sound filled the room.

Just as suddenly there were visual signs. Divided tongues like fire, appeared among them and a singular tongue rested on everyone present. The Greek word for tongue, glossa, is also translated as language and is used to describe what happened next. Each of the believers began to speak in other tongues or languages. They seemed to have dispersed at some point because soon others in Jerusalem hear this speaking and were mystified as to what was going on.  Our text tells us that those in Jerusalem that day were amazed, astonished, bewildered and perplexed. 

What really amazed them was not just that these believers were speaking various languages but that the languages matched the languages of the various nationalities represented in Jerusalem on that day. These visitors were from all over the Mid-East; there were “Parthians, Medes, Elamites, residents of Mesopotamia, Judea, Cappadocia, Pontus, Asia, Phrygia, Pamphylia, Egypt, Libya and Rome.” 

So at minimum the people who were in Jerusalem on that day spoke 12, 14 or more different languages. What was astounding was that the Medes heard the message in the Median language, the Egyptians heard it in Egyptian, the Romans heard it Latin, the Cappadocians heard it in whatever language they spoke and so on. Someone from among those believers who were filled with the Holy Spirit spoke one or more of these languages and did so well enough that the native speakers understood – it was amazing and people found it incredible because all the people speaking the various languages were Galileans.

If we had been there that day, we might have acted as some did: we might well have gathered around the believers, perhaps not even knowing they were believers, and tried to figure out what was going on. We might have thought as someonedid: “these people are drunk!” It just would not have made sense!

– – – – – – –

The account in Acts soon describe Peter getting up and helping the people to make sense of what is going on but before we talk about that let’s step back for a moment and try to clarify a few things.  Luke wrote the Gospel of Luke and as a companion book, wrote the book of Acts. He had ended his gospel with the ascension of Jesus and a description of those who saw him go, returning to Jerusalem with great joy. Then in the first chapter of Acts, he reminds us as readers that the reason this group of approximately 120 believers was in Jerusalem was because in at least one of His appearances after the resurrection, Jesus had said that they should go to Jerusalem and stay there until they received the gift that He would send.

I can well imagine then that in those days spent in Jerusalem, there was a lot of talk about the teachings of Jesus as well as the most recent experiences many had had after the resurrection when they saw Him and listened to him speak. I am sure they talked about the ascension and about its possible meaning. And was there talk tooof the promise made by Jesus that they would receive a gift from Him? No doubt some remembered those words too and wondered what this promise might mean.

Steeped as no doubt many of them were in the Jewish calendar they knew that the day this new experience took place was the beginning of Shavuot, the “festival of weeks which Jewish people celebrated 50 days after the Passover. The word Pentecost meaning 50th comes out of this Jewish tradition. This was a time for a thanksgiving celebrated by an offering of “firstfruits” or the first produce of the season. Was Shavuot what Jesus had in mind when He told them to wait in Jerusalem for the gift he would send?  No, I don’t think so and I don’t think those gathered that day thought so either. But surely there is a connection and a transformation of the symbol of first fruits that relates to the coming of the Holy Spirit just as there is a connection between the Passover lamb and Jesus, the Lamb of God who died on Passover.

Back to the story then – imagine the room where the believers are in conversation and praying. Suddenly and unexpectedly there is this sudden and very unusual demonstration of tongues. What really is happening here? The first and clearest answer we have is back in verse 4 which makes this astounding statement: they “were all filled with the Holy Spirit.” I say astounding because in some ways this is a very strange thing to say – that a person could be filled or full of or completely captured by the Spirit of God. How is that possible? Clearly this is a real surprise and a mysterious thing that happens to the believers that day in Jerusalem – even to them I suspect.

And yet, in another way it isn’t a surprise because Jesus had said He would send the gift of the Holy Spirit to his disciples. You will recall a few Sundays ago we read the words of Jesus in which He said, “I am going away and it is best that I do go because then I will send the Holy Spirit.”  So this Spirit is a gift from Jesus, this Spirit is the one who will lead them to all truth, who will tell them what to say and who will grant them the power to do the things Jesus has commanded them to do.  To be filled with the Holy Spirit is no small thing.

Let’s catch up with Peter who was among that group of believers who dispersed into the crowds in Jerusalem on that day.  He heard the explanation that someone yelled out: “these guys are drunk!” and knew he must say something.

We might be a little surprised that he does so because up until now Peter seemed to have kept a low profile when it came to being identified with Jesus – it was surely a sign of the Holy Spirit doing something new in Peter for he bravely stood up and addressed the crowd:   “No,” he says, “these people are not drunk, it’s only 9 in the morning! Presumably if it had been 5 in the afternoon this explanation might have been more plausible, but not at 9 in the morning!

Peter continued and explained the reason for this unusual event and the very strange phenomena of people hearing the believers speak in their home languages.Peter says this is what the prophet Joel meant by what he said years earlier.

This prophet had said that there would come a day when God would do something new, that He would pour out His Holy Spirit on both young and old people, sons and daughters, men and women, slaves and free people.

This event would be a sure indication that God was at work in a new and powerful way. On that day, Peter still quoting Joel, says “those who call on the name of the Lord will be saved.”

Peter then goes on to expand on this statement by quoting David’s prophecy regarding the Messiah and by telling those in Jerusalem that day, that Jesus of Nazareth was that Messiah, that his death and resurrection are indication of that.

It was at that point that the people recognized the truth in what Peter said and  asked: what should we do? To this he responds by saying: “repent and be baptized in Jesus name so that your sins may be forgiven.”

The message of repentance is not new – John the Baptist had declared this as well but recognizing Jesus as the Messiah was new for those listening to Peter that day. And something else that was new was that many of the people wereconvinced this was a message for them and that they should act on it.  And that, I think is a clear indication that the Holy Spirit was at work. 

The Holy Spirit gave the believers the ability to speak in other languages AND he directed that speaking to be about Jesus, about repentance, about being baptizedand about having sins forgiven. That was the purpose of the gift of tongues or languages. The coming of the Holy Spirit was not for show. It was not so that those 120 believers could talk about their great experience of speaking another language. The Spirit did not come in order that these believers could count themselves as being better or as having experienced something exclusive so that they could boast about it and keep talking about it to those who had experienced the same thing.  That was not the purpose of the Holy Spirit’s coming. Not at all.

Peter agrees that it was a unique event and that it had been prophesied to happen, but then makes clear that the Spirit came to open the eyes and minds and hearts of people so that they might recognize Jesus as the Messiah. He came so that they might “repent and believe”.

What are we then to take away from this Bible lesson this morning?

I would suggest first that it is important for us to recognize that this is a God thing, the coming of the Holy Spirit to the believers in Jerusalem that day, was a gift of God and worthy of both their worship and ours. The coming of the Holy Spirit was worthy of their consideration and response as it is worthy of ours. Itwas a one-time historical event just like the birth of Christ and the death and resurrection are one-time historical events. All of these demand our attention and our praise because their meaning continues to reveal itself again and again to succeeding generations.

At the same time it is important I think when reading such a dramatic, one-time event, not to assume it will happen exactly the same way again or even to expect that it will be duplicate in the same way again. Even in the ministry of Peter and the ministry of Paul, the Spirit did not reveal Himself in the same way: He was always doing something new and yet always something that brought understanding, deep conviction and powerful insights. And always related to the revelation of Jesus as God’s son. Our attention to the Holy Spirit is good and it is important but He will not be boxed in; He will do something new again and again.

And what will He do? Jesus said He will lead you into all truth.

Jesus also said this revelation of the Spirit will lead you to serve God and to further the message of the gospel.  

Our task is not to have the perfect understanding of all that the coming of the Spirit means. Our responsibility, my responsibility is to listen and watch and wait for the Spirit to lead me to Jesus Christ, to help me to understand Him and his teaching, to be open to a change in my life, to humbly kneel before God and invite that same spirit to do something new and deep in all of our hearts and minds. Amen