Pentecost is often called the birthday of the church. If that’s the case, it began with a raucous early morning party – so boisterous that the disciples were accused of being drunk. It’s true that Jesus, their leader was also accused of being a drunkard and a glutton, but in this case intoxication was not at the root of the uproar. As Peter says, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning.” So, what happened?
Our account from Acts this morning is first blustery, then fiery, and finally cacophonous. The Holy Spirit rushes in upon the sitting disciples in a violent blast of wind –perhaps like our recent derechos. Imagine how frightening this must have been. Then, assuming the form of another primal element, the Spirit becomes tongues of fire, dividing and hovering on each of the disciples. Were they afraid of being burned? I’m pretty sure that most of us would have been freaking out at this point.
But that’s not all. The Spirit filled each of the disciples and all the sudden they began speaking in languages that were foreign to them. Out of the mouths of these provincial fishermen and tax collectors came the fluent mother tongue of the Elamites and Mesopotamians, the Parthians and Cretans, the Egyptians and Libyans. Presumably they were speaking all at once – imagine the cacophony!
The disciples were speaking in tongues, but not the glossalia described in 1 Corinthians, the prayer language sometimes described as angelic language in which the Spirit gives utterance for feelings too deep for normal words. In this account, the disciples speak clearly and plainly in the tongue of many different dialects, each recognized by the multicultural gathering in Jerusalem. People from all nations were apparently lingering about the house in which all this went down. And although each of the disciples speaks in a different language, the content of their speech is all the same – they are all giving voice to “God’s deeds of power.”
In order to better understand this bizarre and supernatural event, it is important to know that there are 2 obvious Old Testament antecedents to early church’s first birthday bash. The first antecedent is the story of the Tower of Babel. Genesis 11 describes a time in which “the whole earth had one language and the same words.” I suppose this fact would make for easy international travel.
Given humanity’s innate quest for power and control, the monolithic ease of communication was put to diabolic use. We all said, “Let us build ourselves a city and a tower with it’s top in the heavens and let us make a name for ourselves.” In this act we hear a refrain of Adam and Eve’s act of “being like God”, usurping center stage, acting out of pride. At least, God interprets the building of the tower this way, because He decides to thwart our power play by “confusing (our) language so (we) may not understand one another’s speech.” Now the world needs translators in order to communicate. The text says that the Lord then dispersed people all over the face of the earth.
Fast forward to Pentecost, and we see the reverse of the tower of Babel. All the dispersed people were gathered back together in Jerusalem. Instead of God confusing language so they may not understand another’s speech, He does the opposite – He gives language so that everyone may understand. Amazed and astonished, everyone asks, “How is it we hear, each of us, in our own native language?” People hear and understand because God has become chief translator.
An immediate takeaway from the Tower of Babel/Pentecost relationship is that human beings are tempted to use language to marshal our power and fortify our pride, an endeavor that in every case leads to nowhere good. Pride, self-dependence, rejection of God’s sovereignty over our lives is the original sin and the foundation of all other sin. That’s why Dante assigned his deepest direst part of his inferno to those consumed with pride.
Since scripture is clear that this kind of sin leads to death, one could argue that God was protecting us from ourselves by confusing our language, taking from us the means to hurt ourselves, like taking a weapon out of the hands of someone intent on harm. At Pentecost, however, God goes that much farther in His care for us. He gives language a new purpose. The disciples speak not about themselves or their plans to build an empire. Instead, as the text says, they speak about God and His deeds of power.
Language that is self-directed/self-oriented, used to puff up the self leads to isolation and death, but language that is other-directed, God-directed, used to glorify God and encourage others leads to community and life. So how are we to turn from our sin and pride to the love of God and the service of others? That’s where Pentecost’s second antecedent comes in.
The disciples were gathered together in a house to celebrate the Jewish Feast of Pentecost. Consider the background of Pentecost: It took place 50 Days after the Passover, to commemorate Moses’ giving of the Law on Mt. Sinai. The people of Israel would gather on Pentecost (which means the fiftieth day) to hear the Law read to them – the 10 Commandments, God’s commands to love Him with all your heart and love your neighbor as yourself. The Law is God and other directed.
So the disciples were gathered in a house, most likely the same house where they had the Last Supper with Jesus the night before his crucifixion, and the same house where Jesus appeared through locked doors the evening of his resurrection. Perhaps they were in the very act of reading the Law when the Holy Spirit whooshed into the house like a freight train. However, what happened on that Pentecost (50 days after Jesus rose from the dead) is they did not hear the Law, but, instead, “God’s deeds of power” – i.e., the Gospel.
What were these deeds of power? Peter preaches about it in verse 22:
“Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with deeds of power. . . you crucified. . . But God raised him up. . .”
In other words, God was showing his people that the way to turn people away from themselves and towards God and neighbor is not by enforcing the Law, but by sharing the good news of the death and resurrection of Jesus.
St. Paul says it this way later in Romans. “The Law of Moses was unable to save us because of the weakness of our sinful nature. So God did what the law could not do. He sent his own Son in a body like the bodies we sinners have. And in that body God declared an end to sin’s control over us by giving his Son as a sacrifice for our sins.”
So Pentecost means that God speaks to you in your language. He tells you of forgiveness of sin and newness of life. His Holy Spirit comes to you to empower you to love Him and to serve others. What our sin tried to thwart at the Tower of Babel, and what the Law couldn’t achieve at Mount Sinai, God accomplishes in the Spirit-inspired Gospel of Grace at Pentecost.
Yesterday, the Reverend Willis Logan was ordained. Willis was presented for ordination through Christ Church and returns to begin his ministry here with us in August. There is plenty of pomp and circumstance at an ordination. Lots of ecclesial bling. Right before the Bishop laid hands on Willis, we all sang the hymn Veni, Creator Spiritus – Come Holy Spirit. The hymn captures what I’ve tried to say today.
Come Holy Spirit, blest, and in our souls take up thy rest. Come with thy grace and heavenly aid, to fill the hearts which Thou hast made.
Kindle our sense from above, and make our hearts o’erflow with love. With patience firm and virtue high, the weakness of our flesh supply.
Then the bishop laid his hands on Willis and prayed, “Father, through Jesus Christ your Son, give your Holy Spirit to Willis; fill him with grace and power, and make him a deacon in your Church.” The same Spirit that rested on the disciples at Pentecost rested on Willis yesterday.
And though not all are ordained, all receive that same Spirit. You receive that Spirit again today. The Spirit of grace and heavenly aid, to fill your heart which God has made. Amen.