Texts: Acts 2:1-21; Psalm 104:24-35; Romans 8:14-17; John 14:8-17, 25-27
by Joshua Brockway, director for spiritual life and discipleship, Church of the Brethren
An encounter with God is never easy to explain. Words are not enough to describe the heart of the experience. But Luke, master storyteller that he is, has left us clues about the disciple’s encounter with God at Pentecost—especially questions that surfaced afterward: “What just happened?” “How can I understand what they are saying? We don’t speak the same language!” “Have those guys been drinking cheap wine?” It’s only when Peter finally stands up to speak that it all begins to make sense.
Peter’s sermon, presented to an ignited crowd murmuring around him, begins not with Jesus, but with the prophet Joel. “In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh” (Acts 2:17). So rather than a remnant of late-night celebrating, Peter proclaims the spontaneous, multi-lingual babbling as the fulfillment of early prophecies of the Hebrew Scriptures.
To make his point, Peter narrated the events of the weeks leading up to Pentecost—including the death and resurrection of Jesus. His whole sermon was a retelling of the events within the context of Hebrew heritage. And like an accomplished orator, Peter saved the best for last. When pressed by the crowd, he stated plainly: “Repent, and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ, so that your sins may be forgiven and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him” (Acts 2:38-39).
New Testament scholar Luke Timothy Johnson notes that the season of Pentecost in the first century was a season to remember the giving of the Torah to the Hebrew people. Philo, a contemporary of Jesus, even described the gift of the law as a divine fire coming to the people (Johnson, 41-42). Luke, then, appropriated the same imagery to describe the new gift—the coming of the Holy Spirit. “Luke’s point is not the pyrotechnics of theophany,” notes Johnson, “but spiritual transformation. The real ‘event’ of Pentecost is the empowerment of the disciples by the Holy Spirit” (Johnson, 58).
According to Peter’s sermon, this transformation of the Spirit is not limited to only the disciples, but is available to all who are baptized in the name of Christ. While talking to an audience of Hebrews, Peter’s proclamation sets the stage for the expansion of God’s people to include Gentiles. Johnson shows that Luke, following Paul in his letter to the Galatians, parallels the gifting of the Spirit with the covenant with Abraham. “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree’— in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith”.
That day in Jerusalem began the fulfillment of God’s promise to gather all the nations. The spiritual transformation of Jesus’ followers at Pentecost, inaugurated by the gifting of the Holy Spirit, set the stage for forming a new people in the name of Christ.
Pentecost is often described as the birthday of the church. Part of that emergence is the impulse to gather people—all people who have been baptized—as followers and fellow disciples of Christ. This act of gathering is integral to the life of the church. As a way to describe a vibrant congregation, the Church of the Brethren has adopted a rubric of Gathering, Calling, Forming, and Sending. In other words, a vital community of faith is one that continues the act of gathering together people and resourcing them for the ministry of God in the world. Living into the gift of Pentecost—into the work of gathering—the church grows in its witness to the Christ proclaimed in Peter’s sermon, for the gift of the Spirit is open to all whom God calls.
(contributed by Jonathan Shively)
Song & Hymn suggestions:
Holy Spirit, come with power Anne Neufeld Rupp, 1970 sung to tune “Beach Spring”
Spirit of the living God Daniel Iverson, 1926
Spirit Song John Wimber, 1980
The Spirit Is A-Movin Carey Landry, 1969
Holy Spirit, Rain Down Hillsong
The following excerpt stands in dynamic contrast to the power and passion of the Pentecost church’s experience. Any similarities to your church experience are simply coincidental. I pray that you might experience otherwise!
Autumn now, November, and so many years later that when Henry runs a comb through his hair on this Sunday morning, he has to pluck some strands of gray from the black plastic teeth before slipping the comb back into his pocket. He gets a fire going in the stove for Olive before he goes off to church. “Bring home the gossip,” Olive says to him, tugging at her sweater while she peers into a large pot where apples are burbling in a stew. She is making applesauce from the season’s last apples, and the smell reaches him briefly – sweet, familiar, it tugs at some ancient longing – before he goes out the door in his tweed jacket and tie.
“Do my best,” he says. No one seems to wear a suit to church anymore.
In fact, only a handful of the congregation goes to church regularly anymore. This saddens Henry, and worries him. They have been through two ministers in the last five years, neither one bringing much inspiration to the pulpit. The current fellow, a man with a beard, and who doesn’t wear a robe, Henry suspects won’t last long. He is young with a growing family, and will have to move on. What worries Henry about the paucity of the congregation is that perhaps others have felt what he increasingly tries to deny – that this weekly gathering provides no real sense of comfort. When they bow their heads or sing a hymn, there is no sense anymore – for Henry – that God’s presence is blessing them. Olive herself has become an unapologetic atheist. He does not know when this happened. It was not true when they were first married; they had talked of animal dissections in their college biology class, how the system of respiration alone was miraculous, a creation by a splendid power.
From “Pharmacy” by Elizabeth Strout, p. 525 in Blue Collar, White Collar, No Collar: Stories of Work, Richard Ford, ed. , 2011, Harper Perennial.
God, open us to the gift of your Holy Spirit.
As your people gather, make yourself known:
To those of us who are insiders, show us a more powerful way.
For those of us who are forgetters, remind us of your history among humanity.
In the event we are skeptics, reassure us through the vibrant testimony of your church.
For those who are unbelievers, dance with convicting fire.
To those who are outsiders, make our witness point purposefully toward you.
Holy winds and flaming tongues can be scary things.
In our astonishment grant us confidence.
In our amazement grant us appreciation.
In our perplexity grant us clarity.
Speak through your people, granting us vision, dreams and prophesy.
Make us aware of the many ways that you come into our daily living,
While helping us anticipate your future “great and glorious day.”
We are here, seeking to be saved and led in the ministry that is ours together.
Through your power and presence we pray.