What Does This Mean? - A Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost Sunday (Acts 2)
2 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.’
As the city of Jerusalem filled with pilgrims gathering to celebrate the festival of Pentecost, the disciples, that small band of Jesus’ followers, gathered together in a house in the city. Not long before this particular day, Jesus had commissioned this band of disciples to be his witnesses, beginning in Jerusalem and then extending to the ends of the earth. The only caveat was that they needed to wait in the city until the Spirit of God came upon them, for as Jesus told them, while John baptized with water soon they would be baptized with the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:1-11). So, they waited for the Spirit to come upon them. To use a word popular among Pentecostals, they tarried in Jerusalem until the Spirit came and baptized them. As they tarried, the Spirit blew through that house, the Spirit alighting on each as a tongue of fire, and all began to speak in languages they did not know. This is the “unfettered Spirit” to borrow the image I used to title my book on spiritual gifts. The Spirit blows where the Spirit wishes. We don’t control the Spirit of God. We can cooperate with the Spirit, of course, but we don’t control the Spirit. This Spirit, who blows through the community, is about to break down the walls that we build, hoping to contain the religious dimension.
Something amazing happens, as the Spirit comes upon the people. They begin to proclaim the message of Jesus. They act his witnesses. They tell of his glory in languages apparently unknown to them, but covering the nations of the world. The pilgrims are all Jews but a multitude of them live in the diaspora. They have learned to speak in other languages, which might now be their first languages. The gospel penetrates this diversity.
Out in the streets, the pilgrims begin to hear this cacophony of voices. They hear the Gospel proclaimed. At least some of those who heard this sound asked: “what does this mean?” Some who asked the question wonder whether this motley crew was drunk. Yes, what does this mean?
That question begins to pass through the crowd, which gathers because of this sign of the Spirit. So, Peter stood up with the eleven by his side, and gave an explanation. These people aren’t drunk. This isn’t a disorderly display. This is a sign of God’s new work in Jesus. To understand what is going on Peter points their attention to scripture—a word from the prophet Joel, who had declared centuries earlier that “in the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh.” What does this mean? According to Peter, drawing from Joel, this was a sign that they were entering the last days. That means this is an eschatological, even apocalyptic, vision. The old age is giving way to a new age of the Spirit.
In this new age, the sons and daughters will prophesy, young men will see visions and old men will dream dreams. There is in this vision a certain democratization of the Spirit. It won’t be limited to a few, but will be poured out upon everyone, making everyone a prophet and visionary. That includes both men and women, young and old. There is in this vision no distinction of offices. Yes, Peter and the eleven stand up and offer a word of interpretation, but while they seem to be the leaders of the community, they also lack any of the usual signs of office. They have no credentials, other than the Spirit who has moved amongst them. In this new world order envisioned by Joel and now taken hold of by Peter, it seems that everyone is invited to participate in this new work of God that is centered in Jesus of Nazareth, himself a nobody who ended up on a cross.
This lectionary reading doesn’t include Peter’s sermon, only the text of that sermon. As such, this reading from Acts serves as the reading from the Old Testament. We hear the word from Joel, which becomes for us God’s directive for the new age. As Willie Jennings points out the reading from Joel, as appropriated by Peter:
It proclaims a new world order energized by the movement of the Holy Spirit, breaking through on all flesh and destroying social orders that find slavery useful, stable, capable of making fundamental differences of identity between would-be masters and would-be slaves. These slaves, men and women, prophesy. God speaks through them and they are to be obeyed. This new world order begins with collapse. God shakes foundations, especially ones that wrongly claim divine imprint. [Jennings, Acts, pp. 34-35].
A shaking of the foundations. That’s what Pentecost is about. Words are spoken in languages unknown to the speakers. These are God’s words that catch our attention and invite us to view things differently.
As the reading from Joel ends, we hear the word: “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” They will be made whole. They will be drawn into the new order that God is instigating. It is an order that transcends borders and boundaries, uniting diverse peoples into the one people of God. Some have suggested that what we have here is a reversal of the story of Babel. In that story from Genesis 11:1-9, God confuses the voices of the people who are ready to storm heaven and cease control. Now, in this moment, what was divided is united. So, what does this mean? The answer to that question is still being discerned as we live out the promise of the Spirit.