Grace Presbyterian Church
May 24, 2015, Pentecost B
Ezekiel 37:1-14; Acts 2:1-21; John 16:4b-15
It’s a scene out of a Hollywood special-effects dream.
A great rushing wind blowing through the room. “Tongues of fire.” A glut of languages – a sound of chaos. Really, the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark has nothing on this, does it?
The Pentecost story is a strange one, in that on one hand its regular return in our liturgy almost guarantees that it suffers from the extreme familiarity that comes with such repetition, the kind that can cause us to tune out unconsciously; on the other hand, it’s rather a strange story, and one that has gained some uncomfortable associations for us mainline types, and therefore we tend to shy away from it. In short, it is both extremely familiar and extremely unfamiliar at the same time.
Perhaps we can break through both of those roadblocks by breaking the story down a bit, and maybe clear away some of the misconceptions and misunderstandings that have accrued around Pentecost, starting perhaps with those two vivid images from the first four verses; wind and fire.
First of all, these are not literal statements. What came from heaven was “a sound like the rush of a violent wind,” and “divided tongues, as of fire.” In other words, these are examples of that favorite literary device, the simile.
But similes matter. When a biblical author like Luke invokes things like wind or fire, even in this comparison fashion, it is no accident. These images evoke a long history of God’s interaction with the people of Israel.
Think, for example, of the burning bush that set Moses on his path to the Exodus; engulfed in fire, yet not consumed, from which God’s command went out to Moses. Think of the pillar of fire proceeding by night before the people of Israel during that Exodus. Think of the fire that consumed Elijah’s soaked altar, as well as all the altars of the Ba’al prophets in that contest on Mount Carmel.
Think of the strong wind that drove back the Red Sea, so that the people of Israel might cross ahead of the Egyptian army. Think of the whirlwind out of which God spoke to Job. Think of the very breath breathed into man at creation.
And think of those dry bones.
The Hebrew word ru’ah has a complex of meanings; it can refer to breath, to the wind, or to spirit. When Ezekiel is commanded to prophesy to the winds, to the breath, to breathe life into the lifeless, this whole complex is evoked. Similarly the Greek word pneuma carries both “breath” and “spirit” in its complex of meanings. We see this kind of association played up in hymns like the old gospel hymn “Holy Spirit, breathe on me.”
So is the Spirit a wind, or a fire? No, but something about wind or fire gives us a picture, an idea of how the Spirit is, or how it moves or acts. It’s a useful simile or metaphor, but we should do our best to avoid getting too caught up in the metaphor and confusing it with fact or literal description. In fact, we should probably just steer clear of anything that goads us into thinking we’ve got it down, that we have any kind of firm grasp on the nature and substance of anything about God, Holy Spirit included.
Ezekiel’s vision points us toward another misconception that can be cleared up; this story should not be construed as the first-ever appearance of the Holy Spirit in the history of God in humanity. It isn’t “new”; it has been, from the beginning, with God, as also is true of God the Son. What happens here is not a debut, but closer to an unleashing. The Holy Spirit is loose, not bound by any physical form or invocation. Nor, for that matter, is it bound by the rules and regulations of the Temple, or the Torah, or by any decree or proclamation of the nascent church itself. The Spirit doesn’t follow your script; if anything it’s much more likely to rewrite it.
Something else we might want to think about is what happens in verse 13. The Spirit has driven the disciples out to proclaim, in these languages heretofore unknown to them, but that just happen to be the languages spoken by the crowds who are in Jerusalem for this particular festival (more on that in a moment). These crowds are portrayed by Luke as being from some of the most remote regions known to the people of Jerusalem and basically every direction one could go from Jerusalem – our curious metaphor about “the four corners of the earth” is the effect of the varied regions Luke describes. While they are puzzling over the fact that these people – who didn’t exactly look like linguistic scholars to anybody – were somehow speaking to them, each hearing exactly their own language (and not in the broken fashion of a non-native speaker either), the naysayers make their presence known. While people are wondering just what’s going on, the catcalls begin. “They are filled with new wine.” Go home, apostles, you’re drunk.
Now this just doesn’t make sense. Personally I’m not a wine-drinker, but I’ve never observed anyone for whom drinking wine was a means of speaking a language new to them. I’ve seen plenty of people who had trouble speaking their own language after a few glasses, but not the opposite. But I’m pretty sure that wasn’t really the point. In the face of something inexplicable, beyond any kind of miraculous that any of the crowd had seen before, there were those who resorted to belittling, meanness, and spite.
It is not the work of the Holy Spirit to make you more popular. It is not the work of the Holy Spirit to make you respectable, or socially esteemed. It is not the Holy Spirit’s task to make your life easier. To the degree that your life is shaped and moved and motivated by the working of the Holy Spirit within you, there’s a real strong chance your life will be characterized by others deriding you, ridiculing you, belittling you, and even calling you a “heathen” or something similar. And there’s even a real good chance those people belittling or deriding you will be the “good church people.” Go home, followers of Christ, you’re drunk. In the end, these disciples would find their lives being required of them, once they were moved by the work of the Spirit. The Holy Spirit wasn’t there to make their lives easier, not by a long shot.
So, what is the Holy Spirit about? What is it up to?
There are huge crowds in Jerusalem, from all the compass points of the earth. Many if not most of them are Jews, living abroad – expatriates, if you will, returned for the Festival of Weeks, an event on the Jewish calendar timed to occur fifty days after Passover – hence, Greek-speakers called the festival “Pentecost.” (Today the equivalent Jewish feast is called “Shauvot.”)
These crowds would have most likely known nothing of the events that had formed this local group of Christ-followers – the Crucifixion and the Resurrection, not to mention the ascended Christ. Their reason for being in Jerusalem was about Shauvot, marking the event of the reading of the Torah to the people of Israel. Jesus? Who was he, and why would they care?
The Holy Spirit moved among the Christ-followers, placing languages on their lips and on their tongues specifically to reach out to these souls, to proclaim to these people from all over the earth – children of God, all of them – the good news, the gospel of Jesus Christ. And this means that all of these people are welcome, male or female, slave or free, young or old, to be drenched in the Spirit in ways unimaginable before.
The Spirit is no longer the property of prophets or kings, scribes or priests or elders. The unleashed Spirit will work through anyone to proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God come near. Because this band of Christ-followers waited in prayer, they were ready to be messengers of Christ, even in languages they had never known before.
This was no random, chaotic event. The Holy Spirit at Pentecost was at work to proclaim gospel to the nations. Not only the miracle of the Christ-followers speaking languages they didn’t know, but the miracle of all those in the crowd hearing the message, each one in his or her own tongue, was all about spreading the Word. Here was a step on the way to fulfilling the promise that Jesus had made back in 1:8, about being witnesses “in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
In the days to come the disciples would be pulling their resources together, supporting one another and lifting one another up. Peter and John would be confronted by the sight of the paralyzed man in the Temple, and responding to the moving of the Spirit, would heal that man and thus be brought to take a stand before the Temple authorities. Before long the followers of Christ would begin to scatter throughout the region, and the Word would be truly proclaimed “in all Judea and Samaria,” and the Word would find the Spirit moving hearts to hear and receive it, hearts not only of Jews but also of Gentiles eventually. For the moment it may have sounded like chaos, but the Holy Spirit was working for a purpose, and will always be working towards that purpose.
For the purposeful chaos of the Holy Spirit, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (PH '90):
"Let Every Christian Pray" (130), "Come, Holy Spirit, Heavenly Dove" (126), "Spirit of the Living God" (322), "Every Time I Feel the Spirit" (315)