Pentecost A: Tongues of Fire

Tongues of fireFIRST LESSON:  Acts 2:1-21

To read the Lectionary Acts passage, click here

This passage completes the succession from Jesus to the disciples and is made complete with the arrival of God’s promised Spirit.  This is the moment that had been predicted by both John the Baptist and Jesus and the passage is written to reflect that earlier prophecy.  This passage has probably received more attention than any other in the Book of Acts.  Certain faith traditions draw on it because of the experiential presence of faith and others use it to frame the season of Pentecost, when the church and its community are renewed and reborn by the power of God’s Spirit.

According to the passage, the entire community is baptized into the realm of the Spirit.  The word for Pentecost (literally, “fiftieth day”) was used by Jews for a harvest festival more commonly known as the “Feast of Weeks”.  The image of “tongues of fire” and the flames that are often used to symbolize Pentecost (as well as our own denomination) echoes the fire that was frequently used in Jewish and Greco-Roman writings as a metaphor for the experiences of prophetic inspiration.

The “gift of tongues” should not be confused with the spiritual gift of glossolalia that concerns Paul in 1 Corinthians 12-14.  The Pauline meaning denotes a special language given to a few believers by the Spirit in order to edify the whole congregation.  For the writer of Acts, though, this Spirit came upon all, rather than merely a chosen few.  In many ways, the Pentecost experience of “tongues” has more to do with hearing and understanding than with speaking.  It has to do with rhythm—that underlying rhythm that is part of us all, the rhythm that is God, our Source and Sustainer.  So, the Pentecost story is about unity.

So God’s Spirit is poured out upon a community of believers.  The Holy Spirit is not a “personal” gift from God.  There is nothing personal or private (and certainly not restrictive) about it.  The church has always tended to be comfortable with worshiping the Father and the Son but often the Holy Spirit is seen as a sort of marginal, misunderstood entity.  But it is clear from this story that the arrival of the Holy Spirit is not hidden from view.  The Spirit’s arrival is a noisy affair with special effects that draw an interested public “from every nation” to the community.

This arrival of the Spirit completes the picture—God created, redeemed, and is now empowering the people of God to be who God created them to be.  This is the way that God sustains us in this world and the next.  The Spirit does not imply a ghostly-type image.  Talking about Spirit is talking about God.  The Hebrew word for it is ruah–God in power like the force of wind or in intimacy like breath, the very essence and being of God.  This is not speaking of bits and pieces of God.  This is the fullness of God.  This is God’s Kingdom coming.  Pentecost is hope at its deepest level and the promise that everyone can be ignited by the Spirit in order to live out their God-called life.  Nothing but fire kindles fire.

Pentecost did not create a church.  This is not merely the church’s birthday.  Pentecost is the point at which God’s very Spirit was breathed into the world and equipped us for work.  Last week, we read of Christ’s Ascension, that holiest of absences that left a veritable void in the Gospel story.  And so we waited for the rest of the story.  What Pentecost tells us is that we are the ones for which we’ve been waiting.  It is not meant to be a feel-good, warm-fuzzy kind of day.  The Holy Spirit is risky and sometimes painful, bringing about change and out and out revolution.  The Holy Spirit invites failure rather than promises success, compels discomfort, rather than consolation.  The Holy Spirit is not something that we just try on for size; it is tongues of fire that consume us and leave nothing behind except what was supposed to be in the first place—the ones for which we’ve been waiting.   So, get started…

Several years ago, I had an experience that, for me, gave life to this Pentecost story.  I was traveling through Hungary as part of a church choir tour and one of our singing opportunities was the Sunday morning worship service of a small, extremely poor Protestant church on the Pest side of the city.  No one in the small congregation spoke any English.  We, of course, did not speak Hungarian either.  You have to understand that the Hungarian language is usually grouped closely with Finnish because of its syntax, but it has so many words and sounds that are borrowed from Turkish as well as centuries of various gypsy languages that it has no real commonality with any language.  So, our communication was limited to hand signals, nods, and smiles.  The entire worship service was in this language that was more unfamiliar than anything that I had ever heard.  We went through about an hour of unfamiliar songs, foreign liturgy, and a 30-minute sermon that meant absolutely nothing to us.

At one point I looked around and realized that they had their heads down and were speaking what must have been a common prayer.  We put our heads down.  As I sat there, praying my own prayer along with them, I was suddenly aware that something had changed.  I still, of course, could not understand the words but somewhere in there I had heard something inherently familiar.  I looked at the person next to me and said, “That’s the Lord’s Prayer.”  I started with the second petition of the familiar prayer and slowly those around me began to join in.  When we came to the end, there was sort of a stunned silence around us.  We had all finished at the same time.

This was not a case of my somehow miraculously understanding a language that I did not know.  It was, instead, a hearing of an incredible rhythm that runs beneath all language and connects us all.  That rhythm is the Spirit of God.  I realized at that moment that the point of the Biblical Pentecost story was not the speaking, but the hearing and the understanding.   Regardless of our differences, there is one common voice that connects us all, if we will only listen.  (Shelli Williams)      

  1. What is your response to this passage?
  2. What is your image of the Pentecost experience?
  3. What lessons could we learn from the Pentecost experience? 


NEW TESTAMENT:  1 Corinthians 12:3b-13

To read the Lectionary Epistle passage, click here

This passage was probably written by Paul in an effort to repair schisms that had arisen in the church in Corinth.  The divisions occurred mostly along socioeconomic grounds because wealthier church members were being given more preferential treatment as to church membership, including the Lord’s Supper.  In an effort to repair the divisions, Paul is reminding them the Spirit is inclusive and universal—God’s Spirit is poured upon everyone.  No one is better or more deserving of special treatment than the next.

The Corinthian church is an interesting one.  In fact, they’re a lot like us.  Paul gave them the tools that they needed to be the people that they were called to be and then they took it and figured something else out.  Does that sound familiar?  And they were pretty passionate about it.  Paul definitely had his hands full.  They sometimes seemed to be coming apart at the seams.  Here, speaking in tongues, or glossolalia, seems to be a particular problem in the Corinthian church.  In every list of gifts, tongues and the interpretation of tongues are mentioned last, probably Paul’s way of inverting the priority that they placed on that gift.  For Paul, the nature of God’s Spirit is unity.  This was probably what Paul saw as the biggest problem in the Corinthian church.  Paul knew that unity can never be achieved if one member of the community is placed higher or lower than another, if one gift or one passion or one ministry is viewed as more important than the other, and if one’s view or “agenda” is held out as the only way to see things.  Unity requires listening—listening for the voice of the one God, one Spirit, in our midst.  And that usually requires us to get out of the way.

In our Eucharist liturgy, we are handed bread and we hear the words, “The Body of Christ given for you.”  Most of us take that to mean that Christ died for us, literally gave his body for us.  Yes, but I think it goes beyond that.  Jesus Christ, the Incarnation of God, was born, lived, died, and rose that we would know the Way to God.  And then Jesus ascended leaving a space to fill.  That space, filled with God’s Spirit on this Day of Pentecost, became the Body of Christ, this feasting, praying, arguing, backbiting Body of which we are a part.  “The Body of Christ given for you.”  The Holy Spirit brings us together and unifies us as one.  We just have to let go of ourselves to see what God has done.


  1. How does this passage speak to you (no pun intended!)?
  2. What is the thing that contributes most to disunity in our communities today?
  3. What is unity in your understanding?
  4. What would a unified community or a unified church look like?
  5. What does it mean to be the Body of Christ?


GOSPEL:  John 7:37-39

To read the Lectionary Gospel passage (this may be an alternate text for some)

(Notes for John 20: 19-23 can be found at

This passage is set on the last day of the Feast of Tabernacles, an annual seven-day feast commemorating the account of Moses striking the rock at Horeb (Exodus 17) and water gushing from it—water to quench the thirst of the parched Israelites.  So, during this feast, the priests would have been pouring water from golden pitchers and the choir would have been singing the words of Isaiah 12:3, “With joy you shall draw water from the wells of salvation.”  And then, probably to most of their astonishments, Jesus proclaims, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believe in me drink!”

There are several problems with regard to the translation of this passage.  First, it is unclear how Jesus’ words are to be punctuated; in other words, where to place a full stop.  After the word “drink” (NIV, Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink.) (which positions the believer as the “living water”) or after the phrase “come to me” (which positions Jesus as the “living water”)

Water is, of course, one of the great images of the Bible.  All of life begins in water.  Over and over again, God brings salvation through water—Noah, parting seas, Jonah’s journey through water, etc.  Then Jesus is baptized in the waters of the Jordan.  Water is life.  So, here Jesus is depicted as “living life”, as “eternal life.”  We get it.

The second part of this passage gives a statement of the writer of this Gospel’s understanding of the relationship between the gift of the Spirit and Jesus’ glorification.  The gift of the Spirit becomes a reality in the believer’s life only after Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension.  This is not a denial of the presence of God in the Old Testament, but that the Spirit was not yet become known in the life of the church and the lives of the people.  The Spirit of God is redefined in the light of Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension.  Jesus is glorified as the Spirit of God is poured into Creation.  It is the culmination of Christ on this earth.

“The celebration of Pentecost beckons us to keep breathing. It challenges us to keep ourselves open to the Spirit who seeks us. The Spirit that, in the beginning, brooded over the chaos and brought forth creation; the Spirit that drenched the community with fire and breath on the day of Pentecost: this same Spirit desires to dwell within us and among us.” (From Jan Richardson, The Painted Prayerbook, available at, (Pentecost A) accessed 7 May 2008.)


  1. What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  2. What for you is the meaning of “living water”?
  3. What does this passage depict for you about the Holy Spirit?


Some Quotes for Further Reflection:

The more faithfully you listen to the voice within you, the better you will hear what is sounding outside.  (Dag Hammarskjold)


There is the Music of Heaven in all things and we have forgotten how to hear it until we sing…Underneath all the texts, all the sacred psalms and canticles, these watery varieties of sounds and silences, terrifying, mysterious, whirling and sometimes gestating and gentle must somehow be felt in the pulse, ebb, and flow of the music that sings in me.  My new song must float like a feather on the breath of God.  (Hildegard von Bingen, 12th century)


Spirituality is the ability to live with ambiguity. (Ray Anderson) 



 Spark of God, Spirit of Life!  I remember and celebrate your dwelling within me.

 Divine Fire, you never waver in your faithful presence.  Amid the seasons of life, you are my inner illumination.

 Ever-present Light, the spark of your inspiration has been with me in every moment of my life, always available to lead and guide me.

Eternal Joy, the dancing flames of your joy are reflected in my happiness and in the many ways that I delight in life.

Spirit of God, your fiery presence gives me passion for what is vital and deserving of my enthusiasm.

Blazing Love, the radiant glow of your compassion fills me with awareness, kindness, and understanding.

Purifying Flame, your refining fire transforms me as I experience life’s sorrow, pain, and discouragement.

Radiant Presence, your steady flame of unconditional love kindles my faithful and enduring relationships.

Luminous One, you breathed Love into me at my birthing and your love will be with me as I breathe my last.  Thank you for being a shining Spark of Life within me.  Amen.


(Joyce Rupp, in Out of the Ordinary:  Prayers, Poems, and Reflections for Every Season, p. 199)


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