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. 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 consumes us and leaves nothing behind except what was supposed to be in the first place—the ones for which we’ve been waiting. In a 2007 commencement speech, Richard Lederer said “Let there be no distance between who you are and what you do.” That is our calling; that is what Pentecost is about—shrinking the distance between how we live and who we are called to be. 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)
- What is your response to this passage?
- What is your image of the Pentecost experience?
- What lessons could we learn from the Pentecost experience?
- What is your response to the Lederer quote about the distance between who we are and what we do?
NEW TESTAMENT: Romans 8: 22-27
This passage is a well-known depiction of God’s ongoing Creation. Like labor, both church and Creation long for the new life to arrive in its fullness. But it is not an “either / or” notion—Creation is ongoing, the coming of God’s Kingdom is both already and not yet. In fact, Creation is groaning through the birth of what it is to be even now. We understand that. Our own groans about what is wrong with the world, what is wrong with our country, what is wrong with the United Methodist Church are heard even now. What if we thought of those groans as the rumbling of the Holy Spirit as it is poured into our lives?
But God, as loving parent of all Creation, puts a mighty arm under the fractured Creation, not merely preserving it and protecting it, but setting it free to be. (This flies in the face of dualistic understandings of earth and heaven or mind and spirit. It does not speak of “rescuing” or even “saving from”, but adoption, redemption, freedom.) It is not God turning away from what is wrong with the world but picking it up and pulling it into being. In Feasting on the Word, Clayton J. Schmidt refers to Peter Storey’s notion of this “great nevertheless of God.” Schmidt says that “at first glance, [the world] seems full of angst: groaning and travail, unfulfilled longing, unseen hope, concerns too deep for words. But the hope here can be put in terms of what Peter Storey has called “the great nevertheless of God.” [Storey] developed this idea while serving as bishop of the Methodist Church in South Africa during the struggle against apartheid. Even while surrounded by the strong-armed agents of repression, Storey knew that the Holy Spirit was active in his nation. The government had all the power; nevertheless, God was with the poor in South Africa. The South African regime did not hesitate to use force in order to stop rebellion; nevertheless, Storey, along with Desmond Tutu and others, led the black South Africans in a peaceful revolution. The odds were heavily against the peaceful revolution; nevertheless, with God on their side, they were victorious. In the end, there was strong temptation to retaliate; nevertheless, God gave them a means of forgiving enemies and forming a reconciled nation. No matter what the odds, if God is in something, no obstacle can block the great nevertheless of God.”
Paul’s Letter to the Romans is considered his masterpiece. In it, he contends that all those who are indwelt with the Holy Spirit are shaped for that eternal glory that is already theirs in Christ. We are not alone. No matter how difficult life gets, we are supported by God’s Spirit. The Spirit teaches us and reaches for us even in our weakness. The phrase “we do not know what we ought to pray” is often used to support the notion of speaking in tongues, but it is more likely that Paul is just trying to make the point that life is difficult, full of limitations, and that no matter what, we remain secure in the Lord. Instead, God knows our mind, knows what we pray, knows what we need, if we are just open to what God provides us. Marjorie Thompson says of prayer, “Perhaps our real task in prayer is to attune ourselves to the conversation already going on deep in our hearts. Then we may align our conscious intentions with the desire of God being expressed at our core.”
- How does this passage speak to you?
- What images of Creation does this passage bring about?
- What does this say to you about prayer?
- What does this say to you about how we should look at the way the world is and our part in it?
GOSPEL: John 15: 26-27; 16: 4b-15
The word for “Spirit” here is “parakletos”, or paraclete. It has a range of meaning that includes advocate, encourager, comforter, helper. A paraclete was a patron or a sponsor that would speak and advocate on behalf of another. In other words, the Spirit, parakletos, advocates on behalf of Christ and on behalf of that for which Christ stood and taught and died. So the Spirit will enable the disciples to grasp what they had not gotten before, to grasp what Jesus was all about. The Spirit is a way of talking about God not as an other-worldly being, but as our companion. It is a redefining of truth.
Keep in mind that when Jesus returned, he did not find the disciples out doing what needed to be done. Instead, he found them huddled in a room, scared to death at the prospect of what might happen to them. So this is the promise that they are not alone, that God will see that they are equipped and empowered to do what needs to be done in the world. But it won’t happen unless Jesus leaves. Otherwise, they’ll just stay shut away from the world waiting for Jesus to show up and fix things.
But empowered by the Spirit, we are to make a case for Jesus in the world. Jesus is both fully absent and fully present. That is our mission—to become the hands and feet and voice and life of Christ in the world. It entails exposing sin as the killing of love, or God in Christ. It means exposing Jesus for the way Jesus was. Spirituality, then, is a way of advocating for God in the world, entering the advocacy and comforter that is God. God so loved the world. Human beings did not recognize that love. They killed it. God reaffirmed it. We can receive it, share it, and ourselves become advocates for that same love and life in the world, accompanied by the Holy Spirit. It’s not a matter of knowing everything to do; it’s a matter of knowing where to look for the strength that you need to be the change that you hope to see in the world.
- What meaning does this passage hold for you?
- What does the Holy Spirit mean for you?
- So what makes us uneasy about the concept of the Holy Spirit?
- What does it mean to you to talk about Jesus as both fully absent and fully present?
- What do you feel that you are empowered to advocate in the world?
“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 http://textweek.com/, (Pentecost A) accessed 7 May 2008.)
Some Quotes for Further Reflection:
God creates us, Jesus leads us, and the Holy Spirit shows us ways that are not always in the book. (Joan Chittister, In Search of Belief, p. 161)
Try, with God’s help, to perceive the connection—even physical and natural—which binds your labor with the building of the Kingdom of Heaven; try to realize that heaven itself smiles upon you and, through your works, draw you to itself; then, as you leave church for the noisy streets, you will remain with only one feeling, that of continuing to immerse yourself in God. (Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955))
The Spirit of God is like our breath. God’s Spirit is more intimate to us than we are to ourselves. We might not often be aware of it, but without it we cannot live a “spiritual life.” It is the Holy Spirit of God who prays in us, who offers us the gifts of love, forgiveness, kindness, goodness, gentleness, peace, and joy. It is the Holy Spirit who offers us the life that death cannot destroy. Let us always pray: “Come, Holy Spirit, come.” (Henri J.M. Nouwen)
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)