Acts 2:1-21 (Gen 11:1-9)
The Spirit-Gift to Community for Mission
Thomas G. Long, professor of homiletics at Princeton Theological Seminary, tells of teaching a confirmation class in which he was discussing the major festivals of the Church Year. The Children knew about Christmas and Easter, but no one in the class could remember the significance of Pentecost. Dr. Long explained that the day of Pentecost was the day the Holy Spirit came from heaven with the sound of a rushing wind, and fire rested on the heads of everyone gathered in Jerusalem, and they all spoke in different tongues. At that point one girl raised her hand and said, "I don't remember that. My family must have been out of town that Sunday."
Pastor Long’s story exposes one of the major difficulties which confront us on Pentecost Sunday: how do we bridge the gap between the events recorded in Acts and the experience of the church today. Many of us are troubled and confused by the circumstances surrounding the birth of the church. If anything resembling the events in Jerusalem ever happened in our church, it had to have happened on a Sunday that we were away.
The timing of Pentecost increases the likelihood that we were away. Today is Pentecost Sunday on the liturgical calendar; on the calendars we carry in our pockets, it’s one of the early summer Sundays. College is out, summer sessions are yet to begin. Our congregational calendar is also slowing down. What do we have one more week of traditional Sunday Church School classes? Our service at the lake is in two weeks. With all that comes the general expectation that worship attendance will be lower from now until sometime in August.
Confusion and calendar location - is it any wonder that the mention of Pentecost is met with blank stares?
The story of the rushing wind and the tongues of fire is one of the best known stories of the bible. Unfortunately, its popularity is not accompanied by a high degree of understanding. All too often, the second chapter of Acts is the source of major misunderstandings about the role of the Holy Spirit in the Christian community. The events recorded here are too often used to bolster the mistaken view that the gift of the Holy Spirit is a reward for special righteousness, that the Spirit is concerned only with individual believers, and that the primary manifestation of the Spirit's presence is the speaking in tongues. In fact, the text itself makes three very different affirmations:
1 - The Holy Spirit is a gift, given by God;
2 - God gives the Holy Spirit to the community of faith;
3 - God gives the Holy Spirit to the community of faith for mission.
First, Luke proclaims that the gift of the Holy Spirit is God's gift. It is not and cannot be earned; and it is not deserved. It is simply a gift. This point is missed or misunderstood by too many of our contemporaries. While none blatantly insist they have a right to an outpouring of the Holy Spirit, they speak of spiritual discipline in such a way as to imply that one positions oneself for the Spirit's arrival. The pure, the chaste, the pious - - such members of the community carry themselves in such a way as to suggest that they are more deserving of the Spirit's visitation. The author of Acts has no such illusions.
Those who were gathered in Jerusalem were not seeking the gift of the Holy Spirit, they could only accept it. They did not create the Spirit's power, they could only claim it. They did not program the Spirit's arrival, they could only respond to it. The Holy Spirit is God's gift, freely given to those whom God chooses.
The second affirmation within the biblical text is the affirmation that God gives the Spirit to the community of faith. In Jerusalem, the coming of the Spirit created unity were there had been division. That long list of difficult names read for us are a reminder of the variety of nationalities and peoples present in Jerusalem. The Spirit comes, and diverse people become the one people of God.
Congregationalism among the modern church has eroded our ability to see the diversity of those who assemble in God's name. It is our tendency to join congregations where folks look and act and talk in the same way we do. At Pentecost, the Spirit swooped through the crowd, as with an out-stretched arm. Gathering together all those who had once been individuals; making of them children of God.
The events described in Acts 2 are set in juxtaposition with the events in Genesis 11. This is another well-known, but often not-so-well-understood biblical story. Genesis 11 is the story of the Tower of Babel. On first reading, the story of the Tower of Babel seems to show human pride destroying human unity - resulting in God's punishment of scattering the people of the earth literally (geographically) and symbolically (linguistically). But a second reading reveals a more complex plot and deeper meaning.
The people who settled on the plain of Shinar were unified. They shared a common language and a common purpose. They wanted to make a name for themselves and keep themselves from being scattered to the corners of the earth. The unity they sought, however, was contrary to God's instruction - given in Genesis 1.28 - to be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth. The Tower of Babel is a warning against all attempts to establish unity on the basis of human autonomy and self-sufficiency. The unity desired by God is based not upon common language or common goals but on a common commitment to do God's will and to live according to God's purposes.
The Holy Spirit is given to the community of faith. The spirit comes to the individual believer only in the larger context of restoring proper relationships in the community of faith and empowering the community of faith for service.
The third affirmation present in the story of Pentecost is that God gives the Spirit to the community of faith for mission. The Spirit is God's active presence in the world.
When the Spirit is considered an individual gift; when the Spirit is considered a reward for pious living; it ceases to be active - rather it becomes a trophy, held with great pride and displayed for all to see, but never used in the accomplishment of an even greater task. God's gift to the community of faith - the Holy Spirit - is given to us so that we might be about the work of God in the world.
Here again we can learn something from that story in Genesis 11.
God punished the people by confusing their language so that they did not understand one another. The word rendered "understand" is the Hebrew shema, the same word that appears in the affirmation "Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord." (Deut 6.4) This connection is important because it focuses attention on hearing as an essential ingredient in the divine-human relationship and in relationships within the human community. Whether between parents and teenagers, husbands and wives, men and women, or God and humanity, when hearing fails, relationships fail.
This emphasis on hearing, not the speaking in tongues, is the link between Genesis 11 and Acts 2. The word “hear” appears at several crucial points in the Pentecost narrative in Acts (2.6, 8, 14, 22, 37). The events of Pentecost do not, as is usually assumed, reverse the punishment given to the builders of the tower but rather results in a "fresh capacity to listen." (W. Brueggemann, Genesis, Interpretation, John Knox Press.)
In spite of all the speaking in other tongues, those who gathered in Jerusalem heard the gospel in their own language. God did not restore a single language or one homogeneous community. Instead God enabled the diverse and scattered peoples of the earth to hear one another. On Pentecost every nation under heaven is embraced. It is that same Spirit which empowers and sustains the church as it seeks to give voice to God's word of salvation and become a channel of God's work in the world.
God gives the Holy Spirit to the community of faith for mission. When we lack an understanding of the mission God has given us; when we consider the Spirit an individual prerogative; when we link the Spirit's arrival with our own faithfulness - it is highly likely that we will be away, should the Spirit ever descend. Let us open our hearts and our minds, receiving this gift of our God's, allowing it to unify us in Christ and setting us forth to proclaim the Good News.