Day of Pentecost Yr B, 31/05/2009
Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson
Pastor of Grace Lutheran Church, &
Chaplain of The Good Samaritan Society’s
South Ridge Village, Medicine Hat, Alberta
“The Gift of the Holy Spirit”
The Day of Pentecost. The third major festival day of the church year. The day when, according to Luke’s account in Acts chapter two, the Christian Church was born by the event of the Holy Spirit’s visitation. Yet, over the centuries, and even on that Day of Pentecost over two thousand years ago, there were and still are misunderstandings of what actually happened on that special day.
Sometimes misunderstandings are accidental. Consider this little vignette. A little old lady planning a vacation wrote a letter to a particular campground to inquire about its facilities. She could not bring herself to write the word “toilet” so she finally settled on the term, “BC,” which, to her, meant “bathroom commode.” The initials baffled the campground manager who showed the letter to some of the other campers. They did not understand either until one of them suggested the woman might be referring to a Baptist church. The owner agreed and wrote this reply:
Thank you for your inquiry. I take pleasure in informing you that a
BC is located two miles north of our campground, and seats 250
People. My wife and I go quite regularly, but as we grow older, it
seems to be more of an effort, particularly during cold spells. If you
visit our campground, perhaps we could go with you the first time,
sit with you, and introduce you to the other folks. Ours is a friendly
A humorous story, yet a fine example of what happened on the day of Pentecost long ago; and what continues to occur when people read—or misread and misunderstand—our passage from Acts even today. So let’s take a look at this passage and see what understanding, we can discover today with, of course, the Holy Spirit’s help and presence and work among and within us. Luke begins by stating the time and place and people of this special event: it was the day of Pentecost, nine o’clock in the morning, and the twelve apostles, along with one hundred and twenty other believers were gathered in a room in Jerusalem. All of these people were Jews, he tells us. The day of Pentecost, also known as the Feast of Weeks, was a Jewish festival that took place 50 days, seven weeks after Passover. Originally, it was a harvest festival, giving thanks to God for the harvest. Later, Jews also celebrated the giving of the Law, or the Torah to Moses and the Jewish people on Sinai. A Jewish tradition has it that the time from the Hebrew slaves’ departure in Egypt to the time they reached Mount Sinai was also 50 days. All of these bits of information emphasise the point that the earliest Christian Church had its origins deeply rooted in Jewish tradition and, the earliest Christians were Jews.
The next information Luke provides is a description of what happened on that day of Pentecost over two thousand years ago. He tells us: “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.” The phrase “suddenly from heaven,” reveal the origin of the event—God, in the presence of the Holy Spirit, enters the room where this crowd of believers are gathered. The phrase also underscores the truth that this event is a gift from God, and the word “suddenly,” highlights the fact that it is not planned or intended by the gathered crowd. No! Rather, God takes the initiative here; God comes down to the crowd and gives them the gift of the Holy Spirit. The gift of the Holy Spirit is sheer grace from God. God decides, not the people, to give the gift of the Holy Spirit.
Luke then tells us that the Spirit’s presence was revealed through “a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.” Here again Luke emphasises the deep Jewish roots of Pentecost. Jews of faith would remember the Spirit, the Wind of God moving across the waters at the dawn of creation in Genesis chapter two. The crowd may also have remembered God’s creation of the first human being, breathing into them the breath of life. In the biblical languages, both in the Greek and the Hebrew, the word for Spirit can also mean wind, breath, and to breathe. The phrase “filled the entire house,” fits in well with what Peter says later when he quotes the passage from Joel two, telling of the promise that the Spirit will be poured out “upon all flesh.” God desires all people to enjoy the presence of the Holy Spirit working in and through them. The prophecy, along with the Pentecost coming of the Spirit, seems to lift up the universal gift of God’s Spirit to everyone, regardless of social, racial, ethnic background, age or gender. However, I think this raises a kind of “fly in the ointment” question here. Later, in verse 13 of our passage, we learn of sceptics, cynics, and critics who, Luke says, “sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.” What are we to make of the “new wine” accusation? Does this mean those making this charge against the Spirit-filled crowd were not given the same gift of the Holy Spirit? I don’t know, and Luke does not give us a clear yes or no to that question. The implication seems to lean in the direction of the sceptics, cynics and critics receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit. If they had received the Spirit like the others, why would they make the accusation that the crowd was drunk? On the other hand, why did those making the accusation not receive the Holy Spirit? I do not think we can answer these questions definitively over two thousand years after the event. Perhaps we shall find our answers in heaven. Or maybe the answer comes from the Jewish rabbinic tradition itself.
There is a wonderful Hasidic tale in which the rabbi asks his student, “Where is the Spirit of God?” And the student answers with a biblical phrase, “…the whole universe resounds with his glory.”
And the rabbi says, “No.”
“What do you mean, no?” the student asks.
“God is where you let God come in,” says the rabbi. “And the Holy Spirit is the power that ushers God into our lives.”2 Maybe it takes longer for the Holy Spirit to usher God into the lives of sceptics, cynics and critics. Perhaps the following familiar quote makes sense in this context: “Please be patient with me, God isn’t finished with me yet!”
Back to our passage, Luke goes on to describe the Spirit’s presence as: “Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them.” The image of “tongues, as of fire,” once again underscores the deep Jewish roots of Pentecost. For Jews, God had been present in the burning bush, speaking to Moses and giving him the call and commission to go back to Egypt and lead the Hebrew people out of slavery. God also revealed God’s Self during the wilderness wanderings as a “pillar of fire.” The Jews would also remember one of their favourite prophets, Elijah, being taken up into heaven in a fiery chariot. So, once again, Luke emphasises here at Pentecost the deep Jewish roots of fire symbolizing God’s presence. Even today, on occasion, we speak of Holy Spirit filled people as “warm-hearted,” or “filled with fiery passion,” or even, “on fire for the Lord.” The work of the Holy Spirit in and through us, I believe, is to give us the “warm-hearted” gifts and fruit such as: kindness, love, gentleness, self control, the passionate commitment for loving and serving our God and our neighbour.
Along with the Spirit’s presence in the form of fire, Luke says is tongues, that is, the gift of language and communication, which deepens our understanding. The majority of biblical scholars today interpret this reference to speaking in “other languages” as foreign languages, not glossolalia—i.e. the phenomenon of ecstatic speaking with tongues. Perhaps the language is such that it is inclusive of both the ability to speak and understand foreign languages as well as speak with ecstatic tongues and interpret them. I think what Luke is lifting up here is the emphasis on the role of the Holy Spirit as the Communications Expert par excellence. The Holy Spirit works in and through us to teach us, and, as Luther put it “calls, gathers, enlightens and sanctifies” us. In other words, the Holy Spirit is always hard at work to make God and God’s will known, clear, and understood among us. The Spirit brings light to our darkness so we can see, understand and act on the truth that God reveals. Namely, as Peter put it in his sermon on that day of Pentecost long ago: “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” Amen. Come, Holy Spirit!
1 Cited from: David E. Leininger, Lectionary Tales For The Pulpit: Series VI Cycle B (Lima, OH: CSS Publishing Co., Inc., 2008), p. 158.
2 Cited by Susan Andrews from <www.goodpreacher.com/blog>, found at: <www.deaconsil.com/>.