In many ways Pentecost is my favorite Sunday of the church year. I never tire of reading from that second chapter of Acts: of the sound of the mighty, rushing wind filling the whole house, of the cloven tongues of fire resting upon each of the disciples, of their suddenly speaking in other tongues “as the Spirit gave them utterance”. Then, just beneath them, on the other side of the window, were those devout Jews “from every nation under heaven”—men and women from all those strange, exotic-sounding places like Parthia, Media, Elam, Mesopotamia, Judea, Cappadocia, Pontus, Asia, Phrygia, Pamphylia, Egypt, Libya and Cyrene. It is an amazing story, and somehow it never loses its freshness for me. If anything, it becomes more fascinating with each passing year.
For the most part, our focus in the narrative tends to be on the experience of Peter and the other disciples in the upper room. After all, what happened to them was nothing short of spectacular. The wind, the fire, and not least the sudden ability to communicate in languages previously unknown to them, along with the transformation of Peter from a man who had been afraid to admit his allegiance to Jesus to a bold proclaimer of the gospel—all within a space of minutes—truly staggers the imagination.
It is natural that our attention should be drawn to what the Holy Spirit was doing inside the walls of the upper room Yet Luke, the author of the Acts of the Apostles, was well aware that the Spirit was very much at work in the people outside those walls as well. In fact, Luke uses no fewer than four different verbs to describe the impact that the events of Pentecost was having on them: “bewildered”, “amazed”, “astonished”, “perplexed”. Eugene Peterson catches it well in his translation in The Message: “… they were thunderstruck. They couldn’t for the life of them figure out what was going on… Their heads were spinning; they couldn’t make head or tail of any of it. They talked back and forth, confused: ‘What’s going on here?’ ”
Are not these Galileans?
In the midst of all their confusion we hear them asking three questions. You’ll find the first in verse 7: “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans?” Half a world away and twenty centuries later the implications of that question are lost on most of us. But the fact was that among the city sophisticates in Jerusalem Galileans were regarded as bumpkins. Galilee was a backwater, far from the beaten track. They didn’t even know how to speak properly. Remember how Peter gave himself away by his Galilean accent. Even the Galileans didn’t have a high opinion of themselves. And think of Nathaniel’s comment when he learned where Jesus was from. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” he asked.
Yet here were these rural people, totally unfamiliar with city ways, who knew nothing of art or culture, addressing them in their own languages, and without even a trace of an accent. This was to be their first lesson in the ways of the Holy Spirit.
In reality it should have been nothing new to those people. It was embedded in their heritage. Part of the Haggadah recited every year at Passover contains a confession from Deuteronomy 26:5, which runs thus: “A wandering Aramean was my father. And he went down into Egypt and sojourned there, few in number, and there he became a nation, great, mighty, and populous.” They would have been familiar also with the story of how David had been chosen as king: how Jesse had paraded seven of his sons before the prophet Samuel, yet it was none of them but David, the least of them, who was fit only to be a shepherd in the fields, whom God had called.
This is the story of the ways of God in the Bible again and again. He chooses the least fit, the least worthy, the least predictable, to carry forward his purposes in the world. The apostle Paul summed it up in his words to the Corinthians:
Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God. (1 Corinthians 1:26-29)
Christian history ever since is peppered with women and men, some of them with very little education or advantage, some in spite of illness and disability, who have made a huge impact for Christ. We do the Holy Spirit a disfavor when we underestimate his power to take the most unlikely people as channels of his glory—and sometimes those unlikely people are you and I.
How is it that we hear?
The second question that we hear asked on that day of Pentecost is found in the next verse: “How is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?” It’s not my purpose to go into the mechanics of how the disciples found themselves speaking in languages they had never known. Scholars with far more learning than me have sought in various ways to explain it, but I believe it is best left a mystery. Let me just say that from what I can tell there were two miracles involved. The first had to do with the disciples speaking in other languages. The second had to do with the people actually hearing them, not just with their physical ears, but that the message penetrated deeper, into their hearts. Later on, at the conclusion of Peter’s sermon, Luke comments, “When they heard this, they were cut to the heart” (Acts 2:37).
Jesus talked about these two kinds of hearing repeatedly in the gospels. Think of his repeated refrain, “Those who have ears to hear, let them hear.” That is the whole point of the parable of the sower. He spread the seed on all kinds of ground. But it was only in the fertile soil that it was able to take root and grow and produce grain. It is the point of the story of the two sons, one of whom said yes to his father but didn’t bother to do what he was asked, the other of whom initially said no but went ahead and did it. It is the point of the two house builders, one of whom built his house on the sand, the other on bedrock.
All of this, I believe, is the work of the Holy Spirit. It is the Holy Spirit who prepares the soil to accept the seed so that it may sprout and grow. It is the Holy Spirit who gives us the will and the power not merely to say yes to God’s call on our lives, but to respond with action. It is the Holy Spirit who inspires and empowers us, to hear Jesus’ words with more than just our outward ears, but equally importantly to build our lives upon it.
I remember inviting a prominent and gifted preacher to preach in my previous parish. I will never forget how he began his sermon leaning over the pulpit and asking the congregation, “How many of you have ever heard a sermon?” “How many of you have ever heard a sermon?” he asked. “Now I know that most of you have been present for a sermon. But how many of you have actually heard a sermon?” To hear a sermon, to hear God’s word in whatever way it may come to us, requires the work of the Holy Spirit.
Each morning when I read the Bible, the chances are I will have forgotten what I have read by the time I sit down for breakfast. However, I pray that that may not be the case, that the Holy Spirit will empower me to hear what God is saying to me with my inward ears, to retain it, to allow it to sink into my heart and make a difference to who I am. “How is it that we hear?” the people asked. By the power of the Holy Spirit. It is the Holy Spirit alone who is able to take God’s word and make it live for us and in us.
What does this mean?
The third question that the people asked takes us a whole level deeper. We find it in verse 12: “What does this mean?” Looking back on my own years of Christian experience, not to mention the nearly twenty centuries of church history, I am tempted to answer them, “Little do you know!”
Little did they know what they were being swept up into. Little did they know that in less than a generation they would be part of a movement that was being felt right across the whole known world. Little did they know that the message they were hearing would reach out to lands of whose existence they were not even aware. Little did they know that there would be people still responding to and living out that message nearly two thousand years later.
All of this is hindsight on our part. They had no idea of the meaning of what was happening to them. How could they? Yet those words, “Little do you know,” can apply as easily to us today. When I look back at the changes that have occurred not only in my life and in the lives of those around me, but also in the wider church, I have to admit, “Little did I know.” Little did I know where the Holy Spirit would lead me in my Christian journey. (I can certainly tell you that Minnesota never occurred to me.) Little did I know that what used to be called “the mission field” would explode to the point where the majority of Christian believers now live in those places until so recently apparently untouched by the gospel.
More amazingly still, what those first believers witnessed, and what we are witnessing today is only what the Bible calls the first fruits of the new creation. It is the trailer in the movie theater, those brief two and a half minutes that give you little more than an inkling of what the full feature is going to be about.
What does all this mean? It means that God’s new creation has begun its invasion of the old. It means that the day is coming when not only we, but everything that is, will be made new by the power of the Holy Spirit. And that is something of which the human mind can hardly comprehend the tiniest fraction. As J.B. Phillips put it in his translation of Romans, “The whole creation is on tiptoe to see the wonderful sight of the children of God coming into their own… And the hope is that in the end the whole of created life will be rescued from the tyranny of change and decay, and have its share in that magnificent liberty which can only belong to the children of God!” (Romans 8:19,21)
That is something to get excited about. Pentecost is something to get excited about—but more importantly, may it lead us to seek and to know the Holy Spirit more fully in our lives today: to allow him to continue to surprise us, to let him speak God’s word to our hearts, and to make us agents and ambassadors of the glorious hope that awaits us.