When I first started learning to play the guitar I learned a few chords, and worked on positioning my fingers until they sounded good, and I could move between them reasonably comfortably. Then, after some time I mastered the difficult “barre chords” in which the first finger forms a bar across the entire fret board while the remaining fingers shape the chord. But even though I had attained some proficiency with all of these chords, they remained unrelated to each other. I knew where certain barre chords were to be played on the neck, but, being a self-taught guitarist, I hadn’t recognised the connections between the different positions, or the underlying principles that guided the shapes of these chords. Then, one afternoon, as I sat in my room practicing, the connection struck me. I suddenly understood why the chords were named as they were, and why they were to be found where they were on the guitar fretboard. In that instance, a whole new world opened up for me. Suddenly I was able to derive new chords that I hadn’t known before from the positions which I did know. By applying the underlying principles which I had just “seen” for the first time, my guitar playing ability literally exploded in a matter of minutes. For the next few hours I found myself easily playing songs that, just a few moments before, had been beyond my ability. It was an emotional and euphoric experience that transformed me from a casual guitar strummer to a passionate music lover.
I sometimes think this is a little like what happened on the Day of Pentecost. This day was not so much about a change in God – the Spirit being “poured out” – as it was about a change in people – a new ability to perceive and experience the presence and activity of God’s Spirit. I have often heard people say that this day – recorded in Acts 2 – was the moment when God’s Spirit “descended” to earth. In fact, I remember being taught at one point in my journey, that before this moment the Spirit was not permanently present on earth at all, but only came “down” to empower certain individuals for specific tasks. But, at Pentecost, so the teaching went, God’s Spirit was “poured out” permanently, and could be received by anyone at anytime. It took me years to question this view of the Spirit’s presence and work, but when I did, the whole picture came crumbling down.
The Scriptures are clear that the Spirit has always been present, active and available on earth and in human affairs. From the creation moment in which God’s Spirit was “hovering over the surface of the waters” (Gen.1:2 NLT), to the Psalmist’s cry, “Where can I go from your Spirit? / Where can I flee from your presence?” (Psalm 139:7,8 NIV), the Old Testament bears constant witness to the Spirit’s presence. But, if this is true, what was the amazing occurrence that happened on that Pentecost Day? We may never know for sure exactly what the disciples experienced (most scholars follow St. John Chrysostom’s estimation based on 1:15 that there were 120 believers gathered), but we do know the impact and the significance of it. We can also know what it means for us today. And at it’s heart, the Pentecost moment was about a new insight, a new openness, a new perception and a new capacity to experience the presence and power of God’s Spirit. The sound of the wind would have been reminiscent to these disciples of Ezekiel’s prophecy of the valley of dry bones (Ezek.37:1-14) in which God’s people were reassured that even the Temple’s destruction and their exile from their homeland could not separate them from God’s Spirit. The flames that rested on each head would have reminded them of the pillar of fire that guided the Israelites through the desert (Ex.13:21,22). And as their eyes and hearts were opened to the Spirit’s presence and activity within and among them, they were able to draw on God’s power as never before, and they finally began to understand God’s Kingdom as Jesus had been trying to describe for so long.
The fact that this event happened at this festival would not have been lost on these believers. This was an agricultural feast – the end of the barley harvest and the start of the wheat harvest – a celebration of thanksgiving for another year of provision and a time of prayer for a successful gathering in of the harvest to come. But, it was also a time to commemorate the giving of the law at Sinai, fifty days after the Passover and the escape of the Israelite slaves from Egypt. For the gathered disciples of Christ, the words about the fields being ripe for harvest that Jesus spoke must have rung in their ears (Matt. 9:37-38, John 4:34-38). For these believers who had heard Jesus preach and seen his works, the new law (or rather the fulfilled law) that he had taught them (like, for example, the Sermon on the Mount Matt. 5-7) was now being written, not on tablets of stone, but, as Jeremiah prophesied, on their hearts (Jer. 31:31-34). And because of this “baptism” in the Holy Spirit, these disciples saw God’s Kingdom being revealed as they could never have believed it up to that point. In fact, so radical was the vision that they saw on that day, that even after the fact, they still struggled to understand and enact what they saw and experienced.
Much has been made of the fact that the believers spoke in foreign languages. Unfortunately, all too often, what is made of it is the exact opposite of the vision the disciples would have seen. How many faithful believers have left Christian gatherings feeling rejected and judged because they were not able to “speak in tongues”? How often has speaking in tongues become like a secret handshake separating those who are “really saved” from those who are not, marking the truly “Spirit-filled” Christians from those who don’t quite measure up? How divisive this gift has become, when what the believers experienced on that day was the exact opposite. Where, in the Babel story, human beings had been separated from one another because of their arrogance by the confusion of their language, and the resulting lack of communication, here the curse is reversed and all barriers are overcome. This Kingdom is not just for some, but for all.
Peter began to see this, and boldly expressed it in his sermon as he quoted Joel’s promise that the Spirit would be poured out on “all people” and that “everyone” who calls on God’s name would be saved. But, perhaps it was only later, as he received his vision of the sheet of food descending from heaven, and then was asked to preach to a gathering of Gentiles (See Acts 10 & 11), that he really understood how radically inclusive this Kingdom – and the Spirit who enabled them to live it – really was. And once they had begun to recognise how all-embracing God’s grace and love were, they could not help themselves. The disciples proclaimed it in whatever they could, they lived it daily and they spread the message to the whole world as it was then known, drawing in women – both married and widows, as members and leaders – eunuchs, slaves, Gentiles, soldiers, revolutionaries and even those, like Saul, who were committed Pharisees and deeply opposed to the way of Christ.
There can be no question, after reading this account, that God’s Spirit is unrestrainedly available and active in human affairs. What we need is not so much an “outpouring” of the Spirit as an awakening to the Spirit’s power and presence, and to the Kingdom of God that the Spirit opens to us that welcomes and embraces all people in Christ’s name. The only question we need to answer as we worship this Pentecost Sunday is this: Are we willing to have our eyes and hearts opened in this way? Are we wiling to allow ourselves to be overwhelmed by a vision of God’s radically inclusive Kingdom, and to begin to live it out through Spirit-empowered acts of welcome, compassion, grace, service and invitation? Are we ready to have Christ’s law of love written on our hearts, to have our way illumined by the Spirit’s fire and to be blown into surprising and unexpected relationships by the wind of the Spirit? If, in some small way, we can answer ‘yes’ to these questions, then we’d better be ready – the Pentecost experience will hit our sanctuaries on Sunday, and we will never be the same.