A Lectionary Reflection on Acts 2:1-21 for Pentecost, Year B
It is no coincidence that the experience of God’s Spirit that is recorded in Acts 2 happened on the Day of Pentecost. It should come as no surprise to read the way the event is described. What we witness through Luke’s words is simply what we should expect whenever the God who was revealed to us by Jesus is at work. Unfortunately, the way we have understood this event, and the way we have applied it to our own lives in our own times have been pretty much the exact opposite of what is being communicated here. To hear what Luke is trying to tell us we need to understand and hold together some pretty well known facts about this day.
Firstly there is the day itself – Pentecost. This was one of the three major Jewish festivals. The climate at this time of year made travel easy, and so Jews from all over the world would make the pilgrimage to Jerusalem, ensuring that the Pentecost crowd was about as big as it could get. What made this festival so significant was that it was a holiday in remembrance of Moses receiving the law. This event in Hebrew history was the moment when a group of liberated slaves became the nation of Israel. The law was effectively their new constitution and it gave them a framework for their lives together. It was also the standard which, throughout Old Testament history, they constantly failed to achieve and to which the prophets constantly called them. The result was that a dream had developed, uttered by the prophet Jeremiah, that there would come a day when the law of God would be written on hearts. It was a vision of a new order in which God was the true Monarch, and the people would follow God’s ways naturally, teaching and loving one another in a world of peace and justice. The prophecy of Joel that Peter quoted in his sermon on this day describes what had come to be know as the “Day of the Lord”, which was believed to be the time when God’s Reign would be established on the earth, with God’s messiah as ruler over all. While there would certainly be judgment on evil, the promise was of a time when justice would triumph and peace would ultimately reign. The experience of the Spirit was, for the disciples and the new believers who responded to Peter’s message, the fulfilment of this time of unity, wholeness, justice and peace, in which God’s law would be written on the heart and all people would be brought together under God’s rulership.
When this dream is placed beside the story of the tower of Babel from Genesis, the power of the events of this day can be seen even more clearly. In the Babel story, the people grow arrogant and long to be their own god. They dream of raising themselves up and building a monument to their greatness – a tower that reaches to the heavens. But, their arrogance ends up dividing them, as they find themselves speaking different languages, unable to communicate and, ultimately going their separate ways. On this Day of Pentecost, though, the dividedness is reversed. As the followers of Christ recognise his Reign and submit to his authority, they are empowered and united, and they suddenly find themselves able to cross the barriers of culture and language and create a single united community under God. It’s the dream of peace and justice, of wholeness and unity fulfilled in a mysterious and dramatic way.
The second feature of the Day of Pentecost, from a Jewish perspective, was that it was a harvest festival, a time of thanksgiving for the grain harvest which had started at Passover and was now completed. For an agricultural society, this was an important moment. It not only confirmed their survival or prosperity for the year to come. It also reminded them of their dependence on the earth and the God who created and sustained the earth. Without the rain to water the crops, without the soil to nourish the plants, and without the mysterious capacity to grow and produce food that was built into the seed, the people would not be able to survive. Their lives were inextricably connected and dependent on the earth and what it produced. It is significant that the law and the harvest were celebrated together. The one recognised their need of God for the processes that fed and sustained them, and the other recognised their need of God for the processes which enabled them to live and thrive together in justice and peace. In the dream of the Day of the Lord in which God’s new order was established, the prophets often included the whole of creation, describing how peace and love, prosperity and wholeness would come not just to human beings, but to the entire earth. The vision from Joel that Peter referenced was one example of how the promised outpouring of God’s Spirit would encompass the entire created order, and the disciples clearly believed that what they were experiencing was not just for them but for the cosmos.
What a pity that the “Pentecostal” experience has become such a divisive thing in the last century. What a pity that the church has divided itself along the lines that we define according to what we believe is the Spirit’s work. What a tragedy that we have allowed ourselves to use God’s all-encompassing Spirit as an excuse for exclusivity and elitism. To the extent that we have done this we have completely missed the Breath of God.
In the light of the timing of this moment, in the face of the events that are described in Luke’s account, and in the light of the early church’s interpretation of what they were experiencing we can only conclude that Pentecost is a moment in which God’s dream of bringing life and salvation to the entire cosmos is revealed. This is why the apostles had to eventually open the doors of the church to those who would not have been allowed into the Temple – to women, slaves, eunuchs and Gentiles. And this is why Paul could write: “For God in all His fullness was pleased to live in Christ, and through Him God reconciled everything to Himself. He made peace with everything in heaven and on earth by means of Christ’s blood on the cross.” (Col.1:19-20 NLT). If our experience and understanding of Pentecost is anything less than the unification and liberation of the cosmos, we have not yet felt the heat of the flames on our heads, or breathed in the Breath of God’s Spirit. For, when the Spirit moves us, we will discover our connectedness with all things, and we will be unable to do anything other than throw open our hearts and arms to all people, all creatures and all things. It’s a dream that is beyond any of us. Yet it is the dream into which Christ invites us, and for which we strive in the power of God’s Pentecost Spirit.