(Originally written May 27, 2012)
Acts 2: 1-21
2When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
5 Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. 7Amazed and astonished, they asked, ‘Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 9Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.’ 12All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, ‘What does this mean?’ 13But others sneered and said, ‘They are filled with new wine.’
14 But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them: ‘Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. 15Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. 16No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:
17 “In the last days it will be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams.
18 Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
and they shall prophesy.
19 And I will show portents in the heaven above
and signs on the earth below,
blood, and fire, and smoky mist.
20 The sun shall be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood,
before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.
21 Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”
I was the liturgist this morning reading this Scripture lesson. I read it with a great deal of expression and loud enough so that even the old people in the back could hear!
This is one of my favorite Bible verses. It describes the precursor of a simultaneous translator! At the United Nations and other international organizations, the speaker’s words are simultaneously translated into the languages of the others present – French, Spanish, Arabic, Chinese, Russian, etc. Thus the speaker’s words can be immediately transmitted and understood and there isn’t a gap that could cause mistranslations or misunderstandings.*
The lesson or allegory in Acts 2 is that the Word of God is to be spread throughout the world, to people of all nations. No longer is it confined to Jerusalem or Galilee. Of course it didn’t actually happen simultaneously at that moment that people heard the disciplines speaking their own languages; but Peter was calling on the faithful to go to other places to proselytize.
Rev. Co this morning used the metaphor fire as the theme of his sermon (or “message” as it is called now). He had brought one of those clickers that produce a flame at the end of a wand. In fact, after the service, everyone’s pledges were burned in a small Smokey Joe on the front steps of the church. The idea is that no one is going to hold you to giving that amount; it has to be your own commitment to yourself.
This fits in with the theme of the Scripture lesson. The flames and speaking in tongues and all that is to welcome the Holy Spirit into your heart, which only you can do yourself. It invites you to take a risk, to try something new, that the spirit of God will be with you.
Forest fires are not bad for a healthy forest. The fire spreads and burns the debris along the ground, the leaves, weedy vegetation, and keeps the growth of the forest in check – too many trees means overgrowth, a less healthy forest, in which tree branches cannot spread out because there are too many others. Vegetation grows on those trees and there is less energy for the rest of the tree. A forest fire in an unhealthy forest spreads rapidly and kills everything in its path.
It’s like pinching back overgrown plants. The plant needs to get rid of the unhealthy or dead parts in order to grow better and capture the energy needed for new growth.
So it is the same with us. The energy of our own “fire” can lead us to new ideas, new enterprises, a healthier and expanded life. Just as the tree branches in a healthy forest have room to spread and grow upward, so we can expand our horizons if we have God in our hearts to help us get there.
*Of course, interpreters do make mistakes too, such as the famous incident where President Kennedy heard Khrushchev’s words as “We will bury you” when in fact these words were an idiomatic expression that the interpreter apparently had not heard before, meaning “We will surpass you” or something like that.
For another interpretation, I always like to check out Huffington Post’s online religious column. I found some of the comparisons made between Acts 2:1-21 and other Scripture very informative:
Rev. Dr. Eric D. Barreto focuses on differences and how God meets us where we are. Especially interesting is his take on the Tower of Babel. I have excerpted what I think is essential to understand his message.
Acts 2:1-21 Think Differently about Differences
Christians have often hoped for a time when our racial and economic differences would cease, when in Christ we would all be indistinguishable. Such impulses are earnest but fundamentally misguided. …
Many such interpretations emerge from a misreading of texts like Galatians 3:28. Such readings imagine that becoming Christians means becoming all the same in all ways. …
Nothing could be further from the truth.
Galatians teaches that “in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith” (Galatians 3:26). Our adoption as children of God, however, does not erase our differences. We are not the same, but we are reminded that our differences are not ways to measure our value in the eyes of God and one another.
The story of Pentecost in Acts 2:1-21 helps us understand how God sees human diversity: one of God’s greatest gifts to the world. At Pentecost, God through the Spirit does not erase our differences but embraces the fact that God has made us all so wonderfully different. …
The final chapters of the Gospel of Luke and the first chapters of Acts finds the disciples and other followers of Jesus regrouping and discerning what a life of faith together looks like after his death, resurrection and ascension. …
These early followers of Jesus gather in Jerusalem along with fellows Jews from around the Mediterranean world (Acts 2:5-11). They are gathered together in one place when suddenly tongues of fire descend from the heavens on the day of Pentecost. The gift of the spirit precipitates an extraordinary event. As the disciples proclaim the good news, everyone hears the good news proclaimed in their own language.
Many interpreters have viewed this Pentecost moment as a direct response to the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9), a fantastic story that seeks to explain how a people once united by common ancestors eventually became peoples with many different languages. Some have forwarded that Pentecost reverses the punishment God meted out at Babel. Finally, we can understand one another because the Spirit enables all to understand one language.
To me, this is a significant misreading of Babel. Is it really a punishment from God that we are all different, that we speak different languages and live in different cultures? That is, is difference a problem in need of a solution? I certainly don’t think so, and the vibrancy of the world’s cultures is evidence against this misreading of Babel.
Most importantly, if Pentecost were a reversal of Babel, if Pentecost undid the diversity of human languages precipitated by Babel, why would the Spirit enable everyone to hear the Gospel preached in their own languages? Why not cause everyone to understand one, universal, heavenly language? …
Notice what happens at Pentecost. God, through the Spirit, chooses to meet us where we are: in the midst of a multitude of languages and experiences. … Language is rooted in a wider and complex culture and way of thinking and living. Even when we speak the same language, don’t we still have a hard time understanding one another? Imagine then the miracle of Pentecost and what it means for us today.
God meets us in the messiness of different languages and does not ask us to speak God’s language. Instead, God chooses to speak our many languages. God does not speak in a divine language beyond our comprehension. At Pentecost, God speaks in Aramaic and Greek and other ancient languages. Today, God continues to speak in Spanish, Greek, Hindi and Chinese alike.
At Pentecost, God makes God’s choice clear. God joins us in the midst of the messiness and the difficulties of speaking different languages, eating different foods and living in different cultures. That is good news indeed.