The following commentary is a version of the sermon for Pentecost, 2018.
In one sense I’ve been preparing this sermon for years. It has been the product of inhabiting this scripture passage in my imagination. I hope to share with you some of my questions and sense of amazement.
I’ve wondered about the apostles in the moment just before the Spirit descended on them. Were they hopeful? Apprehensive? Curious? Did they feel abandoned? Within the previous seven weeks they had been through the despair and remorse of Jesus’ passion, the elation of Easter Sunday, the consolidation of their understanding in subsequent meetings with him and the joyful confusion of his Ascension. As they sat in that upper room were they expecting his immanent return?
Or maybe they were at ease with Jesus’ final promises that we read in the gospel for Pentecost: …When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. (John 16:1)…it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you.(John 16:7) They didn’t know what was coming and they didn’t care because they were confident.
Whatever their mood or expectations as they waited in that room on Pentecost I doubt that they anticipated what would happen next. …Suddenly there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind from heaven, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. (Acts 2:1-4)
In scriptural language…suddenly there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind…they were blown away.
Likewise, as I read the passage, I tried to imagine what the apostles experienced in the moments just after the arrival of the Spirit. Did they fully understand everything that Jesus had taught and that they could speak with confidence? Did the Spirit fully integrate their knowledge and experience of Jesus into a dazzlingly comprehensive picture that energized them?
Or was the experience more nuanced? Did they feel complete trust in the Holy Spirit … like jumping off a bridge with a bungee cord around your feet … confident that the Holy Spirit would give them the words…that the ‘bungee cord’ would hold? Was there an ‘urgency of love’ that propelled them forward?
Either of these could be true.
I also wondered if they suddenly realized that they could speak Greek and Macedonian, Persian and Latin. Or was there something else that they communicated?
In our own days the volunteer rescuers in the Mediterranean may not speak Arabic, Farsi or Ethiopian when they set out to rescue refugees. But they speak the ‘language of love’ when they hold out their hands to grasp the arms of the refugees in the boats and haul them aboard the rescue vessels. In this situation they don’t need words. Their eyes, hands and gifts of water and food speak love more meaningfully than words. The communication is heart to heart.
Similarly I could imagine that the apostles spoke a language of love that transcended specific words. They infused whatever they knew of some foreign language with their love of God and passion to tell the story of salvation by Jesus Christ. They were compelling even if their vocabulary, grammar and accent were minimal.
I have a personal story about the work of the Holy Spirit in my life that was probably as startling to me as the coming of the Spirit was to the disciples and that informs my interpretation of this passage. (I’ll tell the story on Sunday.)
My tentative conclusion to the question I posed about the apostles’ state of mind after the coming of the Holy Spirit is that they did not fully and suddenly understand all that Jesus taught and did. You may recall from other scripture passages that we have read in recent weeks from Acts that Peter thought that certain foods were unclean and that he should not associate with Gentiles. The apostles also disagreed about how to interpret Christ’s teaching especially whether gentiles had to become Jews first. However, they did have confidence that the Spirit would guide them and give them words to speak.
I also think that the Spirit gave them the ‘language of love’ to speak to people whose words they did not fully know. They spoke from the heart and to the heart. The miracle was less about Greek or Latin or Macedonian but about the language of love and the Spirit of truth. (Yes, I realize that there are limits to this interpretation in view of the explicit statements in Acts, but I entertain it nonetheless.)
Finally, as my experience tells me, the Holy Spirit continues to work in us today. Pentecost is a continuous, not just an historic, event.
May the Pentecost Spirit live in each of you, now and always.