This is Pentecost Sunday, the celebration of the gift of the Holy Spirit. We’re also receiving our confirmation class into membership and sending off our graduating seniors with our blessing. Just as it is every year, the main reading is from Acts 2 – I’m going to use just vv. 1-12, cutting off Peter’s inaugural sermon. I’ve been planning on using Romans 8:14-17 as well, but I’m having second thoughts about that tonight. We’ll see what happens.

Where are we?

In Romans, Paul has argued that Christians are set right with God through the kind of faith Abraham showed, not by keeping the commandments of the Jewish law. He has discussed the sense in which we are all inextricably mired in sin, save for the grace of God in Jesus Christ. That grace gives us a new kind of life, defined by the Holy Spirit rather than the Law. To really get what Paul means by the Spirit, we would have to read (at least) all of chapter 8, which may not fly during a busy Sunday worship service.

In Acts, we’re one week farther along than we were last week (it doesn’t always work this way). It’s ten days after Jesus’ ascension, or 50 days after Easter. This aligns, according to Acts, with the Jewish festival of Pentecost (Heb. Shavuot), whose date is related to Passover (although traditions vary about exactly how). The festival celebrates the early barley harvest and the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. This was a pilgrimage festival, for which Jews would have traveled to Jerusalem from far away.

What’s going on here?

For Paul, the Holy Spirit isn’t just an occasional way that God interacts with us; “interaction” doesn’t quite name it, and “occasional” certainly doesn’t. The Holy Spirit is a new reality into which we are invited, a new relationship with God. We are no longer slaves and subjects (as much bad Christian theology implies) but rather sons and daughters of God.

The precise language Paul uses here, which is obscured in the GNT, is language about adoption: some who were not initially children of God are now given that status. Like adoption today, this status is irrevocable and all-encompassing. We’re not provisionally or nominally made to be God’s children, we’re transformed completely in a kind of spiritual fusion.

Because we’ve been fused with God – our spirit with God’s Spirit – we’re given the same status in relation to God that Jesus had. The catch is that we are also subject to the same suffering that Jesus suffered. Paul will go on to revel in the promise that this suffering will be totally outshined by the glory of God’s people in fulfillment.

In Acts, the believers gather together on Pentecost. They’re all the time gathering. This is important: we don’t do this church thing alone. Paul Nuechterlein notes that gathering together is the opposite of what happened in the story of the Tower of Babel, where human language was confused and the people were dispersed so they wouldn’t infringe on divine territory.

The sound of the strong wind: ‘wind’ and ‘spirit’ (and ‘breath,’ while we’re at it) are the same word in Greek. There’s a single Hebrew word for these three as well.

The tongues of fire: In Luke and Matthew, John the Baptist foretells that Jesus will baptize “with the Holy Spirit and fire. In Exodus, when the Law is given, a cloud of fire and smoke descends on Mount Sinai.

The Spirit is what enables prophets to speak in God’s name. Most of the time, prophets speak in their own native language, so this event of speaking in different languages is special. The early church, like today’s Pentecostals, had the experience of speaking in languages unknown to anyone in the gathering. In this passage, however, it’s particularly significant that the languages each connect with particular onlookers. Based on the dates of Paul’s letters, the experience of speaking in unknown languages preceded the writing of this story in Acts. Is Luke making a theological point about what kinds of languages the Spirit authentically inspires?

The crowd of onlookers was composed more or less entirely of Jews and other worshipers of the God of Israel. This event foreshadows the spread of the Gospel to all nations, but it hasn’t really spread to the Gentiles (religiously defined) here.

I’m cutting off the reading before the accusation that the believers are drunk and Peter’s sermon on a passage from Joel.

So what?

Brian Peterson identifies this event as establishing the church as a community of prophets, speaking on God’s behalf by the Spirit. What does it mean today for the church to spread God’s message in the world? Surely something different than it meant when even the barest outlines of the story were generally unknown; but then, it’s been rightly pointed out that even most Christians today don’t actually know the story of the Bible particularly well. Whatever we mean by telling the story, the fact of translating it into particular languages and contexts would seem to be crucial.

Mark Tranvik reminds us that the Holy Spirit’s presence doesn’t mean everything will go just wonderfully for the church; in fact, it’s a recipe for trouble and suffering. But it’s also the mode of God’s presence that accompanies us through suffering and works goodness and faith in us.

David Lose notes that the Holy Spirit comes more than once in Acts, and every time it’s like this Pentecost all over again. So there are Pentecosts all throughout the life of the church.

Reading this in the context of our Confirmation Sunday, I’m hearing the importance of understanding – and telling – the Gospel in the human contexts of our lives. How our confirmands described their faith this year is different from how the last class did it; it’s different from how their parents and teachers describe it; it’s different between them. But the joy of the church lies in understanding this diversity of experience and thinking, in finding the power of God at work in the lives we share here. Imagine what the world would be like if we actually committed to understanding one another’s experiences and contexts.

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