Saturday, May 18, 2024

Pentecost - A Story for OUR time.

Text: Acts 2.1–21

Today, we confront one of the more extraordinary stories of the early church.  It’s a story of tongues of fire on people’s heads, amid the sound of a rushing wind.  It’s a story of a sudden and miraculous ability to be understood by people of other languages.  It’s a story about nervous, frightened followers of Jesus suddenly finding the courage, and the power, to spread his message.  So it’s pretty extraordinary stuff, isn’t it.  It doesn’t sound anything like the world that we inhabit.  It sounds mystical, fantastical, even mythical doesn’t it?

So, let’s apply the 3 C’s of bible reading that I’ve taught a number of times from this pulpit.  Do you remember what the three C’s are?  Context, context, context.

The first context is that of what was happening in the time of the actual story.  The disciples had witnessed Jesus being raised from the dead, and then taken into heaven.  They were confused, dismayed, and not a little frightened.  The Master they had given their lives to follow had apparently disappeared, leaving them alone.  What’s more, he had given them a command to take his good news to the whole world, and promised them the power of his Spirit to do so.  But so far, nothing.  Days had gone by.  They waited in Jerusalem, just as Jesus had commanded them.  But nothing was happening.

And then, all of a sudden – bang!  At just the right time (that is in God’s time, when God judged the moment to be right) people from all over the Empire had gathered in Jerusalem, the Holy Spirit is sent upon the disciples.  He fills them, not least with courage. They spill out onto the streets to tell people what they had learned about Jesus.  Crucially, by some strange power, the foreign people in the crowd could understand what they were saying.  

The text is slightly unclear about exactly what happened here.  On the one hand, the text says ‘All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability’ – which implies the sudden gift, given to the disciples.  On the other hand, the text underlines just how many different nationalities were in town that day – and enigmatically has the crowd saying ‘And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?’.  That seems to imply that the miracle takes place in the ears of the crowd, rather than the mouths of the disciples.  

We should also note that Luke uses a rather obvious story-telling device to relate this tale.  When the crowd finds itself aghast at being able to understand what is being said, they (apparently!) speak with one voice, to list all the nationalities among them.  It’s a remarkably coherent list for a crowd to all say together out-loud, isn’t it?  They would have needed someone at the front of the crowd with the speech written out in big letters, pointing to each one with a big stick!  It’s clearly a story-telling device, by Luke.  We’re not meant to read it literally – like many of the Bible’s stories. 

So, that’s the basic context of the story – the first context.  It’s a story of a bunch of disciples, frightened and confused, suddenly find new energy, new power, to step out boldly to declare their Truth.  It’s a story of how their message suddenly found its mark – and gained serious traction among people from all over the world.

But what is the second context – the context of the author, Luke?  According to the best scholarly opinion, he wrote this story between 40 and 60 years after the fact.  What motivated him to give his time, and the considerable cost of large amounts of papyrus and ink to the task of writing this story, in this way?  At the time Luke was writing, the church was in trouble.  Largely thanks to the missionary work of Paul, it had grown to a sufficient size to have become rather an irritant to the Roman Empire, and the Jewish State.  Their message of God’s equal love for all humanity, and their call for a new Kingdom of peace and of justice for the poor, was a real threat to the Senators, Generals and religious leaders who held all the power.  These troublesome Christians claimed that this Kingdom would replace the empire of violence; an empire which kept the poor in their place, while the rich got richer on the backs of the poor’s labour and enterprise.  At the same time, some of the Christians themselves were beginning to lose hope.  No-one likes being oppressed for their faith.  And it seemed that the early promises of Christ’s second coming were not, in fact, coming to pass, in the way they expected.  They were jittery.  And some were even falling away from their first love of Jesus, as the opening chapters of the book of Revelation so dramatically relate.  

Luke’s dramatic story of that first Pentecost needs to be seen in that context.  He’s writing to a people who need encouragement – who need goading into new action, new enthusiasm for God’s world-changing message.  He reminds his readers, that the church was born in a moment of great spiritual power, amid a great and public miracle.  By listing, in great detail, all the foreign visitors to Jerusalem, he is also reminding them that the church is a universal, worldwide, catholic institution – meant as much for Medes and Parthians, Romans and Greeks as it is for Jews.  This is a message that Luke reinforces a few chapters later, with his dramatic story of Peter’s conversion, which I preached about recently.  (Check out or

And that brings us, rather nicely, to the 3rd context.  Ours.  What is our context as we read this story – understanding that whatever actually happened on that first Pentecost, Luke wanted us, his readers, to draw lessons for our own time, and for our own life as Christians.  If a bible story doesn’t speak to us, then it doesn’t speak at all.

In our time, we are the small band of disciples, hidden away behind the closed doors and walls of our building, our own metaphorical upper room.  We might feel like a mighty army, as we gather together in this place, singing hymns to strengthen our faith and our resolve.  But, in fact, we are less than 1% of the people who live in this parish.  And so, the story of Pentecost turns out to be our story.  

We are the ones who need a fresh outpouring of courage, to go out into the street, into our homes, schools and workplaces, into our clubs and social groups, to declare, as Peter did, the coming of the great and glorious day of the Lord.  We are the ones tasked with the message of a Kingdom in which the poor will be lifted up, in which justice and mercy will flow like rivers, and in which every human has the potential for God’s Spirit to be ignited within them.  The message of those strange tongues at Pentecost is that if we will only have the courage to speak God’s Truth, then God will take care of the translation issues.  The Holy Spirit will draw all people to God, if we only have the courage to fling wide the doors of our upper room; if only we have the courage to start telling people the good news that there is real hope for a better world, and for richer Spirit-filled lives.  A hope and a faith we have found by following Jesus Christ.  Amen.

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