Artists often begin painting by laying a foundation of broad strokes to define the initial boundaries of what the painting will become. These broad strokes set a mood and lay the groundwork for much work that is yet to come. Soon the artist will add details and shading that will bring the final picture into focus. It seems to me that Pentecost begins the story of the church by painting with broad strokes that lay down a foundation for how God wants us to understand the church. Pentecost was a traditional Hebrew festival associated with harvest time. There is a foreshadowing here of Jesus’ words in Luke’s gospel: “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few.” (Luke 10:2) Pentecost broadens God’s promise to include “everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him” (verse 39). In the words of the old hymn, “There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy,”: “the love of God is broader than the measures of our mind.”
Pentecost has always been a pretty important day in the life of the church. It began as a Jewish harvest festival that was celebrated 50 days after the Passover. It marked the bringing of the first fruits of the harvest to the Temple and celebrated the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai. In a way, it celebrates a new beginning for the Chosen People of God; a covenant renewal. It seems fitting that God would choose this particular day to send the Holy Spirit to the Disciples. It was a day when many people would be in Jerusalem. It was the perfect opportunity to broaden God’s message to include more people.
At this point in history Jerusalem has changed. It is no longer just the “Holy City of God”. It is the site of a Roman occupying force; it is home to many people who know nothing of the ancient Hebrew traditions. And, as this story tells us, “there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem”. They were immigrants, not pilgrims as we may have often heard. They had moved here from the four corners of the Roman Empire. To do business they had to learn Greek, the language of commerce in the empire. They also spoke their native languages, much like modern day immigrants who learn the language of their new host country, but retain their native language and customs as well. So, if everyone could speak and understand Greek, why didn’t the disciples just come out and preach in Greek? Well, where’s the miracle in that? The miracle in this story is that God chose not to do the obvious thing and take the easy route. God decided instead that the greater impact would come when each person understood the Disciples in their own native language.
Think about that for a minute. The Pentecost story paints a picture that shows the people how much God cares for and honors each one of them. Each person is important enough to God to be able to hear the gospel in their own language where they are comfortable speaking and there is less chance to be misunderstood. Imagine the difference that makes to a person. Think about the first time a Bible was printed in common languages so that anyone could read it. Imagine the first time someone went to church and heard the worship music and the prayers and the preaching in their own language. What a difference it must make to a blind person to have access to an audio Bible. Then take those examples a little further and think about what it means to take the Good News of Jesus into Bar Church in Tulsa; to people who may have not set foot in a church in years, if ever. What might happen if the story of Jesus was made available to people who feel marginalized by traditional church?
The miracle of Pentecost lies in the fact that the Good News is being heard by people who came from every corner of the world. Some of these people were already devout Jews who faithfully worshipped Yahweh. But some of these people have no experience of God; some may have run away from God; some may have been hurt by somebody “in the name of God”…the Good News is for them too.
Pentecost paints a picture in broad strokes of inclusivity that reminds us that God’s promise is for “everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him” (v39). We usually focus our attention on the visible and audible signs of Pentecost: “divided tongues, as of fire”; “rush of a violent wind”; Speaking of other languages. We must also look at how the Holy Spirit is manifest in PROPHECY. The crowd wants to know: “What does this mean?” Peter speaks a prophetic word to answer their question. He paraphrases the prophet Joel and interprets the events of the day.
What does Pentecost mean? It means that something new in human history has begun. The times are changing and God is still at work in the world. It means that the Spirit has come to mark the church – and its members – as belonging to God and as agents of God. It means that the foreign language miracle is not a trick or an example of mass hysteria. God is equipping people to communicate about God. The Spirit prompts them all to engage in prophecy.
So, what is PROPHECY?
- It is NOT predicting the future. That’s just hocus-pocus, tarot card, and crystal ball nonsense – NOT PROPHECY. Only God knows the future and we are arrogant to think we can figure it out.
- Prophecy is TRUTH-TELLING. It is naming the places and ways that God intervenes or initiates in the world. It is a component of proclaiming the Word of God and identifying God’s salvation at work.
- It points to God in the PRESENT TIME. It draws from the past, to speak in the present and look forward to the future. It is not something to be relegated to ancient “prophets of old”.
Peter is answering the question: “What does THIS mean?” – “What’s happening now?” Prophecy seeks to show how present events might connect us to God and God’s purposes. It is ever-evolving and relevant. We need to discard the baggage that tends to go with this word “prophecy” and let it be about making sense of things in the present as they relate to our understanding of God. It is not about predicting the end times. The Holy Spirit’s presence in the world broadens the reach of God’s message. It gives us the power to be witnesses even to the ends of the earth. It also reminds us that Jesus broadened God’s message by including all people, not just the Chosen People. Pentecost presents a story about inclusion; the saving grace of Jesus Christ is available to anyone who wants it.
Most importantly, the Pentecost story does not engender judgement. Peter speaks truth to the crowd and leaves God to do the work of changing hearts and minds. He does not judge or condemn anyone; he simply tells the truth as the Holy Spirit prompts him. Neither should we judge or try to decide who deserves to hear the Good News of Jesus. God’s Spirit is poured out widely, in broad strokes across social and cultural boundaries. It is for us to speak the truth as we are prompted by the Spirit and to listen for the truth that may come from others. Neither Peter nor any of the Disciples received all the truth, all the answers. As human beings, all are susceptible to error and we rely on one another to make sense of God’s ways. This is the hard work of God’s people; it is the inspired work we do. God began by painting the foundation with broad strokes. Throughout history God has continued, and will continue, to fill in the picture with detail and shading. In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
[Acknowledgement of source contributions from “Feasting on the Word” and Rev. Dr. Matt Skinner, Luther Theological Seminary.]