Pentecost – rarely has so big a day been given such an ordinary name.
The word itself means “The Fiftieth Day.” Greek-speaking Jews used it to talk about a feast that was made fifty days after Passover, and during Jewish history it’s had several different emphases. For Christians, it marks what we call “the birthday of the church.”
It’s a spectacular day, really. The believers gather in an upper room and then the Holy Spirit comes, and we see these amazing effects of the Spirit’s presence; the rushing wind and the tongues of fire and the disciples speaking a variety of languages. But that name! “Day Fifty.” Whoop-ti-doo.
Oh well, we’ll chalk it up to the early church not having a good marketing rep and look at the events of that day. First, we find the believers gathered together in one place. Unlike their gatherings after Jesus’ crucifixion, they aren’t hiding or wondering what to do. They’re waiting for something, as they were told by Jesus.
Then there’s the sound of a rushing wind moving over them. You’ve probably heard any number of times that the same Greek root word translates as “wind” or “spirit,” depending on the context. People who read the Old Testament in Greek, a translation called the Septuagint, would have read Luke’s account and been reminded of the spirit of God moving on the face of the waters in Genesis.
And then “divided tongues, as of fire,” appear to rest on each believer. The presence of the Holy Spirit is often symbolized by a flame. Our own United Methodist symbol of the cross and flame uses it in that way.
Next, Kaboom! They’re off and running. They start talking about the gospel of Christ and everyone around Jerusalem hears them in their own native languages. This is not glossolalia, or the speaking in an unknown tongue, that Paul talks about later in the New Testament. That refers to someone speaking in an unknown language which someone else is given the gift to translate.
In this case, the believers speak in their own languages, but the people hear them in their own languages. It’s as though I were to travel to Mexico and deliver a sermon in English, but every one of the listeners heard it in Spanish.
It’s such a fascinating event that people gather all around to watch and listen. Some folks think that the believers have been drinking, but Peter says nobody’s been drinking yet because it’s too early. This is the first recorded instance of a sermon beginning with a joke, and you will notice that Peter is beaten by the religious authorities soon afterwards.
But now, he proclaims the gospel to the crowds and they respond, adding many believers to the church that day.
Little hints of what kind of impact the gospel will have on the world have been shown throughout Jesus’ ministry. He speaks to a Samaritan woman, heals a Roman soldier’s servant and the daughter of a Syrian woman. And Jesus of course gained many followers with his teaching. It’s almost like he has been a lit match, held to the world, and suddenly the world now catches fire itself.
We know how things catch fire. Their molecules are held together by certain kinds of chemical bonds. If we add heat – a form of energy – to them, the molecules want to move around and fly apart. Think a bagful of candy thrown into a daycare center. Enough heat and they break apart, which releases more energy and starts a kind of cascade effect. When this happens slowly, like with metal, we call it rusting. But when it happens quickly, with flammable materials, we call it fire.
For each of us, it’s as though we remain connected to things through the different bonds that have cemented us to them. Maybe it’s anger, maybe it’s sadness, maybe it’s fear…maybe it’s any one of a hundred things.
But each of us can have our Pentecost. Each of us, lit up, if you like, by the Holy Spirit, can find ourselves energized beyond the power of those connections to hold us and can break free from them. We’ll probably need that energizing over and over again, but God is infinite in all qualities, including patience.
Staying close to the flame may not be comfortable. We may have to confront attitudes or thoughts we’d rather ignore, or accept responsibility we’d rather pass along to someone else. But close to the flame is where the heat is, and the heat is the only energy we can find that’s enough to free us for the work of the Spirit as the believers were freed on Pentecost.