The Feast of Pentecost
May 11, 2008
Text: Acts 2:1-21
Dear Friends in Christ,
One my favorite Warner Brothers cartoon character is Marvin Martian. Marvin is always trying to set off the big ka-boom. He wants to blow up the Earth because it’s blocking his view of Venus. His antics always lead Bugs Bunny to comment, “Hey Doc, you could hurt someone.” Inevitably Bugs always has to stop Marvin from setting off the big ka-boom. But like all good cartoon characters, Marvin keeps coming back to try again.
On Pentecost God had His own big ka-boom to set off. His Word was about to explode into the world. And the effects would be world wide.
The day of Pentecost was one of the great pilgrim festivals of the Jewish religion. Further, at that time, as it is today with the modern state of Israel, many Jews were looking to return to their ancestral homeland. Likewise there were more Jews in other parts of the world than there were in Jerusalem. In this, it is much like today where there are more Jews in New York City than in the whole nation of Israel. The upshot of all this is that Jerusalem was full to overflowing.
Notice here how God picks his times. Christ was crucified at a time when Jerusalem was full of visitors. Fifty days later, on the Jewish Pentecost festival, the city is again filled with visitors literally from all over the world. God has set the stage for word of these events to spread quickly.
“When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place. And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them.” By all here, we mean the whole congregation of Christians that already existed in Jerusalem. It was a group of about 120 people. They were gathered to commemorate Christ’s resurrection and very likely to celebrate the Lord’s Supper. We know from ancient sources like the “Apostolic Tradition” written by the church father Hippolytus that there services were not much different than our services today. So it was during this liturgical gathering that the Holy Spirit came upon them. If I were to hazard a guess at what point in the Service the Holy Spirit came, I would say it was probably during the singing of the Santcus, right after the bread and wine had been consecrated. For that moment, it was a whole congregation of prophets.
What is this speaking in other tongues? This is clearly, from the context, speaking in other earthly languages, beyond what they had ever learned. So to put it in our modern context is was as if suddenly people were speaking in English, Dutch, German, Swedish, French, Italian and so forth. This was not at all like the modern phenomenon of speaking in tongues. People clearly understood what was being said - in their own native languages. Scholars will debate if the miracle was in the mouths of the speakers or the ears of the hearers. But that is not important for us. What is important is that the people who gathered could understand what was being said. The Tower of Babel was, for that moment, reversed, and there was perfect communication.
Why does Peter get up to preach? Why not someone else, if the Holy Spirit came upon all of them? What was Peter? He was a pastor. Christ appointed the faithful eleven to be pastors. It is unclear whether Christ also appointed His brother James, or if James would be placed into office by the eleven. We do know, however that Christ, after His resurrection, appeared specifically to James. So even though his “ordination” is not recorded in Scripture, he too may have been directly appointed by Christ. So the point here is that Peter, along with a few others, is a pastor. The Church always speaks though its appointed spokesmen. So Peter gets up and preaches. He explains that this event was the coming of the Holy Spirit prophesied in the writings of Joel. He goes on to accuse them of killing Christ through their leaders. But he also assures them “that everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.” Central to Peter’s message is that Jesus lives and rules over all things. At the end of Peter’s sermon we read: “Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, ‘Brothers, what shall we do?’ And Peter said to them, ‘Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.’ And with many other words he bore witness and continued to exhort them, saying, ‘Save yourselves from this crooked generation.’ So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls.” Notice here again, they went to the Apostles, that is the pastors. Peter and the other Apostles then teach them they are to repent of their sins and be baptized into the name of Christ. In this way they would be making Christ’s death and resurrection, their own death and resurrection. That day the fishermens’ nets were full to overthrowing.
We call this day, Pentecost, the birthday of the Church. This is the day that God’s Word exploded in the world. Why did this happen? Because the Holy Spirit was at work through the Word. Many today think that we can reproduce Pentecost if we just have the right technique. But this is faulty thinking. Luther dealt with in the Small Catechism: “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel...” Without the person and work of God, the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Trinity, people cannot come to faith. Yet, we know that through God’s Word the Holy Spirit is at work. Christ continues to explode through the Word in places and ways we cannot imagine or predict. We are now hearing reports that many people in Iraq are secretly converting to Christianity and rejecting Islam. We shall see how that plays out. But even just a handful of years ago, who would have thought such a thing.
If we are not to concern ourselves with trying to the Holy Spirit’s work for Him, what are we to be about. We are to be focused upon Peter’s message. We are sinners. Our sins put Christ on the cross. But in Christ there is forgiveness and life. In the waters of baptism we are united with Christ’s death and resurrection, so we also rise to life with Him. We are to be confessors of Christ. For indeed without Christ, we have nothing of value. And yet, in all this, the Holy Spirit is working. He is drawing us ever closer to Christ and bring others to faith in Christ. In some cases we don’t even know how our witness affects others. Such is the way of the Holy Spirit. We confess Christ. We cling to our baptism. We let the Holy Spirit set off God’s big ka-boom when and where He chooses. Amen!