This day and this text are so thoroughly steeped in reference, allusion, and significance that there is no way to cover it all coherently in a single sermon (or in a short commentary like this one). Peter himself quotes directly from Joel 2, Psalm 16, and Psalm 110 in this passage, although the Psalms are quoted after the lectionary reading ends. The somewhat terrifying Joel 2 passage is worthy of its own sermon, a dark depiction of the promised “day of the Lord”, which Peter seems to believe has arrived. There are Old Testament nods at every turn. The day itself is significant as Jews from all over the diaspora are gathered for the Festival of Weeks (Shavuot), which officially celebrates the first fruits of the harvest (symbolically significant to what happens here) and unofficially celebrates Moses’ reception of the law at Sinai (also symbolically significant to what happens here). The story seems to unravel the Tower of Babel incident, although there is no direct reference to Genesis 11. And, of course, there are the many, many ways that this text is connected to the overarching story of Luke/Acts, an episode that contains the whole. One might even argue that the entirety of Acts is the story of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon the followers of Jesus and the inception of the church, which we sometimes just call “Pentecost.”
With all of these connections, potential approaches to this text are abundant, which is helpful as Pentecost comes around annually. Perhaps one of the messages in this text for those of us called upon to preach is that the gospel has been opened up to a wide variety of contexts. The good news is for people of every language and place. It is for every people and every moment. And when the Spirit of God is the one speaking through the disciples of Jesus, the gospel is heard in familiar language. It is heard in the language of home. Throughout Acts we see Peter, Stephen, Philip, Paul, and others preaching messages that are crafted for their particular audiences. They share news that meets people in their home language. As we prepare our news, we would be wise to do likewise, which means that the direction we take should be dependent upon the places our congregations call home in this particular historical moment.
Throughout Acts, the Spirit moves in unexpected directions, falling upon unexpected people. By the time Acts is finished, the Spirit will have fallen upon devout Jews, Samaritans, and even Gentiles, all of whom seem like unlikely recipients for different reasons. But the first unexpected people to receive the Holy Spirit are these disciples in Acts 2. This is a group of mostly uneducated Galileans who have become disciples of Jesus. Right before the risen Jesus ascends, he tells these disciples that the Holy Spirit will come upon them and that they will be his witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth (1:8), but after Jesus ascends, the disciples find themselves gazing into the heavens as if expecting Jesus to come back and complete the work. What is supposed to happen next? What are they supposed to do now? First, he died without establishing the kingdom of God, and now after coming back from the dead, he has floated away, and he still hasn’t established the kingdom of God! Who could have expected what was to come?
What was to come was certainly strange. There are sounds of a violent rush of wind and divided tongues of fire – even with the description of it available to us it’s difficult to imagine what this might have looked like. At a Bible Study a few months ago, one congregant said that he primarily imagined flames that “licked” like tongues. I always imagine cartoonish red tongues with flame-wings flying around the room. Neither seems likely to be accurate. If a divided tongue of fire lands on you, does it feel wet like getting licked by a dog? Does it burn? Does it rest on your head? On your shoulder?
Whatever we imagine, the image we get is of an uncontrollable, unexpected outpouring of Spirit and power. You can’t stop the wind, you can’t grab onto a flame, and tongues may be even more difficult to tame (just ask James). The Spirit comes rushing upon the disciples in this chaotic event that begins a movement that has continued on for almost 2000 years. We might call this event the incarnation of God in the church. God’s presence comes upon the disciples and will eventually be poured out on all flesh. As Joel prophesied, the Spirit of God will be poured out on sons and daughters, on the old and the young, and even upon both male and female slaves. There is nobody upon whom the Spirit will not fall and no direction it will not go (to the ends of the earth!). The outpouring of the Spirit that begins here is still happening at the end of Acts, and it is still happening at the beginning of the 21st century.
Like wind, fire, and words, the Spirit is nothing if she is not moving, and even in this first moment of outpouring, the Spirit is poised to move outward. Those gathered here are likely to carry the Spirit back with them to their home towns all over the known world. Jesus’ path seemed to always point toward Jerusalem, and now the road of the disciples-turned-apostles seems to point outward from Jerusalem in every direction. Where the scattering of the people has been tragic in the past, both in the Babel incident and in the exile, God will now use that scattering to sow seeds of the gospel all over the earth. Jewish communities established in exile now become outposts for the gospel. Later, when the Jerusalem followers are scattered by aggressive persecution, the gospel is scattered with them and the Spirit moves outward in ways that seem both chaotic and intentional.
God is chasing down humanity to turn curse into blessing. Where language, geography, politics, status, and other realities and forces work to separate people from one another, the Spirit builds a new web that binds these diverse people together in the hope that Jesus truly is Lord and death has been overthrown. The kingdom is being established in this unpredictable, uncontrollable work of the Spirit that does not look like any kingdom known to the world up to this point. The work of God that was evident in Jesus has continued now in his witnesses who have the Spirit of God resting upon them.
This Pentecost happening is strange and new, but it is also familiar and old. It is importantly both. The people who are present do not know what to make of any of it. Some are “amazed and perplexed”, while others are just dismissive. But Peter, filled with the Spirit, immediately points backward to the prophecies and prayers of old to explain this new thing that is happening. God is moving in a new way, but God has really been moving in this direction all along. This does not deviate from God’s work in the people of Israel, it instead takes that work into a new stage.
The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is now among us. The Spirit of God is being poured out. The day of the Lord is here. The kingdom of God is at hand. And whatever language you speak, whatever food you eat, whatever clothes you wear, whatever climate you know, your language is spoken in this kingdom, and this new reality is your home.