A reflection on Acts 2:1-21 for the Day of Pentecost, May 31, 2020 at Mosaic – and around the world!
Now when the Day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in the same place. And suddenly there came the sound of a strong wind from the heavens, and it filled the entire home where they were sitting. And divided tongues – like fire spreading out – appeared to them and and rested one every one of them. And they were all filled with (the) Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages which the Spirit gave.
Living in Jerusalem were many Jews – devout men from all the nations under the heavens. At this sound they all came together baffled – since each one heard them speaking their own dialect. And they were amazed and astonished saying, “Aren’t all these speaking Galilean? How do each of us hear in our own native dialect? Partheans and Medes and Elamites and people living in Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia. Phergia and Pamphylia, Egypt and parts of Lybya of Cyrene, and Roman visitors. Jews and prostelytes, Cretans and Arabians – we hear them speaking the great deeds of God in our own languages.” And they were all amazed and confused and saying to each other, “What can this mean?” But others were jeering saying, “They’re filled with new wine!”
But standing with the eleven, Peter raised his voice and declared to them, “Judean men – and all who live in Jerusalem – let this be known to you and pay close attention to my words. For these are not drunk – as you suppose. It’s only the third hour! Rather, this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel:
“And it will be in the last days”, God says, “I will pour my Spirit over all flesh, And your sons and daughters will prophesy, And your youth see visions, And your elders dream dreams, Even upon my male and female servants, I will pour out my Spirit in those days – and they will prophesy. And I will gift marvels in the heavens above, And signs on the earth below, Blood and fire and smoke’s vapour, The sun will turn into darkness – And the moon into blood, Before the Lord’s great and glorious coming.
And every one who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”
Acts 2:1-21 (Own translation)
I quite like Restout’s depiction of the day of Pentecost. It, ambitiously, seeks to capture the moment of the dramatic coming of the ‘breath of God’.
Restout must have spent some time with our Acts text. The coming of the Holy Spirit looks something like a meteor shower, volcanic eruption, or some other catastrophic event. Perhaps we can imagine it as a creative ‘Big-Bang’. Restout captures an apocalyptic element.
There is good reason for this. The prophet Joel painted just such a picture of the Spirit let loose. I find that the latter part of Peter’s quoting of Joel draws me deeper into this painting:
And I will gift marvels in the heavens above, And signs on the earth below, Blood and fire and smoke’s vapour, The sun will turn into darkness – And the moon into blood, Before the Lord’s great and glorious coming. (Acts 2:19-20 Own Translation).
Here the last day is not described in wrathful terms. It seems to be a time to anticipate, a truly ‘glorious day’.
The artist also captures an uncertainty – a fear – in the Pentecost story. Here God’s Spirit is wild and untamed. ‘Fire’ and ‘wind’ emanate from a single divine light and seem to target each individual. Tongues of fire chase their intended recipients!
Pentecost as cosmic and personal.
I’m most intrigued by the different reactions or responses. Mary, and the other women, seem open and receptive. The disciples, however, are torn. They run, duck, and hide. (My favourite is the disciple cowering before the altar. If he could get lower than the floor, I’m sure he would!).
Of course, I’m not playing these characters down. There is a flame for each one. Even those who run will soon publicly defend this blowing of God from heaven.
Yet, still this encapsulates an unease with things of the Spirit: some are eager, some unsure, some run. I suspect we still respond to Pentecost on a spectrum.
So what do you make of all this? A tiny community gathered; the sound of violent wind; tongues dividing and resting on each, and; fluent, unlearned languages from across the world, and; a proclaiming of the ‘great deeds God’. All the nations listening in.
Luke tells us the coming of the Holy Spirit left them ‘amazed’, ‘astonished’, and later ‘perplexed’. Perhaps Pentecost does the same for you. Surely this event is – at least in part – intended to amaze, astonish, and perplex.
Yet this is never enough. ‘Amazement’ is not a place to stay. The onlookers rattle out their questions: “Aren’t all these speaking Galilean? How do each of us hear in our own native dialect?‘ They seek for answers. The pinnacle: ‘What can this mean?’
Surely, it remains an essential question almost two millennia later: What does all this mean?
Peter, backed by the other ten apostles, offered the first answer. After clarifying that this was not an early morning drinking session, Peter points to the words of the ancient prophecy: ‘…this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel.’
Pentecost was, firstly, an anticipated and God-communicated event.
Peter’s chosen quote also speaks in terms of a wide outpouring: ‘all flesh’, ‘your sons and your daughters’, ‘your young’ and ‘old’, and your male and female ‘slaves’.
Pentecost, secondly, is a generous outpouring of the life-giving breath, or wind, of God that simply ignores all divisions.
And the pinnacle of all this coming: ‘…everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved’.
The coming of the Holy Spirit also leads us to God’s salvation and the church to mission.
This name ‘Pentecost’ is derived from the Greek for ‘fifty’ and points to the number of days since the life-changing events of Easter. There is here a deliberate and inherent linking of Easter and the Holy Spirit. They are part of the one story.
So are we. Pentecost, traditionally, celebrates the birth of the community gathered by God. The church’s birthday. On the day of Pentecost the Spirit of God created something new: communities of people profoundly empowered by the presence of God.
God’s empowering presence is loose in our world – and there is nothing more important than our openness to what this Spirit is doing.
Who in Restout’s painting do you relate to the most? What do you think this says about your experience with the Holy Spirit?
How do you feel about Pentecost as the church’s birthday? What does this say about the centrality of the Spirit in the life of the church?
What do you see as the most significant part of the story of Pentecost?