June 8, 2014
Pentecost is a high moment in the life of many modern churches. The liturgical color is a fiery red, the white of the Easter season being left behind. The choir tends to sing loud anthems, reminiscent of Easter, perhaps offering those Easter trumpeters some further work. The imagery of the day is vibrant: sound, fire, potent speech. It is not uncommon for the order of worship to include persons speaking the Bible text in multiple languages, thus mirroring the wonder of those first listeners hearing the gospel in their own language (Acts 2:6).
Unfortunately, some have tried to make this event a touchstone of the act of glossolalia, a "speaking in tongues," a speech-event that Paul refers to in his first letter to the Corinthians. There he says that those who "speak in a tongue" are not in fact "speak(ing) to other people" but only "to God" (1 Cor. 14:2). This is true, because "nobody understands them, since they are speaking mysteries in the Spirit" (1 Cor. 14:3). This is quite obviously not the experience described by Luke at Pentecost. The fact is that far from not understanding one another that day in Jerusalem, all present are "astonished and amazed" (Acts 2:7) because they do understand "the great deeds of God spoken in their own language," though all those who are speaking are Galileans. They are "astonished and confused" (Acts 2:12) not because they cannot understand but because they can.
Because many readers of this story have focused their attention on the phenomena of the day—the spooky details of wind, fire, and amazing speech—they have missed much of what Luke is trying to do with the story. After all, the emphasis of the account is less on those memorable details than on the response of those who hear. What happens to those international Jews who experience the noise that fills the house, the speaking of the community in diverse and understandable languages, that sound like a strong wind (not exactly a wind itself), and "tongues" compared to fire, not exactly fire itself. Not unlike the writing of the prophet Ezekiel, who rarely if ever can say precisely what he is seeing and describing, employing numerous times the words "like" or "as," so Luke paints a rather vague picture of the extraordinary occurrences on that day in Jerusalem. He urges those listening not to dwell on the "what" of the event but on the results of it.
The point of Pentecost is the transformation of the disciples, the dispirited lot who ran headlong from the trial and crucifixion of their Lord, into bold proclaimers of the "great deeds of God." Those peasant Galileans, who denied the Master, though their leader, Peter, vowed never to do so, are now heard proclaiming in all the languages of the world the story of God's power wrought through the divine son, Jesus. This transformation has occurred because of the gift of the Holy Spirit, that spirit given back into the hands of God by Jesus at his crucifixion, shouted in a loud voice (Lk. 23:46). That spirit has now fallen with a loud sound on the disciples of Jesus, and they are ready to carry the story of their Lord to the world. That work begins here at Pentecost. As Luke Timothy Johnson (1992) says it, "the 'fact' of Jesus' new life is verified by the 'fact' of their (the disciples) new experience of power, manifested by their bold proclamation of 'the great deeds of God.'" The resurrection of Jesus has made possible the transformation of the disciples who in turn will make possible the transformation of the world.
But not so fast! Such a transformation will not occur without serious obstacles. In the same way that all four of the gospels relate the fact that some who experienced the resurrection simply do not or cannot believe, so in the face of the miracle at Pentecost all that some can conclude is that these who are ecstatically hearing the gospel spoken to them are in fact three sheets to the wind, though it be only nine in the morning! And though Peter scoffs at this claim (Acts 2:15), the fact that he must defend the reality of the event suggests that opposition to the rise of the new messianic Jewish-Christian community has already begun. Peter's lengthy and potent sermon that follows (Acts 2:14-36) is not merely preaching to the choir; some who heard did not buy it, and the seeds of division were sown from the very start of the movement.
Peter laces his defense of the Pentecost experience with sharp connections to the story of Moses. The Jews of the first century almost certainly connected Pentecost with the giving of the Torah on Sinai. After all, fire was long seen as a symbol for Torah. Also, no reading of Exodus 19:16, relating the gift of Torah on the sacred mountain, can miss the emphasis on sound and fire. Then too, Johnson notes the words of Philo Judaeus in his treatise "On the Decalogue": "Then from the midst of the fire that streamed from heaven there sounded forth to their utter amazement a voice, for the flame became articulate speech in the language familiar to the audience, and so clearly and distinctly were the words formed by it that they seemed to see rather than hear them." One can hardly miss the echoes here of Luke's portrait of the Pentecost happening.