Well, the Easter season is pretty much done and dusted. In terms of major festivals it all goes quiet until December, right?
That’s the problem with Easter – it can be seen as the end of the story, the be-all and end-all of Christianity, and after it’s celebrated in spring, we reboot and wait for Christmas, not giving an awful lot of thought to what happened after Easter. Sure, the resurrection of Christ is fundamental and central to the faith, but it’s the start of a new journey, rather than a chance to fall onto the sofa and put your feet up.
So with that, Acts chapter 2.
The first thing to note is that events among the fledgling Christian community seem to mirror the two Jewish festivals that were happening at the same time. The crucifixion and resurrection took place during Passover, the great remembrance of God liberating the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt. It’s the foundational Jewish story of rescue and freedom from oppression, death being averted by sacrifice. In that sense the crucifixion takes on huge symbolic weight – Christ as the ultimate Passover sacrifice.
But then a lesser known ritual takes place, the Counting of the Omer. Instituted in Leviticus 23:15-16. This starts after Passover and counts down towards the next major festival, Shavuot, which commemorates God giving the Law to Israel on Mount Sinai. This is the moment that a liberated people received the mission for which they were liberated in the first place. There on Mount Sinai, Israel receives its orders. In this context, I guess, the Counting of the Omer serves as a reminder that salvation isn’t something that happens, with us being briefly grateful before forgetting about it. As soon as salvation was remembered, the countdown towards the next chapter in the story begins.
So the resurrection isn’t just marked by the Ascension acting as a full stop. Jesus tells the disciples to stay in Jerusalem where they wil receive the Holy Spirit – they’re also counting down to the next part of the story, and I guess it’s easy to have sympathy for them, their confusion mixed with anticipation, the knowledge that God has a plan butting heads with the frustration that we rarely know what that plan actually is.
And so the disciples are gathered together, and they’re expecting something to happen. They’re not sure when, although I guess it’s possible they’re thinking that it’s possible things kick off during the big festivals. It’s Pentecost and the city is full of pilgrims from throughout the known world, after all, what better time for God to do something dramatic?
And then it happens – the sound of a rushing wind, flame… When the Holy Spirit arrives, everything goes crazy. The Spirit isn’t tame, no respecter of convention. Suddenly the disciples are speaking in other languages, languages they never learned, and all those pilgrims can understand what they’re saying – communication is powerfully, divinely possible. This isn’t an everyday event, so the question on everyone’s lips was “What the heck’s going on?!”
(Apart from those who figured the disciples were drunk. We’ll ignore them.)
This is a big deal. After all, look who originally fractured human language as punishment for the hubris on display at the Tower of Babel – God himself. Babel represents humanity’s arrogance, its desire to make itself like God, a comprehensive shattering of the relationship between human and the divine that started in the Garden of Eden.
And then suddenly that curse is reversed and the punishment of Babel is undone. Because the relationship between God and Man has been healed by the work of Jesus and grace triumphs over judgement. The brokenness depicted in Genesis is being fixed.
But it’s also the end of the countdown. Because now the Spirit’s here, bringing power and restoration, the church beginning in earnest. And it’s got a mission. Seven weeks ago, Peter had denied even knowing Jesus; now he’s getting up and delivering a sermon. This is something I hadn’t appreciated before – all this seems to happen in public.
See, I always had the impression that they were in a house, the Spirit comes and they go out into the streets, when actually the word used for ‘house’ could also refer to the Temple. That puts a whole different slant on this episode if that’s the case – the Temple was the earthly home of God, and yet when the Spirit comes, he doesn’t go into a specific room, he goes into people.
And so that ties into Peter’s sermon, of which one of the key elements is a quotation from the book of Joel:
“ ‘In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy… And everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved.”
This is huge, and the book of Acts in a nutshell. Because yes, Israel has a key role in the salvation of humanity, but that role has to spread out from Israel – it can’t stay there. And so Acts tells the story of how the message of Jesus spreads from Jerusalem throughout the Roman Empire, with a whole bunch of stories illustrating how the scope of that plan just keeps getting bigger and bigger, with more and more ‘outsiders’ being brought into the fold. In that sense, Peter quoting Joel is a manifesto for the early church, even if they haven’t quite figured out what that means yet.
That’s the great message of this passage – God reaches out to everyone, not just a select group. The Holy Spirit turns up and everyone’s categories have to be rewritten, and the rest of Acts is pretty much people running to keep up with that glorious transformation. We can’t forget this, because it’s key to what the church should be – an agent of God ‘s love and salvation to all, even to – especially to – those on the margins, those who are ignored, those who are despised.
God’s love is for all.
And our maps need to be re-drawn.