Tongues of fire and a mighty rushing wind and a babble of languages that the speakers never learned… The story of Pentecost is intrinsically supernatural. But it’s supernatural for a reason, a key moment in the building of God’s Kingdom.
The story is well-known, a Sunday School staple. The disciples are gathered together when the Holy Spirit arrives, manifesting as wind and fire and leading to 3,000 people becoming Christians. This is seen as the birth of the early church; it’s a seriously important moment.
All this was happening during Shavuot, or the Feast of Weeks, a pilgrim festival serving two purposes – a celebration of the harvest and a commemoration of God giving the Law on Mount Sinai. Jerusalem was full of pilgrims – Jews from (in modern terms) Iran, Syria, Turkey, Egypt, Libya, Italy, Greece and Jordan. They came loaded down with their harvest, taking it to the Temple to be blessed by the priests. And yet, while they were doing this, they encountered…
Well, they encountered God, each of them in their own language. They were fulfilling their religious observations at the Temple, but the real explosion of God’s power and presence happened outside of those structures. Look how people react to the disciples – they’re immediately identified as Gallileans, yokels, and while they’re standing there miraculously speaking a whole bunch of languages, they’re still easily characterised as drunks. Why? Because these aren’t part of the elite, they’re not the priesthood or respected authorities. They’re on the margins, tax collectors and fishermen, not the sort of people to whom 3,000 pilgrims should be looking for spiritual guidance.
And yet the priests are oblivious as a fisherman explains what’s going on, while the curse of Babel is reversed.
Nowadays, it’s hard to imagine this sort of world. Christendom has been in existance for something like 1,700 years and we’re terrified about losing that influence. We really don’t like being on the margins; we’re so used to the cathedrals and the tax breaks and the politicians sucking up to us that we forget that, when God launched His church in earnest, he did so with a bunch of people who were written off as drunks. The whole point of the Book of Acts is about how the disciples find themselves increasingly working in those margins to share the good news of Jesus with people outside the power structures that dominated society. This is where that begins.
Peter quoting the prophet Joel points to that – “I will pour out my spirit on all people… And everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved.” If Pentecost celebrated the original giving of the Law, this is the inaugeration of a new church, one empowered by the Holy Spirit. That empowerment is vital – it’s not about the miracle of spontaneous translation in and of itself, it’s about what that means for God’s Kingdom – “Repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem,” Jesus says in Luke’s Gospel. Well this is where all that begins, with the Spirit enabling a motley group of ex-fishermen to build a new kind of Kingdom after their King ascends his throne.
And the truly scandalous thing about this? That it extends to us. Because that Kingdom is still being built. Pentecost was the spectacular fulfillment of a promise of which we’re a part, and the same Holy Spirit empowers us to be the church Christ wants us to be, a church that isn’t afraid and dismissive of the margins, of the disenfranchised, of the outsider. That’s scary – it may be because that mission is fundamentally outside of most of our comfort zones; it may be because the Holy Spirit Himself takes those comfort zones, puts them into a blender, then sets fire to them. But look at Peter – that’s what God can do through us. Scary, yes, but also a privilege.
We’re called to build the Kingdom. And Pentecost is ours.