Scripture — Acts 2:1-21 (NIV)
We celebrate the birth of Jesus and all the world pauses to celebrate Christmas with us. We celebrate His resurrection, and most of the world recognizes Easter as a very special day on the calendar. We just heard Janice and Tru sing the beautiful song, In the Garden, which was inspired by the appearance of Jesus to the women and the disciples on the first Easter morning. It's one of many Christian hymns inspired by the Easter story.
But today is Pentecost, and hardly anyone knows just what we're celebrating. Yet, this day is important, because Pentecost is the birthday of the Church, and God has given us the wonderful opportunity of being a part of it.
In the scripture we just heard, we learn of Jews from all over the world gathering together to celebrate. Why?
The holiday those Jews were celebrating was Shavuot, which "commemorates the anniversary of the day God gave the Torah to the entire nation of Israel assembled at Mount Sinai..." This holiday ended the Passover season. It is still celebrated by Jewish people, but there are many variations and different traditions in the way Shavuot is celebrated now.
As Jews spread out all over the Mediterranean world, they acquired Greek as their common language and Shavuot became known as Pentecost. This Greek name refers to "50 days", the 50 days after Passover.
Pentecost is celebrated by Christians 10 days after Ascension Day, which "is traditionally celebrated on a Thursday, the fortieth day of Easter" and which "commemorates the bodily Ascension of Jesus into heaven."
The 1st chapter of Acts tells of Jesus meeting with the apostles on the Mount of Olives and telling them they are to be His witnesses to all the world. He also tells them they are to wait in Jerusalem until they receive power from on high. Then He ascends out of their sight.
In today's scripture, in the 2nd chapter of Acts, Jews from all over the known world are together in Jerusalem celebrating the end of the Passover season. Among them are the 11 remaining disciples who had gathered in an upper room, perhaps the same room where they had gathered for the Last Supper a few weeks earlier, or where Jesus had appeared to them after His resurrection.
The Holy Spirit came in the wind. There they were enjoying a meal together when the whole house was filled with the sound of a rushing wind. The Holy Spirit is like the wind. It goes wherever it pleases and we can't see it. The Spirit, like the wind, can be, and is, a powerful force. Just ask anyone who's ever had their roof torn off or seen a building blown down. The wind is powerful. So is the Spirit. The Spirit came in power this day of Pentecost and everyone heard it.
And, the Holy Spirit came in the fire. Not only did they hear the Spirit come but they saw it as well. They saw fire appear and a little flame came to each of them and rested on them. The fire meant something very important. We learn in Exodus 3 that when Moses sees the burning bush, it means that he is in the presence of God. It means the same thing here. The very Spirit of God was among them and was about to take up residence in their hearts. They actually saw the fire come to each of them. They saw that God was there and was about to anoint them to do the work of the church. The Spirit came in power this Day of Pentecost and everyone saw it.
And, the Holy Spirit came and allowed those who were there to speak in tongues. What an amazing miracle for the beginning of the church! It sounds almost like something out of Star Trek, with its "Universal Translator" device. And really, if you think about it, the Holy Spirit was providing exactly what the apostles and others needed to proclaim the Gospel. The rest of the passage after verse 5 tells us that there were Jews from 14 different nations around the world. That's at least 14 different languages that had to be learned so the Gospel could be preached. Through the power of God, these apostles were given the gift to preach the Gospel to thousands of Jews who were in Jerusalem. Amazing and wonderful! The Holy Spirit came in power this Day of Pentecost and everyone saw it demonstrated.
And so, the church was born. The Holy Spirit came to rest on the followers of Jesus and they could now go out and do as He had asked them to do — spread the Gospel.
This final aspect of Pentecost has always interested me — that the first Christians were empowered to speak in the languages of all those who were present. To me, this means that God doesn't play favorites, that He wants all of humanity, people of all races and cultures, to be able to come to Him and to His son, Jesus. There is no longer a single "chosen people".
One traditional aspect of Pentecost services is the reading, in other languages, of the story of the Holy Spirit touching the first disciples with tongues of fire. Here at OUMC, Pastora Teresa Santillana used to invite people who spoke other languages to come to her Spanish-language services on Pentecost to read scripture in English, French, Portuguese, Chinese, Vietnamese and even sign language.
The Holy Bible has now been translated, in its entirety, into more than 500 languages. Portions of it have been translated into more than 2,500 tongues. At one time the Roman Catholic Church tried to discourage the use of any Bible other than its own Latin Vulgate version, but in the past century Catholic translators have been busy. One of the very best Bible translations of all is the Jerusalem Bible which was originally in French, but is now available in English, Spanish and several other languages.
For the past few centuries Christian scholars have been at work translating all, or parts, of the Bible into every language on earth so that nobody can be unaware of its message. Just a few of the organizations responsible for spreading the Gospel in many languages are:
One of the many languages in which the Bible is now available is one which is spoken by several million people in the Philippines – Pampango. And a scholar who helped make that possible is with us today. Pastor Nathanael Canlas1 was one of the translators of "the New Testament and Psalms in Pampango", published by the Philippine Bible Society in 1985. I hope that this modest man, who speaks very good English, will be willing to share some of his insights on his Bible-translating experience with his friends here at OUMC some time soon.
Now we may not be able to translate the Bible into many languages as Pastor Nathanael and other scholars have done, or to preach in many languages as the apostles did in Jerusalem. We may not feel the Holy Spirit's presence as dramatically, in fire and wind, as those disciples did.
The power of the Holy Spirit showed Peter and other Christians that Jesus was available to anyone, not just to a single nation or group. Christians are found in all nations and in all languages. This power is a free gift to anyone who accepts it. Peter saw, because of the presence of the Holy Spirit, that Jesus was the Savior and Lord of all people, and not just the Jews. Peter baptized all these people and they were added to the number of the Jewish Christians. Later, he and other apostles, travelled all over the world, making disciples of all nations.
And the power of the Holy Spirit is available to all of us. By accepting the Holy Spirit into our own lives, we can continue to carry on the witness to the Gospel of Christ which started on that Pentecost day nearly 2,000 years ago. By accepting the Holy Spirit's guidance, we can continue Jesus' work in this little corner of Fullerton, or wherever else we find ourselves, by being examples of what Christian believers can be and do. In Acts 1:8, before ascending into heaven, Jesus told his disciples:
"...you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth."
I would like to quote from a newsletter which I received last week from a Jesuit priest.2 I found its message particularly inspiring in this Pentecost season...
"...like the disciples on the road to Emmaus, we too have an invitation day by day to keep our eyes open, and our hearts receptive, to the sudden arrival of Jesus in our midst—so often in the form of a stranger—who calls us back to a simpler awareness of ourselves, one not cluttered with the anxiety of losing authority or our fear of diminishment. As those pilgrims learned, we can allow our hearts to burn within us as the Word becomes alive again, and we recognize the One whose love has made us see everything with fresh and tearfully joyous eyes in the breaking of the bread.
"The upcoming feast of Pentecost is so much less about a shot-in-the-arm that energizes our sense of being on the right team, the right path. It is so much more about another opportunity to feel that heart-melting sense of being embraced by a love that not only validates our goodness, but also shatters the artificial boundaries of mind and soul that lead to separation and mistrust. With all apologies to Robert Frost, 'good fences do not make good neighbors.' Pentecost certainly revitalizes our primary connection to the faith, hope, and love that St. Paul extols to the people of Corinth. But perhaps, equally as important, it pries open the doors of division, and beckons us in to the banquet of trust—trust in the God who has allowed us to share in all the incarnation reveals about human possibility, and trust in one another as profoundly lovable, not because we are 'safe' but because we are, ultimately, family, and, therefore called to an intimate surrender, one to another, on the mysterious path of the people of Easter."
In closing, I'll quote from another source, an old Christian hymn:3
Come, Holy Spirit, come
and melt our frozen hearts;
Your power alone can pour
fresh life on every part.
So come and make us whole
and sanctify our souls,
Come, Holy Spirit, come
and shine your light [on us]!
May we always keep our eyes and hearts and minds open to the inspiration of the Holy Spirit as we do His work and witness to His word in our everyday lives!
I am indebted to the Sermon Central web site for some of the material I used in this message.
1 Pastor Nathanael and his family attend OUMC regularly and were present this morning.
2 Fr. Stephen Corder, of the Loyola Institute of Spirituality in Orange, CA
3 Come, Holy Spirit, Come, by Joseph Hart (1712-1768)