“What Does This Mean?” SALT’s Lectionary Commentary on Pentecost
1) Pentecost (from a Greek word for “fiftieth”) is the fiftieth and last day of the Easter season. Next week is Trinity Sunday, and then nearly six months of “Ordinary Time” begins, during which this year’s walk through the Gospel of Mark (and occasionally John) will continue. From ten thousand feet, the Christian Year appears divided almost in half: about six months of holy seasons (Advent, Epiphany, Lent, Eastertide), and about six months of Ordinary Time. Like a pendulum swinging back and forth, or a pair of lungs breathing in and out, the church alternates between these two movements each year: high holidays and everyday life, the joys of celebration and the grunt work of growth.
2) Pentecost is the Christian reinterpretation of the ancient Jewish pilgrimage festival, the Festival of Weeks, or Shavuot (pronounced “sha-voo-OAT”), celebrated 50 days after Passover. For the ancient Israelites, this festival was an explicitly inclusive harvest celebration (Deut 16:11; Lev 23:16), and over time, it also came to mark the reception of the Torah at Mount Sinai. For Christians, it celebrates the reception of the Holy Spirit and the birth of the church. Happy Birthday!
3) The passage from Ezekiel is in the context of Israel’s exile to Babylon in the sixth century BCE. The prophet’s symbolic vision of a valley filled with the bones of the slain evokes the death-like experience of exile itself, and God’s spirited revivification of those bones is a promise of renewal and restoration.
1) The community of disciples are gathered because of the Festival of Weeks (Shavuot). Jesus had promised the arrival of the Holy Spirit not long after his departure - and sure enough, on the festival day itself, the Holy Spirit arrives. The scene is spectacular and chaotic: a violent, rushing sound like wind, and then “divided tongues, as of fire” - not a fire that destroys, but rather like the fire that Moses encountered at the burning bush, which was “blazing, yet it was not consumed” (Exodus 3). The Spirit’s immediate effect is linguistic: many are empowered “to speak in other languages”; and at the same time, each person gathered hears the testimony in his or her native language. Think of a meeting at the United Nations, in which each person hears (through a headset) the proceedings translated into his or her mother tongue. The upshot of all of this is a sense of togetherness and unity: diverse as they are, everyone understands and can communicate, thanks to the Holy Spirit. Accordingly, they’re dazzled and taken aback, asking, “What does this mean?”
2) As if to answer this question, Peter stands and speaks. He cites the prophet Joel, adapting those ancient words to illuminate the present: the final and decisive chapter of history has arrived, the dawn of God’s joyous Jubilee that Jesus declared early in his ministry (Luke 4:18-19), and now the pouring out of the Holy Spirit upon “all flesh.” Jesus both heralded and inaugurated this new era, and now the Spirit will empower a community through whom the movement’s message of healing, liberation, and joy will go out to the ends of the earth. The church is born!
3) On one level, from a Christian perspective these events provide a new layer of meaning for the ancient harvest festival: the Spirit comes in order to gather in the sheaves of God’s great harvest of redemption. On another level, the story of Pentecost reverses the ancient story of Babel (Gen 11:1-9). In an arrogant attempt to “make a name for ourselves,” humanity tries to build a tower with its top in the heavens - and God scatters them by diversifying their languages. Here in Acts, instead of humanity presumptuously ascending toward heaven, God graciously descends to Earth; and instead of humanity linguistically fragmenting, the Spirit brings us together, bridging divides so we can understand each other.
1) The birthday of the church is a perfect time to reflect on what “the church” is in the first place. This week’s passage points toward a portrait of the church as a dynamic community of people following Jesus, empowered by the Holy Spirit to carry out God’s mission of healing, liberation, and joy for the sake of the world. This community is strikingly diverse, inclusive, and egalitarian. The Jews Peter addresses are immigrants from all over the known world (“known” to Luke, that is!) who now live in Jerusalem, and the Jesus movement will soon open up to include Gentiles as well (Acts 10). Accordingly, Luke casts the church as a diverse, prophetic community of bridge-builders, visionaries, and dreamers, male and female, slave and free (Acts 2:17) - and soon enough, this egalitarian, communitarian ethos extends to the church’s social organization as well: “they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need” (Acts 2:43-47). (On the early church’s socio-economic life, check out this remarkable short essay by theologian David Bentley Hart, “Are Christians Supposed to Be Communists?”)
2) Likewise, this is a perfect week to reflect on how we understand the Holy Spirit. Luke’s portrait of the Spirit draws on ideas at least as ancient as Ezekiel’s vision, in which God’s “breath” or “spirit” - both ru’ah in Hebrew - brings life, renewal, and restoration, sometimes in sudden, disruptive fashion (compare Ezekiel’s “suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together” to Luke’s “suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind” (Ezekiel 37:7, Acts 2:2)). But for all the drama, Pentecost is only the beginning: throughout the Book of Acts, again and again, the Spirit mobilizes the church and opens up new horizons for ministry (see Acts 4, 8, 10, 13, 15, 19, and so on). Breath means new life - and new life means new growth, change, and ongoing development. The Spirit protects, but also challenges, provoking and pushing us along. And thinking this way about life in the Spirit is the perfect segue into the (nearly) six months ahead of Ordinary Time, the season of everyday life and growth. So, “Happy Birthday,” yes - and also, “Let’s go!” The church is not a building, nor is it a particular membership or group of people. At its heart, the church is a mission, God’s mission - and the call, the challenge, the adventure continues!