This week we celebrate Pentecost.
I know it’s hard to imagine celebrating anything right now, but this is such an important day in the life of the church—it’s the beginning of the spread of the gospel of Jesus Christ beyond Jerusalem, and over the centuries across the entire world. Pentecost is the day that is meant to unify all of us in Jesus Christ. During this season of health concerns and viruses and protective distancing—of anger and unrest and the ugly face of racism—in the middle of all that, Pentecost gives us a chance to reflect on what God has done to draw all the people of the world together.
That’s the meaning of Pentecost—the gift of the Holy Spirit joins all of us into God’s family, even as it preserves what makes us unique and different and precious.
Like I said, I know it’s hard to imagine celebrating anything right now—we’re in the middle of a pandemic, we have a contentious presidential election coming, and now we’re facing yet another death of an African-American man, Mr. George Floyd, killed as we watched on our screens. I grieve with other fathers of sons who fear for their kids’ lives in a way that I never had to. We pause to pray for calm in the streets, for real justice to be done, and for a season of reflection and action in our country on our real and persistent plague—the insidious plague of systemic racial hatred and abuse.
But for today, just for a moment, we pause to celebrate Pentecost—the gift of the Holy Spirit and the birth of the church. We do this not to escape from the world, but to be reminded of what God has done to redeem and transform it, and even in these challenging times, what God has done to offer us another way.
As you might imagine if you know me, my version of the Pentecost story begins with a history lesson. It begins with the story of Hellenization, the period when Greek language and culture had its greatest influence on the western world.
When Alexander the Great conquered his part of the world in the 4th century BC, he imposed the Greek language on everyone in his empire. For the history geeks among us that’s what we mean by Hellenization: Alexander required a common language—it’s even called “common Greek” or “Koine Greek”—it’s the language of the New Testament. And his empire spread from Greece to India, and across the Near East to North Africa.
There has never been a more complete adoption of a culture in the history of the world—not before and not since. Even when the Romans conquered the Greeks 300 years later, they kept the Greek language and culture. The influence of Greek culture lasted until the fall of Constantinople in 1453.
Now alongside that we need to know a little about Jewish Diaspora—the story of the migration of Jewish people to other parts of the world.
Jews had been moving around the western world since the 7th century BC. That includes the Babylonian exile in the 6th century BC. They left for a whole range of reasons: economic opportunity, to escape wars, or sometimes they simply stayed and made homes where they had been in exile. Tens of thousands of Jews settled in Egypt, but they spread in every other direction, too. In the first century 90% of the world’s Jews lived outside of Judea.
One result of this spreading out was that just about every Jew in the diaspora could understand three languages. Thanks to Alexander they knew Greek for public and commercial life; they used Hebrew in the synagogue; and then there was the language they spoke in their region of the world—the language they spoke before Alexander came to town. Even Jesus would have been able to speak Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic, which was his local language.
From Greece to India, to the Near East and into North Africa, each region had its own home language, the one they spoke before Alexander’s armies gave them Greek. It was the language of their families, their ancestors—it was their heart language—the one that was most tied to their history and family and identity.
This is the world Jesus came into—the world his disciples would have to navigate to begin and spread the gospel and grow the church.
That gets us ready to hear the Pentecost story in a new way.
2 When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. 2 Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. 3 They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues[a] as the Spirit enabled them.
5 Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. 6 When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken. 7 Utterly amazed, they asked: “Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language? 9 Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia,[b] 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome 11 (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” 12 Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “What does this mean?”
13 Some, however, made fun of them and said, “They have had too much wine.”
There are three main parts to this story.
“When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place.”
On previous Pentecost Sundays we could pass this by, but today it’s so important. “They were all together in one place.” We’ve probably taken that one for granted over the years, but now that we can’t gather in our churches for a while, now that we can’t be all together in one place, this part of the story pops out at us. Fifty days after Jesus rose from the dead, and a week or two after Jesus disappeared into the clouds, the earliest Christians were gathering and sharing meals and wondering what was going to happen. “When the day of Pentecost came, there were all together in one place.”
That brings us to the second part of the story—the coming of the Holy Spirit.
Whatever they were all doing together is interrupted by a violent windstorm inside their house. Little flames rested on all of them, and as if that wasn’t strange enough, they started to speak in other languages.
It’s like that moment on a roller coaster when you’ve been going uphill slowly, listening to the clicking of the chains that take you to the highest point, and then whoosh! Everything picks up speed and you start tearing through turns and being thrown around. Wind in the house, flames on everyone’s heads, and now they’re all of a sudden speaking languages they never learned in school.
They spilled out into the public square in Jerusalem, and then we see the reactions of the people there. That’s how we get to part three of our story.
There were these Jewish visitors to Jerusalem, part of that diaspora of Jewish believers throughout the Greek-speaking world—they were in town to see family or to offer prayers at the Temple, and they start to hear something strange. A crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken. Luke goes into some detail here about the people of God from across the western world who could hear the gospel not in Greek, not even in Hebrew, but in their heart language—the language of their history and family and identity.
“Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!”
All of these years later we get to pause and ask the same question they did on that first crazy Pentecost: What does this all mean?
I think this story of the coming of the Spirit and the birth of the church is making both a theological statement and a political statement. Here’s why:
Alexander conquered the world and imposed a standard language on every person as a way of controlling his Empire—of extending his rule over the world of his day.
Jesus sent the Holy Spirit so that every person could hear the gospel in their own language. It was God’s way of blessing his creation—of extending his loving reign over all people and places and times.
Alexander’s conquest and imposition of Greek tells us a lot about Alexander.
The sacrifice of Christ and the gift of the Holy Spirit teaches us a lot about God.
And so what do we learn from the story of that first Pentecost?
First, it is in the DNA of the church to learn new ways to communicate the gospel.
From the very first day, God empowered people to find the heart language of their neighbors, so they could share the gospel in meaningful ways.
Second, as long as the core message of the gospel is intact, there are as many ways to communicate it as there are people or languages or cultures. The call on us is to learn how to share the gospel message with the world around us. There are all kinds of cultures and subcultures out there. They’re represented by language and music and literature and film. Pentecost reminds that it’s our job to go to them, not the other way around.
Listen to author Dave Gibbons describe the call on the church in his book, The Monkey and the Fish:
“Each generation must create a new language that connects with the soul and life of their community in their era…So while the message may stay the same, the forms do change. Jesus himself modeled this; the Word, which had always been, became flesh.”
Jesus became human, and showed us that there isn’t any length he wouldn’t go to share his saving message and welcome creation into his arms.
And finally, we learn that the saving message of the gospel is meant to unify us—to bring us together no matter what divides us. That message is always important, but especially during a time of isolation and distancing.
And what about today?
How much more do we need the healing, unifying work of the Holy Spirit as we bear witness to yet another violent death of one of our brothers of color?
How much more do we need learn the heart languages of our neighbors as we see the violent release of pent-up anger and frustration at the cheapness of black bodies in this nation?
We need Pentecost, today more than ever.
We need the Holy Spirit at this moment in critical moment in our history.
We need the Spirit to teach us the heart languages of our brothers and sisters who might not trust the gospel of Jesus Christ in the language of conquest and domination and power.
It’s a good thing that God has already come through.
God started this work through the ministry of Jesus Christ and the gift of the Holy Spirit.
Now it’s our turn.
Alexander conquered the world and imposed a standard language on every person.
Jesus sent the Holy Spirit so that every person could hear the gospel in their own language.
Now God calls us to take that message, empowered by the Holy Spirit, to a world that needs to hear those words and see our love more than anything else.
Pentecost isn’t about conquering the world for Christ.
Pentecost is about going out into the world that Christ has already redeemed, and introducing it to the God who made them and died for them and loves them always.
That’s what Pentecost meant on that very first day.
That’s what Pentecost means for us.
May God bless you and keep you.
May God wrap holy arms around you and heal you.
May God bring health and reconciliation to this troubled world.
May God fill you with the Holy Spirit so you can tell this story wherever you go.